Posted by Richard Harland Smith on April 10, 2007
One of the unexpected joys of Rocky Balboa (2006) was seeing a credit card for Tony Burton. As Duke, Burton has been in Rocky’s corner since 1976 and took over the training after they killed off Burgess Meredith in Rocky III (1983). A Golden Gloves light heavyweight in his native Michigan, Burton knew a thing or two about the fight game.
It was as a boxer that Burton made his film debut, underused as Sonny Spyder Brown in The Black Godfather (1974). The actor bounced from one TV show to another before the magical year of 1976. Lost in the lineup of Rocky’s ensemble of mugs, Burton had more visibility in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. This picaresque tale from the days of the Negro baseball leagues benefits from vivid performances by Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, Richard Pryor and Burton, as an amiable center fielder. That year Burton also had small roles in Trackdown with Jim Mitchum and The River Niger with James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson and Lou Gossett.
Ask a Tony Burton fan what his best movie is and 9 out of 10 your answer will be John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. As with Rocky, this reimagining of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) as an inner city siege was an unexpected sleeper. Fifth billed as a luckless con who finds himself in the middle of the eponymous shoot-out, Burton walks a fine line between machismo and buffoonery and is greatly missed when his character is taken out by a sniper’s bullet.
Burton has kept busy over the past three decades, with small roles in big pictures (The Shining in 1980) and bigger roles in independent films (teaching exorcism as adult ed in 2003’s Exorcism) but rarely getting to really work out. That’s what made his turn in Rocky Balboa such a gift. Pushing 70, Burton’s megawatt smile hasn’t dimmed a bit and he gets to deliver a powerhouse speech that sets the big training montage (and Bill Conti’s invigorating theme) in motion.
It was so great seeing Tony Burton back in the fight.
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