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Can Sly Get Serious? : When you’ve been Rocky or Rambo in eight movies, it’s hard to convince the world you’re a smart guy who’s just acting. But Sylvester Stallone keeps trying.

Sylvester Stallone edged his black Mercedes AMG into the left-turn lane and stopped for a cautious moment before easing the car into southbound traffic on Pacific Coast Highway and heading home to his Malibu beach house. It had been a splendid day, consisting of a late breakfast, a pause on the patio in the bright morning sun in which he counted famous neighbors among his blessings, a strenuous one-on-one practice match on his Hidden Valley polo field, and then a reflective drive back through the Santa Monica mountains.

Then a couple of questions dropped him into troubled silence.

If he’s been impetuous and volatile in his well-publicized career, any time spent with him soon reveals that he’s also thoughtful and sensitive--and highly articulate. Why, he’s asked, has he shown such limited range in his work? Why does he speak such a small portion of his mind in his acting?

“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess, when you’ve flown the jet and there’s turbulence, you want to be back at the controls, not in a passenger seat. I haven’t thought about it.”

He was friendly for the rest of the trip, but clearly bothered. This is not a small matter to him or anyone else caught in the crosscurrent between fame and artistry, or to phrase it another way, celebrity and real life. It irks him to realize that out of a career that spans the making of 26 movies, the great and good life he enjoys is based on just two portrayals, John Rambo and Rocky Balboa. And he’d just as soon see one of them--Rocky--dead.

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In this outing with a reporter, one of a series of conversations that took place over several months, Stallone’s latest attempt to go public with what was on his mind had more to do self-revelation than with the usual publicity display preceding a new movie, in this case “Rocky V.” He’d been bound up for some time in the classic Hollywood dilemma in which celebrity, once achieved, transmutes into a craving for legitimacy. Like a swimmer trapped under ice, Stallone is looking for a breakthrough. And this could be more than a routine nattering of Hollywood noblesse oblige.

A veteran Hollywood observer who’s known him for years offers this scenario:

“He wants to change his image. It was a mistake to do ‘Rambo’ the way it came out, he got carried away with ‘Rocky,’ and all of his other films, like ‘F.I.S.T.,’ ‘Paradise Alley’ and ‘Over the Top,’ failed. People really think he is who he plays--a big dumb palooka. But there is something in him, a tangled web. There’s a sincere gentility in him. He wants to convince his detractors that he’s a smart, sophisticated man. Yet he wants to keep his fans. He’s a true star. But he’s looking at a downhill slide in a career that may not be salvageable.”

It may be hard to feel concern for an actor whose movies have grossed over a billion dollars worldwide and whose personal fortune has been estimated at over $100 million and is still climbing. A few months ago, the good citizens of Milan voted him the Most Famous Movie Star in the World, an indisputable honorarium made even more so by the crush of ardent mobs that surrounded him in Italy and Cannes, events that made the nightly news here. Within the past year and up until then however, Stallone had spent a great deal of time campaigning for a new office in the public eye. A kinder, gentler Stallone, as nominally befits the new decade--just as Rocky and Rambo befitted theirs.

He couldn’t understand why he never got respect from what passes as the media intelligentsia. He wanted us to know that he wasn’t, in Spy magazine’s phrase, a “lummoxy boy-toy,” a one-trick pony. He felt that, at this point in his life, he hadn’t lived up to his image of himself.

“Rocky and Rambo and Cobra--these are personas,” he said, “I’ve been going on TV for 16 years to try and explain that. I’ve given more interviews than anyone. Yet I’ve continued to be misconceived. The problems of my private life didn’t lend themselves to any idea of intelligent conduct, so people tied it in with a chaos that seemed Rambo-ish. It was easier that way. A lot of it’s been my fault.”

He wanted, and still wants, to reinvent himself in front of our eyes. For a while he even went so far as to offer Rocky up as a human sacrifice by killing him off in “Rocky V,” which opens Nov. 16. (Rocky won’t die, but his fighting days are definitely over. Rambo, however, would be held in reserve, still armed and dangerous, for another offensive next summer.)

This is an odd fate to be facing for someone with Stallone’s enormous, quite legitimate power. Money can’t buy what he brings to the screen: a presence--whether you like it or not--that commands the eye.

And for Stallone to say, as he often does in interviews, that his career has suffered because of misjudgments and calamities in his personal life, is to be a bit disingenuous. More major film careers have survived scandals than have been destroyed by them, and for a lot of actors and celebs the Betty Ford clinic has been a stopping-off point on the road to continuing success.

Besides, Stallone doesn’t drink or do drugs. If, in 1981, a critic tagged him “a terminal case of Hollywood ego,” he was only part of a traditional crowd. It wasn’t extraordinary, given his personality and circumstance, to travel within a phalanx of bodyguards in earlier days (they’ve now been dispatched). And the public potshots exchanged between Stallone and Eddie Murphy, or Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, carry the negligible thud of intramural celebrity spats. There was of course considerable public agony and, as far as he’s concerned, humiliation over his 18-month marriage to actress-model Brigitte Nielsen, which underscores the acute and inescapable discomfort of having one’s life incessantly picked at and pawed over by the media.

The questions are these: Can Stallone change his persona? Can he get out of the muscular grip of what he’s termed “these monosyllabic sides of beef”? How will he do it? What does he want to change to ?

This is assuming of course that he can withstand the pressures of his managers and agents and, looming behind them, the studios, which are intensely wary of making over a star’s lucrative image and have maximum say in what they’ll permit that star to do.

In fact, in 1989 Stallone’s White Eagle Enterprises signed a 10-picture deal with Carolco Pictures in which he’d star in five action vehicles and produce the other five. He’s since changed his mind about producing (“I’m not enamored of the business behind the camera, the catering, the bonding companies. It kills the aesthetic”), and the deal has been amended so that he’ll appear in only four (he says that Carolco has also absorbed White Eagle).

And there will be another Rambo, just when you thought you’d seen that logical metamorphosis emerge in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborgenic Terminator. “An ecological Rambo, fighting for the environment,” Stallone assures us. (On hearing this, the venerable writer-director Richard Brooks, who admires in principle Rocky’s honor code and Stallone’s courage, said, “What’s he gonna do, shoot the vegetables?”)

If the business side of Stallone’s career makes serious change prohibitive, there is in addition the incalculable weight of public expectation. (In fact, he confesses to making another Rambo because “that’s what the public wants and expects.”)

“Think about what it means to be a destitute actor who refuses to sell a script and molds his own inadequacies into the figure of a boxer,” Stallone said a couple of weeks later in his Santa Monica office. “Then look what happened. Rocky entered the fabric of the American subconscious. When you cheer Rocky, you cheer someone fighting an uphill struggle. He had no money but he had ethics. He had no skill but he had courage. He touched a nerve that translated into an international myth.”

Myth may be too strong a word for Rocky, but there’s no question that his image--and that of Rambo--has passed into an international media currency in which a picture defines a universal value, a constant amidst ephemera, such as Cary Grant for suavite , for example, or Marilyn Monroe for sex.

Here is the human logo that represents the triumph of the will, of man-sized endurance prevailing in an over-complex, over-technologized, semi-abstract world, the good-hearted Joe redeemed, everybody’s comeback kid. (When underdog Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson for the heavyweight championship in February, the Sports Illustrated cover read “Rocky Lives.”)

“Nobody’s intimidated by Rocky,” Stallone said. “That’s one of the reasons everyone can identify with him.”

In fact, it’s through “Rocky V,” by going back to his humane as opposed to militant roots, that Stallone hopes to begin anew.

In this latest version, Rocky, too past his prime and too seriously damaged by the beatings he’s taken to fight again, will find a willing protege (21-year-old Tommy Morrison, nephew to John Wayne and a legitimate heavyweight in his own right with a record of 21-0) who falls in with a Don King-styled shtarke and betrays his mentor. For a while, Stallone had Rocky killed outright. Later he arrived at a considerably richer ending, where the torch is passed through the heart and Rocky sounds the final, classical chord of reconciliation.

“I know it sounds Hare Krishna-ish,” Stallone said, “but now I’m at one with the environment. The El, the concrete. Rocky’s environment has created such self-loathing. His fists are no longer useful. He’s being pulled into this whirlpool of regression. In the end, when he rejoins his family, he no longer has this cab-driver mentality where the windshield is the future and the rear-view mirror is the past and there’s nothing in between. Now he’s fully in the moment. Now he’s out of ambition.”

Aside from a more humane and naturalistic image invested in this latest incarnation of “Rocky,” Stallone plans on making two comedies, one in which he stars with John Candy and is so-far unnamed, and one called “Oscar,” based on a French farce and directed by John Landis. “Oscar,” which is set in 1931 and deals with an affluent hood trying to go straight, has already begun filming at Warners. “I wanted to do something that requires lightness, speech,” Stallone said. “This one is nonstop dialogue.”

He plans to make another movie in January, though he’s still in the negotiating stage about it and won’t offer details. Beyond that, he doesn’t seem to know what specifically to do except to say, “The only way you can change anything is to walk out on a ledge, to do things you’re afraid of.” There have been reports of his long-time desire to make a movie about the life of Edgar Allen Poe. Also a movie about an evangelist, and another about the Victorian explorer and linguist Sir Richard Burton. But at the moment he isn’t speaking of these projects with any conviction. After the mob scene in Cannes, he returned with an air of partial resignation.

“I had to get up on the roof of the car,” he said. “I was afraid of getting glass in my eyes and I thought if they could see me it might calm them down. They were reaching for me. ‘I want this, I have this invested in you,’ they were saying. Now I understand why erudite writers or someone like Ted Kennedy--people you think would know better--say, ‘Good morning, Rocky.’ I am this conduit of the myth. It’s not about performance. It’s far and away beyond me.”

Has Stallone been, as he claims, misperceived?

In truth, his quick sense of humor and stylish masculine ease are almost never apparent in his movies--even when custom-suited up and bespectacled as he was in the mountingly improbable “Tango & Cash.” In person, however, and if things are going tolerably well, he’s 10 o’clock on a bright sunshiny morning. Thirty years or more of body-building exercise and current good diet have given him the fine-tuned glow of a pro athlete at the top of his form. He looks younger than 44, and carries the freshness of someone who’s just stepped out of a shower. He’s attentive, accessible and colorfully articulate. None of his roles so far have expressed the harrowing complications of his emotional life.

“I was born in a charity ward in Hell’s Kitchen, N.Y., July 6, 1946,” he said. “I have a full brother, Frank, and two half-sisters on my mother’s side. Both my mother and my father remarried. He came from Bari, Italy, from salt-of-the-earth people, and went to New York to work as a hairdresser. My mother was a dancer at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe. He’s close to Rambo. He approaches things primitively, instinctively. She’s descended from a distinguished family of lawyers and judges. Her father wanted a boy, and made her box, do gymnastics. She ran away at 15. She’s never had a kinship with terra firma.

“She was worried that being pregnant would ruin her figure, so it wasn’t until the last second that she went to the charity ward, which meant there were birth complications--I was partially facially paralyzed. We lived in New York for seven years, then moved to rural Maryland. That’s where I developed my love of horses. I was a hyperactive child. I had an attention deficit syndrome, which means I had an ability to take in multiple stimuli but an acute inability to stay focused--which helps in this business. I went to 13 schools in 12 years. By the time I was 16, I had a real inferiority complex. I was a slight child as well.”

Stallone’s early loneliness and fear were exacerbated by a home life riddled with Dostoevskyan strife. “It was a house full of aggression and conflict. When she left, I hung on to her leg. I was in convulsions. Then the terrible court battles began. My brother became so repressed that they thought he had leukemia. I really became a loose cannon. I ran away to Philadelphia to be with her. The courts brought me back. I had an unformed ego, a misplaced aggression. I sought chaos. I was like a dog wanting to be beaten. Acting was almost a psychological requirement for me.”

A Steve Reeves “Hercules” movie inspired Stallone to collect heavy auto parts from a vacant lot and begin a lifelong program of weightlifting, of creating what he terms “an armor of muscles.” He went to Devereaux Manor, a high school for gifted kids with emotional problems. At 17, he went to American College in Switzerland, a small school for diplomats’ children. “Lots of Middle Easterners, lots of aristocracy. Once again I was odd man out,” though he began to develop his interest in psychology and acting. When the Vietnam War began heating up, he returned to the United States and tried to enlist in the Navy in Florida but was turned down because of a hearing impairment. (Years later, an observer reports that he flew into a terrifying rage over Jane Fonda’s allegation that he’d been a draft-dodger.)

He did some experimental theater at the University of Miami, typical student stuff such as “Siddhartha” in bedsheets, then moved up to New York to write and make the auditioner’s rounds. (“My place was so small I could reach out and touch both sides of the room. I wrote on an orange crate. I had no phone. The windows were painted black. But somehow, every day I felt one step closer.”) He thought his role in “The Lords of Flatbush” would establish him, but it didn’t. In 1974, he packed everything into his Oldsmobile and drove to Southern California. “I was way out in Encino. I was so broke that I tried to sell my dog in front of a supermarket. I was down to that.” Around that time he met and married his first wife, Sasha, an aspiring actress who worked as a waitress. “We lived from hand-to-mouth, living off the doggie bags she brought home from work when people left them behind, doing our laundry by showering in our clothes.”

Things began to turn around for Stallone. He had a small role in “Capone,” then did Roger Corman’s “Death Race 2000.” In the meantime, he’d written a screenplay called “Paradise Alley,” which the Chartoff-Winkler production team optioned for $200. They had opened the door a crack, and he went home and wrote “Rocky” in three days. There was talk that Ryan O’Neal would be good for the part. No one, of course, had a clue about what would happen after Stallone insisted, reportedly to the point of near-violence, on playing it himself.

“Actors are a walking, throbbing mass of scar tissue by the time they get anywhere,” Stallone said in a 1978 interview. “That’s why they ask for millions. Because of all they took on the way up, vengeance is theirs.” No one is ever prepared for the kind of success a phenomenon like “Rocky” implies, least of all someone with the fragile psyche of a Sylvester Stallone.

He had two children by Sasha--Seth, who is autistic, and Sage. The marriage began to unravel. “I loved her, still do--as a friend,” Stallone said. “I got caught up in the business, didn’t pay attention. There’s not one shred of animosity or unrequited love between us. If she needed me, I’d be there. When our second son was born autistic, it was a horrible revelation. I questioned God, my faith, my success, my worth. Whose fault was it? It took me a long time to come to the conclusion that, if he never comes out of it, I’ll still love him. Do I want him to heal for his sake or mine? But he’s in a good place. He’s well taken care of.

“I’d say that did drive a wedge into the relationship. I was distracted by so much attention. In Hollywood they say you’re powerful. But you’re not. Power can be terminal. It dampens the spirit, crushes the imagination, dulls your vulnerability. The more you say ‘I am!’ the less you’re able to develop a character.”

Stallone reportedly settled $12 million on Sasha and the boys, and $6 million on statuesque model-actress Brigitte Nielsen, who, as far as Stallone’s mortification is concerned, cost him a great deal more. He’s often spoken of having made “Rambo III” as a means of exposing the Russian occupation of Afghanistan as a parallel to the American involvement in Vietnam, but here he came out with another, closer reason--his misery and rage over the breakup of his second marriage.

“I was looking for a way to die,” he said. “It was a turning point in my life. I was angry. I’d been held up to ridicule. It was a sordid affair. I went over the top. I was Rambo, a dead man. A machine. I didn’t want to live. ‘Lay under a tank?’ You got it. Napalm? Sure. It was stupid. I could’ve been immoliated.” (Like many people whose education has been gained through solitary reading, Stallone is prey to some eccentric pronunciation.)

Their 18-month marriage dissolved in 1987 after a flood of rumors that pegged her as a sexual polymorph who had affairs with her female secretary and numerous men, giving some of them gifts charged to Stallone’s credit cards. To a man of Stallone’s Italian heritage and macho posturing, death might be considered preferable to cuckoldry. Surprisingly, he speaks of her without malice.

“She was this composite, this picture, tall, imposing, self-confident. When I first met her I didn’t care for her, but later, when she came to California, my defenses were down. I fell in love with her. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for her. She’s an incredibly complex person. I think she loved me, but she was unfathomable. She’s an extraordinarily seductive person; she can overwhelm anyone.

“I married her for the right reasons and divorced her for the right reasons. Love is dumb. It turns you into a ventriloquist’s dummy. The end was bitter and scandalous. Sordid. I’ve read both ‘Hollywood Babylons’ and they don’t compare to the carnage that came out of this. Am I still feeling it? I deny it. But when you walk on the beach at sunset, it’s there. My heart is bald, treadless. It won’t hold any more air. But I’m like Don Quixote. Life without love is reason to kill yourself.”

If Stallone has refocused his emotional life somewhat, there’s still the matter of untracking his career. The question remains: Can he turn it around?

If you were to make the case against, you’d have to start with the dubious precedent behind “Rocky’s” creation, in which Stallone’s successful demand for control of this character meant that whenever he felt insecure about any of his other projects--and anxiety is always a by-product of the creative process--his instinct would be to take control again, which he’s done one way or another in five of his non-Rocky/Rambo movies.

That Stallone has had no real formal training as an actor--"Siddhartha” in bedsheets hardly qualifies as preparation for the rigors of an acting career--must mean that, like anyone thrust into the spotlight before he’s ready, his education must be gained in public. And to hear Stallone assert that “ ‘Rhinestone’ was not a commercial success but in my opinion it was an artistic success” is to question his judgment--you could teach a course on “Rhinestone” as a paradigmatic bad movie, full of the standard universal errors of amateur acting.

Still, there are industry pros and observers who see possibilities. Director and teacher Milton Katselas cautiously offers this assessment: “I believe he’s a good actor. Stallone’s major problem is that his sensitivity and delineation of character have been sacrificed to caricature. It’s probably going to take time for him to satisfy his public while developing as an actor. It’d help him to do theater, because there an actor has to hold an audience for an evening. That’s why our best actors, like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, are stage-trained. If he has the appetite and the desire, he could do it.”

Says Susan Stotter, co-director of the acting conservatory at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater: “He could be a serious actor--absolutely. He has tremendous sensitivity and charisma on the screen. He has great intelligence. He has glamour. I think there’s a Macbeth in there, or a Brutus. Or a Mark Antony to Cleopatra.”

Martin Davidson has kept tabs on Stallone ever since 1974, when he co-directed “The Lords of Flatbush.”

“There was an innocence to the early work which was his most inward and least contrived,” Davidson said. “Now he’s developed formulas. It’s very hard to become a millionaire and then run the risk of slipping on a banana peel. That quick kind of success creates a lot of fright. It happens to a lot of people in that position, where, like Redford for example, you stop working out of your own conception and began acting towards what you think people expect of you. You stop baring your soul. I think it’s important to work with directors who won’t let you hang out to dry. I know Sly is looking for a way to express the changes he feels. All an audience judges is the illusion it sees on a screen. I think it would give him the benefit of the doubt if he was working with good material and a good director.”

“Anything is possible,” says Jack Kroll, movie and theater critic for Newsweek. “For a long time James Cagney was not considered a serious actor, and Sly has done serious work in ‘F.I.S.T.’ and ‘Paradise Alley.’ I think a successful change for him would depend on a specific project and identity--after all, we’re talking career here. What Sly needs is to surround himself with really gifted intelligent people he can’t control. He needs smart friends to bring him projects, saying ‘This is what you should do.’ He has to relinquish his control. He’s got to be able to hook himself into another sensibility. Sly has the intelligence, the work ethic and the ambition. But he has to step into another room. He’s been spinning his wheels in Hollywood.”

If over the past decade or so Stallone’s movies and the public side of his private life have blended in the public eye in a peculiar jumble of meathead violence, pumped phallic narcissism and the longueurs of insatiable celebrity, it’s surprising to hear how many thoughtful people will still be willing to speculate on his potential for change without laughing the subject out of consideration.

Perhaps there’s a latent sympathy for someone who, outside of his action vehicles remains curiously unformed, and therefore potentially transformable--which is where every true actor begins. Maybe he could make a noble Roman. Perhaps he draws the benefit of the doubt because he’s still vulnerable, and because people still remember that the first Rocky’s triumph wasn’t just an exertion of will, it was a display of character. That doesn’t necessarily change.


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