Sylvester Stallone returns to the big screen in The Expendables, where the action hero fights against all odds to overcome the bad guys.
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Being considered too old-it's like a knife in the heart for Stallone. Though he spends more time exercising his back than his biceps when he works out, Stallone is still an athletic performer, one who recognizes just how quickly his window into movies as an actor is closing.
"They always say an actor dies twice," he says. "Being one of the walking dead is the hardest. You're discarded as irrelevant; it's as if your work doesn't carry any more importance. So The Expendables will be a real litmus test. When they did testing, the young audience said they'd go see a film with these stars-even though the average age of the cast is 45.
"So you never know. I thought everyone my age would go see Rocky Balboa. But that wasn't the case; the average age of the audience was 24. That, to me, is mind-blowing. It's major. I guess the audience wanted to see a Rocky film on the big screen. And when they saw it, they liked it."
Stallone recognizes that people mistake him for his characters-whether they're fans or critics.
"The biggest misconception about me as an actor is that I'm very simplistic as an actor, that I don't put in the emotional research, that the characters seem kind of elementary," he says. "But, to have Rocky last for 32 years, which is something I'm very proud of, to keep an audience interested in that character for that long-that's not a simple thing. It's about being able to create different situations that are identifiable to the audience."
Of the six Rocky films, Stallone is fondest of the first and the last ones: "They're the most complete in the dramatic sense," he says. "It's odd to play the same character for 30 years, to watch this fellow move through his life. It's a real anomaly, a freak of cinematic nature."
Critics, however, haven't always been as charitable as his fans. Aside from sometimes punishing reviews and increasing jibes about his age, they also regularly haul out something Stallone said early in his career-that he wanted to direct and star in a biopic he'd written about Edgar Allen Poe-to use as Exhibit A of an artist's unchecked ego.
"That's been the big parody all these years," he says. "At this point, I don't know if I could come up with anything that can rival the hype it's already received. I do have a script that's gone through 20 mutations. Every few years I take it out and rework and update it.
"What fascinates me about Poe is that he was such an iconoclast. It's a story for every young man or woman who sees themselves as a bit outside of the box, or has been ostracized during their life as a oddball or too eccentric to be taken into the main vein. It didn't work for him either. His work was too hip for the room back then. But he developed the modern mystery story. He was also one of the great cryptologists; there were very few codes he couldn't crack. He was just an extraordinary guy."
Even if he does get the project off the ground, Stallone himself has no plans to play the role: "I did at one time. Thank God that never happened."
As Stallone notes, longevity in show business-particularly for an action-movie actor-can be illusory: "I'm on borrowed time," he says. "My longevity will be predicated on being able to move on to directing, without me having to be in the film. That's the ultimate-to follow in Clint's footsteps. But yeah, the ticking clock-it's as loud as the gong on Big Ben."
Stallone stays in shape with twice-weekly workouts for 75 minutes each. If he's got a film coming up, he works out four times a week "to get into peak shape." But, he adds, 90 percent of it is diet: "My weakness is oatmeal cookies, the ones my wife makes. They give me heartburn but I can't leave them alone."
Part of his regimen includes human growth hormone, which he began using in his early 50s and continues to use: "I was reading about how it rejuvenated you and helped you come back from injuries," he says. "The more I read about the way it uses amino acids, the more I thought it was a step into the future. At the time, I was working out six days a week and the wear-and-tear was incredible. And that helped. When I broke my hand while I was getting ready for Rocky Balboa, I needed to heal quick and it helped a lot. There's this misconception that it's like steroids. But it's not-it helps you recuperate and gives you a sense of well-being."
Still, he knows he can't continue as an action star, no matter what good shape he maintains or what pharmaceutical advances may come.
"My wife cries a lot," he says, jokingly. "She cries at the thought that it will be embarrassing for someone my age to hearken back to his glory days. And she cries when I do something like tear the calf muscle off the bone.
"But this is my fate. Life didn't deal me a musical-comedy fate. I've got this physicality. When people look at me, they're not seeing Sylvester Stallone. They see Rocky. They see Rambo. They see a kind of philosophy, they see a certain idea. And they see what those things stand for."
Contributing editor Marshall Fine's work can be found on his Web site www.hollywoodandfine.com.
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