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Down for the count? Guess again

Rocky's getting back in the ring, and Rambo isn't far behind. Sylvester Stallone riffs on life with his twin typecasts: action hero and lovable underdog.

December 17, 2006|Robert W. Welkos | 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.

*

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.

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