Tony Burton, who played a tough-talking boxing trainer in six of the “Rocky” movies with Sylvester Stallone, died on Thursday in a California hospital, his family said. He was 78.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, Aurelian Burton, his wife of 36 years, said.
She said her husband had been in and out of the hospital recently while struggling with various ailments, including a bladder infection and adverse reactions to a cholesterol medicine. He had also been falling, she said. Mr. Burton’s daughter, Juanita, said he was suffering from dementia.
In the “Rocky” franchise, Mr. Burton portrayed Duke, the gritty, hard-as-nails trainer of the boxer Apollo Creed, Rocky’s initial nemesis and eventual best friend. He later trained Rocky himself.
Carl Weathers, the actor who played Apollo Creed, eulogized Mr. Burton on Twitter on Friday.
Because of his poor health, Mr. Burton was unable to participate in the latest installment of the movie series, “Creed,” which was released in 2015 and focuses on Rocky’s role as trainer and mentor to the son of Apollo Creed. But Loretta Kelley, his sister, said Mr. Burton’s picture is visible on a restaurant wall during one scene.
Anthony Mabron Burton was born in Flint, Mich., on March 23, 1937. Ms. Kelley said she and others who were close to him called him by his middle name. He played football and baseball at Flint Northern High School and graduated in 1955.
Mr. Burton started boxing as an amateur with the Golden Gloves organization, where he excelled. He won two Flint Golden Gloves light-heavyweight titles, in 1955 and 1957, then briefly fought professionally in the light-heavyweight division from 1958 to 1959 before retiring from the ring after a beloved coach died.
He moved to Los Angeles, but drifted, and later got in trouble with the law, eventually serving a three-year prison sentence for robbery. There, he became interested in acting and took a vocational training course in radio and television repair.
“It took awhile, but your life prepares you for these roles,” Mr. Burton said in an interview with The Daily Breeze, a Torrance, Calif., newspaper, in 1988. “If I hadn’t been a fighter, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the ‘Rocky’ roles. If I hadn’t been in prison, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten all those prison roles.”
Juanita Burton, said her father met his current wife, Aurelian, when he repaired televisions as he tried to get regular acting jobs.
“He was called to her home to repair her TV and he repaired it incorrectly,” Ms. Burton said. “So she called back and was told he was in New York.”
He was working on a movie with Jack Nicholson, “The Shining.”
“So she left a message: Come back and fix my TV,” Ms. Burton said.
His acting credits include roles in “Stir Crazy” and a variety of television shows.
Mr. Burton, who lived in Sun City, Calif., is survived by his wife, four brothers, four sisters, a daughter, a stepdaughter and a son. Another son, Martin, died in 2014.
Juanita Burton said her father became a born-again Christian in 1985, a religious awakening that he shared with her. He later became an ordained deacon at the Mount Hebron Baptist Church in South Central Los Angeles.
“Now, you are going to have to go through hell, worse than any nightmare that you ever dreamed,” Duke tells Rocky in one speech, his voice barely above a whisper, before a match in “Rocky IV.” “But in the end, I know you will be the one standing.”