The picture is loosely based on the Teamsters Union and the life of union boss Jimmy Hoffa who fourteen years later would himself be the subject of the movie biopic Hoffa (1992), where the title character would be portrayed by Jack Nicholson.
The Cleveland scenes were filmed in Dubuque, Iowa, partly because the houses and buildings still had rooftop television antennas, as cable television was not yet available in the city, and it fit the period of the film.
Newly a big star, Sylvester Stallone was frequently hounded, screamed at, and sought out to be touched by fans during principal photography on this picture. Thousands of fans from more than one hundred miles away gathered daily to filming locations in Dubuque, Iowa chanting "Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!" from behind rope and police barriers, and frequently only a block away from the on-set filming. Reportedly, Stallone would make about three pilgrimages a day to the security barriers to shake hands with fans, pose for photos taken with their Instamatic cameras, let some of the more daring kiss him. When time did not allow for signing autographs, Stallone apparently would say: "You'd only lose it. A handshake lasts forever!"
Norman Jewison said of Sylvester Stallone for this film's publicity: "Stallone isn't just a movie star to those fans. He has become a cult hero to them. They identify with him as they do with rock stars, like Elvis Presley or The Beatles. They're more reserved with other film stars, who seem less approachable. They think of Stallone, like Rocky, as part of them. He's very open."
The film's title acronym "F.I.S.T." stands for any of the following wordings: "Federated Inter-State Truckers"; "Federation of Interstate Truckers"; "Federated Interstate Truckers"; and "Federation of Inter-State Truckers". Sylvester Stallone's Johnny Kovak character says of the acronym during the early days of the truckers' federation: "It ain't a bunch of letters like any other union. It says 'Fist'. One fist - - that's what we are!"
Apart from a title that is an acronym for a truckers' union, the movie's "F.I.S.T." name is also a play on words double-entendre (and apparently unintentional) evoking star Sylvester Stallone's previous box-office hit film and multi Academy Award Best Picture winning boxing movie Rocky (1976) because boxing requires punching with one's "fists".
The movie was scored by Bill Conti who had composed the Oscar winning music score for Sylvester Stallone's Rocky (1976). F.I.S.T. (1978) is one of around ten collaborations of the pair and one of just a handful of non-Rocky franchise films scored by Conti and starring Stallone with the others being Lock Up (1989), Victory (1981), and Paradise Alley (1978).
Norman Jewison ran into Sylvester Stallone a day after Jewison attended a private pre-released screening of Rocky (1976). Jewison said: "After predicting that Rocky (1976) would be a big success, something that many were questioning at the time, I asked him (Stallone) if he'd like to read the script of my next picture [F.I.S.T. (1978)]. He took it home and called me the next day to say that he wanted to do it. All we had was a verbal agreement. But he kept it. I have to respect him for that. I understand that he was later offered more than a million dollars to do another film instead".
Sylvester Stallone in publicity for the film said of comparisons between his characters of Rocky Balboa in his previous film Rocky (1976) and Johnny Kovak in this his then next film: "They are alike only in that Rocky [Balboa] and Johnny Kovak come from the street. Each, in his own way, is an underdog who becomes a winner. The difference is that Rocky would always be a contender, always a follower. Kovak was born to be a leader of his domain, a leader of men. He controls their destinies instead of being controlled by them. He's a much more intelligent guy than Rocky".
The Wikipedia website states that, according to an article entitled 'Stallone Wins Heavyweight-Purse' by Gregg Kilday published in the April 2, 1977 edition of the Los Angeles Times, reportedly, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas was paid 85,000 dollars for writing the original screenplay while Stallone received 150,000 dollars also for screen-writing and 350,000 dollars for acting, totaling to a 500,000 dollar pay packet for Stallone for the picture.
Almost fifty American cities were location scouted for principal shooting until the town of Dubuque, Iowa, with a population of around 60,700, was chosen by director Norman Jewison and his staff. Dubuque, Iowa was chosen because it could resemble Cleveland, Ohio during the 1930s and 1940s.
Director Norman Jewison and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas worked on the film's screenplay for about a year. The Wikipedia website states that, according to an article entitled 'Stallone Wins Heavyweight-Purse' by Gregg Kilday published in the April 2, 1977 edition of the Los Angeles Times, Sylvester Stallone rewrote Joe Eszterhas' script, saying "Joe Eszterhas wrote a script that was nearly four hundred pages and was more of a novel than a shootable screenplay. A great deal of work was done by myself, along with Norman Jewison, to hammer it into shape, but Joe had conceived a great concept".
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
In the final scene of the film, a truck driving on a highway is seen from the back. The camera slowly moves in to a bumper sticker on the back of the truck which reads "Where's Johnny?". This is a reference to an actual bumper sticker that was seen after the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (who was the model for Sylvester Stallone's character in this film.). After Hoffa's disappearance on July 30, 1975, trucks started displaying a bumper sticker which read "Where's Jimmy?".