Carl Weathers, who went from doling out bone-crunching hits as a linebacker for the Oakland Raiders to delivering knockout punches on the big screen as Apollo Creed, the nemesis of Sylvester Stallone’s lovable-lug prizefighter in “Rocky,” helping to spark one of Hollywood’s most successful franchises, died on Thursday. He was 76.
His family said in a statement that he “died peacefully in his sleep.” The statement did not give a cause or say where he died.
Mr. Weathers had a long and varied acting career that took him far beyond the boxing ring. He displayed his range over some 80 film and television credits. Starting in the 2000s, he memorably parodied himself as an acting coach on the sitcom “Arrested Development.” In more recent years he was the voice of Combat Carl in the animated movie “Toy Story 4” and played Greef Karga in the “Star Wars” television series “The Mandalorian,” earning an Emmy Award nomination in 2021 for outstanding guest actor in a drama series.
Earlier, in the Adam Sandler golf comedy “Happy Gilmore” (1996), Mr. Weathers earned laughs as Chubbs, who had been a star of the professional circuit before he lost his hand in an alligator attack.
Even so, his Apollo Creed character cast a long shadow. After the release in 1976 of “Rocky,” which was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won three, including best picture, Mr. Weathers reprised his role in the next three installments, evolving from the title character’s motor-mouthed rival to his trusted friend and trainer.
His Creed got one more shot at boxing immortality in the exuberant, if cartoonish, “Rocky IV” (1985), in which he squared off against the Soviet supervillain Drago (Dolph Lundgren), an icy, robotic mega-pugilist.
Creed’s star-spangled entrance in the fateful match — wearing sequins and an Uncle Sam hat while strutting and prancing among casino showgirls as James Brown, appearing as himself, belts out the anthem “Living in America” — seemed at the time to be an apotheosis of the morning-in-America pop culture patriotism of the Reagan era.
The good vibes would not last to the end of the sequence, however, as Drago pummeled Creed to death with a battering ram left to the jaw.
With his signature character killed off, Mr. Weathers worried about his professional future.
“After so many years of doing a character who is indelible, who is so well recognized around the world — people in every language who have seen movies have seen the ‘Rocky’ movies and have seen Apollo Creed — what happens is very often people begin to confuse you with the character,” ” he once said in a television interview. “There is no Carl Weathers.”
“Movie producers,” he added, “tend to do the same thing.”
His fears would prove unwarranted.
With his he-man charisma and sculpted physique, Mr. Weathers matched bulging biceps with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1987 action movie “Predator.”
A year later, he leveraged his Rocky fame to leading-man status playing a crusading Detroit cop in “Action Jackson.” Review ing that movie for The New York Times, Walter Goodman noted that Mr. Weathers was “a member of the highly-developed-upper-torso school of movie hero.”
Mr. Weathers chafed at such categorizations. “This label of movie star doesn’t really have anything to do with being a really fine actor or artist,” he said in an interview with British GQ in 2020.
“Enough promotion of any person, enough movies where that person gets to be shown in a particular light, can make them a movie star,” he continued. “That doesn’t mean their chops are there as an actor to play a character that is perhaps unlike them, with complicated ideas behind the dialogue.”
Carl Weathers was born on Jan. 14, 1948, in New Orleans. He said in interviews that he considered acting his first love, and that he began performing in plays in elementary school. Still, his high school football prowess led him to play defensive end for San Diego State University under the future N.F.L. Hall of Fame coach Don Coryell during a bountiful two-year run for the Aztecs.
The team went 11-0 in 1969, although Mr. Weathers missed much of the season with a knee injury. All the while he kept his acting dreams alive, graduating with a degree in theater arts. But he also kept his sights on football, and he became an undrafted linebacker the next year for the N.F.L.’s most notorious wild bunch, the Raiders.
A lasting career in the league was a long shot, though.
“He was what we call a tweener,” Raymond Chester, a tight end who had been a teammate of his, said in an interview last year with Sports Illustrated. “Carl was strong and fast and had good size, but he was small for a linebacker. Today, Carl would be a safety. That would have been the perfect position for him. He had everything it took. He was smart, he could run like a deer, and he was chiseled. He was a magnificent athlete.”
Mr. Weathers appeared in seven games with Oakland in 1970. But the next season, during a practice after the first game, he was summoned to see John Madden, the Raiders coach and future star broadcaster. He was being cut from the roster, the coach told him, saying, “You’re just too sensitive.”
“I couldn’t let it go, man,” Mr. Weathers told Sports Illustrated, recalling the moment. “It kind of put a chip on my shoulder on one hand, and it was like a wound on the other, because as a football player — certainly as a professional football player — the last thing you want to hear is that you’re too sensitive. On the other hand, without that sensitivity, how could I be an actor? How could I be an actor of any worth, really?”
For all his blood-and-guts roles over the years, it was on the set of the lighthearted “Happy Gilmore” that Mr. Weathers suffered serious injury, fracturing two vertebrae in a stunt fall. “Fortunately, being an athlete and having been injured a number of times, you kind of learn to live with pain,” he told GQ.
By the mid-1970s, he was making regular television appearances on shows like “Good Times,” “Kung Fu” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.”
His big break with “Rocky” was soon to follow, although things with Mr. Stallone, who also wrote the film, did not get off to a smooth start at the audition.
“There was nobody to read with, and they said, ‘You’re going to read with the writer,’” Mr. Weathers told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015.
“We read through the scene,” he continued, “and at the end of it, I didn’t feel like it had really sailed, that the scene had sailed, and they were quiet, and there was this moment of awkwardness — I felt, anyway. So I just blurted out, ‘I could do a lot better if you got me a real actor to work with.’”
Mr. Stallone, it turned out, appreciated his Apollo Creed-like fire. “Sometimes,” Mr. Weathers added, “the mistakes are the ones that get you the gig.”
Jesus Jiménez contributed reporting.