Down for the count? Guess again

Times Staff Writer

THE drive up to Sylvester Stallone's Tuscan-style mansion in the ultra-rich Beverly Park enclave winds through the brush-covered canyons of Beverly Hills, ending at an imposing iron gate. A statue of a stallion's head stands nearby, and just beyond, guarding each side of the driveway, carved lions raise their heads in mid-roar.

The gate swings open revealing first a sign -- "Watch Out for Insane Dog" -- and then a Louisiana Catahoula leopard dog with eerie blue eyes. Nice dog. Pretty dog. Please don't kill me. When the car door opens, after a considered pause, the blue-eyed dog rushes it. But Spooky only wants to be petted. Farther up the driveway, another dog named Phoebe -- little, brown and cute as a button -- is barking her head off.

In Stallone's ornate living room, frozen faces and twisting bodies of statuary have been placed here and there, and the walls are adorned with works by the 19th century French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau. An unfinished puzzle on a low-slung coffee table (Rocky does puzzles?) is the only clear sign of life.

Then Stallone walks in. "You met my dog?" he says in that familiar voice that always seems an octave below other people's. He mentions he has three in all, including an American bulldog named Punchy, then chuckles. The sign outside, he says, is merely to get people's attention.

"Rather than say 'Watch for dog,' you say 'Watch for insane dog.' They go, 'Oh, maybe I'll slow down a little bit.' " Actually, the pet couldn't be friendlier. And that's the problem. "He comes down the hill and he bolts in front of the car, which is an insane act. It's not to infer that the dog is insane, what he does is insane."

It's the kind of distinction he's making a lot these days as he paves the way for Rocky's return to the ring -- at age 60 -- in a film that has even its characters shaking their heads. Stallone's heard the jokes, and the can-you-even-believe-it? reaction that erupted when news broke that he would not only make "Rocky" VI, but follow it up with "Rambo IV." Play the action hero at 60? Stallone knows from insane dogs.

Laugh if you will, but look where he's landed. Denzel Washington lives four doors down, Stallone remarks. "Eddie Murphy's up the street. Sam Jackson's over here." Producers Mike Medavoy and Haim Saban also live in the area, as does slugger Barry Bonds, he adds.

Stallone has the look of a regular guy, the sleeves on his sport shirt rolled up below the elbows. But he's a well-kept "regular guy," tan, gym-rat fit. He could easily pass for a man a decade younger than his 60 years. He's been in training, and when he says he is 40 pounds heavier than when he did "Rocky," one look tells you it's not flab. And you can discount rumors that Stallone is really very short. "Five-10, 5-10 1/2 ," he says. "Mr. Average."

Three decades have passed since "Rocky's" first "Yo, Adrian!" and, for better or worse, he's been shadowed since then by the image of the South Philly fighter and razzed for his attempts to step away. "It's been the longest of journeys -- in many ways," Stallone says, sounding tired.

His script for "Rocky" and his portrayal in the title role electrified the world back in 1976 when the film, shot in only 28 days, became a sleeper hit. It won the Academy Award for best picture, landed Stallone nominations for best actor and best original screenplay and spawned five sequels.

But while "Rocky" is surely one of the most beloved, lucrative movie franchises in Hollywood history, grossing more than $1 billion worldwide, it's also been the brunt of more than a few jokes. The last installment -- 1990's "Rocky V" -- had the fighter brain-damaged and working as a trainer, doing his fighting in the streets.

"I was very disappointed that I let people down, let the character down, let everything down in 'Rocky V,' " Stallone laments. "And in the end, I have to hold myself completely accountable."

"Rocky Balboa" is Stallone's attempt to atone. The film, a joint effort by MGM, Revolution Studios and Columbia Pictures, opens Wednesday in more than 2,500 theaters nationwide. Once again Stallone wrote, directed and starred.

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In the comeback corner

WHEN we meet Rocky this time, he is retired from the ring and adrift in life. He sits at the grave of his beloved wife, Adrian, reminiscing about old times. His son, now grown up, is too embarrassed to be around his dad, the one-time champ who poses for photos with patrons at his restaurant. But fate has other plans for Rocky. After ESPN pits the one-time champ against current heavyweight champion Mason "The Line" Dixon in a hypothetical computer-generated matchup, the real-life athletes agree to stage an exhibition fight in Las Vegas. The idea that Rocky should come out of retirement as a man nearing 60 is derided, even by his son.

Stallone laughs at the jokes that have made his "Rocky" comeback a punch line.

"I thought they were funny," he says, noting that one of his favorite lines came by way of Bill Maher, host of "Real Time With Bill Maher" on HBO, who said if Stallone does another "Rocky," the only thing they can call it is "Rocky Dies."

In truth, "Rocky Balboa" is a bittersweet hommage to a remarkable cinematic hero.

Actress Talia Shire, who portrayed Rocky's indispensable partner and wife Adrian in the previous films, and is featured in poignant flashbacks in the current one, says she believes the character resonates with audiences because Rocky, along with the "ordinary woman" he loves, has "the right to go the distance. That is the dream of America.

"If you look at other boxing movies before 'Rocky,' " Shire adds, "boxing was usually the metaphor for something that is corrupt. What Sylvester did was use the ring as a place where you go to confront your soul ....You're willing to die, I guess, and kind of be reborn."

Film historian and critic David Thomson, who describes "Rocky" as "Capra-esque" and "a good cornball, old-fashioned story," noted that the film arrived during America's bicentennial, when the nation was pumped for patriotism, and still salving the wounds of Vietnam and Watergate.

"I think Mr. Stallone, who has never lacked for opportunism and cunning, saw there had to be in that period of flag waving, an opportunity for harkening back to old heroes, old virtues, and this poor, Italian slob who never got anywhere, maybe he could be the champion?" Thomson said. "It was a lot like some idiot who hears these endless renditions of 'I coulda been a contender' in 'On the Waterfront' and said, 'You know what? I could be a contender.' "

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An underdog's lasting legacy

ONE has only to watch Rocky climb the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and thrust his arms in the air to feel inspired. Even today, people of all ages clamber up those same steps, thrust their arms skyward, throw punches at imaginary ring foes and pretend they too are going for the prize.

Stallone salutes these dreamers during the end credits of "Rocky Balboa" in a montage that is sure to bring smiles to audiences.

As a kid in Philadelphia, Stallone says, he used to go around the museum and think what an incredible place it was. "The steps, when you are 12 years old, look like they go into eternity. They just go on and on.... I thought about Franklin Field and running up, you know, football stadiums, and I thought, 'Hmmm, there's something ironic about running up this bastion of culture .... Who runs up in front of a museum? It's probably Rocky.' "

Stallone uses a baseball metaphor to describe what happened as "Rocky" took over his life: "You go out, it's your first time at bat, the bases are loaded, it's the bottom of the ninth in the series, and you hit a grand slam. And the next season starts and you don't want to pick up the bat. You say, 'I peaked!' "

By "Rocky III," the Italian Stallion is heavyweight champion, living in a mansion, doing commercials and posing for magazine covers.

Why did Rocky change? "What happened was me," Stallone says. "I had been overwhelmed and just changed lifestyles. I was no longer Rocky. I didn't know if I had become my true self or whether I was just swept up in the moment. I said, 'If this is really me, could this person have written "Rocky"?' I said, 'I don't think so.' "

Becoming an action hero "kind of crept up on me," Stallone says, "and it became quite euphoric." But he never imagined that one of his early departures from "Rocky" -- 1982's "First Blood," in which he played former Green Beret John Rambo -- would forever tie him to the action genre and create yet another iconic character.

"I actually saw the film as more of a metaphor for returning vets," he says. "John Rambo was, in a sense, the reincarnation of the Frankenstein monster -- we made him, he did the job, we can't bring him back to this society, we chase him with pitchforks and kill him. He's not to be trusted. He was one of us, but not anymore. That's the way I approached it."

To be sure, Rambo quickly became associated with conservative politics, but Stallone doesn't see the character in political tones.

"I know Ronald Reagan once held up a sign that said 'Rambo is a Republican.' I appreciate the plug for the film, but if someone had gone into it, they would see that Rambo doesn't even live in America. Rambo is an isolationist. He's so politically agnostic."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a friend of Stallone's who famously transcended his action-hero roots, noted the fickle nature of movies when he compared how Stallone faced typecasting, while a star like Harrison Ford escaped it.

"Some people are blessed," the governor said in a phone interview. "Harrison Ford was doing great action movies but was never promoted as an action star because the director [Steven Spielberg in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'] was the star. ... So, Harrison Ford was celebrated as an action guy but never typecast as an action guy."

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High and low notes

ON one side of Stallone's office, under a glass case, sits an old typewriter decorated with toy soldiers, toy tanks, toy jets and bullets. The typewriter ribbon is red, white and blue. It was an unexpected gift from director Billy Wilder, who left strict instructions how he wanted the toys arranged on "Rambo's typewriter."

Stallone holds up a large blowup of a photograph that was taken the day Baghdad fell to U.S. troops a few years back. It shows Iraqi citizens holding up an American flag decorated with a picture of Rocky. That it resonates differently now is beside the point of the story.

"This came from CNN," Stallone says. "It was the real deal, taken that day. What does that tell you?"

In another room is a wall lined with photos and letters from senders including actors and presidents. "This was my first rented tux," he says, pointing at a photo of him and John Wayne. "He introduces himself and says, 'My name is John Wayne.' Give me a break."

But the house that "Rocky" built isn't without its trap doors. Along with his best actor Oscar nomination, Stallone holds the dubious distinction of winning 10 Razzies, for worst performance.

"That's all?" he says. "I'm sorry. I'm slipping."

His Razzies include worst actor for "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot," worst screenplay for "Rambo II," worst director for "Rocky IV," worst screen couple --with Sharon Stone--for "The Specialist" and worst supporting actor for "Spy Kids 3-D." Oh, yes, did we mention worst actor of the century?

Stallone's comedy misfires are almost legendary. "Rhinestone," "Oscar" and "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot" had audiences howling in the aisles for all the wrong reasons.

"It didn't work," he says, shaking his head. "I should have realized that. I should have sat back and said, 'Do I want to see John Wayne do slapstick?' Not really. Therefore, end of mystery."

So, why did he do it? "It was just a curiosity," he says. "I underestimated the branding of action."

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Stallone, who's married to Jennifer Flavin, describes his life now as well-grounded and focused on his family. Home's been a haven for him, but not without challenges: One of his five children is autistic, another underwent open-heart surgery when she was just 2 1/2 months old.

"That's when you realize how what you do for a living, how on the chart of importance, where it really ranks," Stallone says. "When all of a sudden you see some doctor who is tired and underpaid and overworked and your child's life is in his hands. That came home real fast." He notes that daughter Sophia Rose, now a fourth-grader, is fully recovered. "She was voted top athlete in her class. That's pretty astounding."

After doing "Rambo IV" next year, Stallone hopes to do more work behind the camera. He has a script he began back in the early 1970s about Edgar Allan Poe when Stallone didn't have much money and hung around the New York Public Library.

He was still an underdog then, stardom not yet on the horizon. Maybe Poe, with his tell-tale heart and ravens, was a darker road not taken. And perhaps he's no match for the boxer that beat him to the screen. But the Stallone who put him on paper then knew Rocky. And now, after everything, he is going back to his roots.

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robert.welkos@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Brawn power, in four weeks or less

PERHAPS the most remarkable feat Sylvester Stallone performs in his new film, "Rocky Balboa," is taking off his shirt.

But Stallone, now 60, had to work to get that sculpted look.

"I don't know if I should tell this story," Stallone begins, but quickly relents. "During the three or four months leading up to the film, I was asked by certain people, 'Don't come in all muscular. Don't try to be something a man your age shouldn't be. Rocky should be Rocky. A man of the people. Just average or a little bit out of shape. That's the more sympathetic approach.'

"So, about four weeks from filming, I shot some film of the 'sympathetic' Rocky and the out-of-shape Rocky and I'm thinking, 'Why am I listening to this? It's bad enough that he is going to get a beating, but one of the reasons he can survive is because he's in shape. Now that he's not in shape, he's going to look like a punching bag with eyeballs.' "

So Stallone worked out five days a week in the gym and spent three or four hours a day, six days a week, boxing.

"I wanted to gain a lot of weight. I wanted to be a legitimate heavyweight, so I ate a lot of carbohydrates, knowing that I would burn them up. A lot of Italian foods; a lot of pasta. I didn't eat much cheese, but a lot of protein drinks, a lot of supplements. In four weeks, I was able to burn off a lot and get into the shape I was in the film.

"But I don't recommend it. Do not try this at home or anywhere!"

-- Robert W. Welkos

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