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SUMMER SNEAKS : Give This Guy $20 Million : And that's what they did. After a seven-year slow period of tinkering with his action image, Sylvester Stallone has reconnected with his public. Next up: 'Judge Dredd.' Motion sustained.

May 14, 1995|Elaine Dutka | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer.

For a while, he says, he listened to "too many chefs," which resulted in meals that were "tasteless and overblown." The enormity of his responsibility hit home in New York a few weeks ago when a homeless person looked up and wished him good luck.

"Good luck to me ?" the actor says in amazement. "The guy didn't have a roof over his head. But, then, people have always identified with me. I'm part of their history, one of their own. If I play a character with overbearing imperiousness, patronage will be sparse."

Stallone's awareness of his strengths is accompanied by a reluctant acceptance of limitations. Part of him still longs to be a character actor, to make his mark in substantive, more esoteric fare. But discipline and drive can take a person only so far.

"Some performers can communicate their neuroses, their joys, their sorrows--it's all at their fingertips," he says. "Others of us remain in an unfathomable, amorphous state--undefined inside. After 20 years in this business, I'm no further along in terms of knowing who I am."

To remedy the situation, the actor is re-examining his life. He says there's nothing more pathetic than realizing that you've "passed a crossroads with your eyes closed." He regrets not having "tinkered more with the mechanism, doing something fresh and innovative" in years past.

If action-adventure is to be his meal ticket, explosions and car chases will no longer suffice. Beyond the special effects of "Dredd," he notes, there's a poignant story of a man confronting a moral crisis that calls his entire belief system into question.

"It's a fine line, fleshing out a cartoon character into 3-D," Stallone says. "Still, it's a different kind of movie-making today. Whereas Rocky relied on the written word and his fists, 'Dredd' was very technical. I worked with a blue screen instead of an ensemble. What's lost is purity of performance."

There is less danger of that in "Assassins," the filmmakers say. Working against his macho persona, the actor portrays an over-the-hill, lonely, introverted hit man--a role he calls "existentialist." One that requires him to "act."

"If we succeed, the public will see a different Sylvester," says Donner. "A gentler soul."

That Donner is working with Stallone at all is something of a breakthrough: the first time in a long while that a world-class director has stepped up to the plate. While the actor worked twice with John Avildsen and with Norman Jewison on "F.I.S.T." in 1978, he has consistently been paired with lesser-known directors, such as Danny Cannon on "Dredd," Luis Llosa on "The Specialist" and Marco Brambilla on "Demolition Man."

"Some directors can't deal with the fact that Sly is larger-than-life and a much better actor and director than people give him credit for," says Cinergi Chairman Andy Vajna, an executive producer of "Dredd." "The challenge is to harness Sly's energies in a positive fashion--not to hide the ball but deal openly with him."

Stallone insists the problem is one of perception rather than reality. "Despite the fact that there have been no walk-offs or sit-down strikes and only a minor incident on 'First Blood,' I have an assertive reputation," he complains. "I know too much about the process of filmmaking for some and no one wants the headaches. Italy is a nation of generals with no privates--and nothing gets done. But working with neophytes hurts the movies and it hurts me."

If critics agree that Stallone is in need of a strong director, Donner gives him the benefit of the doubt.

"Sylvester just needs someone he respects," he says. "Someone with a point of view he buys into and to whom he can delegate the responsibility of ensuring that he stays in it. In the past, he probably had to protect himself. Now, he's leaving that protection in my hands."

Stallone admits to being hands-on in the marketing end--a trait that producers and the studios embrace. When it comes to business, however, that's his agent's domain. "The Savoy deal was all Ronnie," he says, referring to Meyer. "That was his 'E.T.' . . . his 'Jurassic Park.' "

Skeptics contend that the 3-year-old Savoy Pictures, struggling out of the starting gate, was merely aiming to create a buzz. Not until an action-adventure film is mutually agreed upon and the money is in the bank, they claim, does the deal carry any weight.

"I'd be amazed if it happens," says Avildsen, director of "Rocky" and "Rocky V." "Who knows if Savoy will be in business then, if they'll have $20 million sitting around, if they'll find a script Sylvester wants to do? The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

Not to worry, says Savoy Chairman Victor Kaufman. "We started with $100 million in capital and now have $750 million invested so we're here for the long haul," he says. "And the more expensive movies are the least risky because you can buy downside protection through the star."

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