- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2006

If Mike Tyson tried a boxing comeback at the age of 50, sports commentators would trip over themselves to mock the news — and, says Sylvester Stallone, there wouldn’t be an empty seat in the arena.

So Mr. Stallone is banking on a similar fascination to drive “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth and final round of the saga of the Italian Stallion, which arrives in movie theaters tomorrow.

The 60-year-old actor needs a hit, and his iconic underdog pugilist could be his last stab at stardom. He’s aware of the pressure and even more cognizant of just how far-fetched yet another “Rocky” sequel sounds.

“I was cynical … it’s human nature,” Mr. Stallone says during a recent visit to the District to donate Rocky’s boxing robe and gloves to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “Sometimes crazy ideas provide an interesting dramatic situation.”

The new film also could erase memories of 1990’s poorly received “Rocky V.”

“Each Rocky ended with a good taste in your mouth, that you could accept another one. This one left nothing,” Mr. Stallone says of the previous “Rocky” chapter.

“Rocky Balboa” finds the aging ex-champ adrift and alone. His wife, Adrian, has passed away from cancer, and he spends his days overseeing an Italian restaurant named in her honor. Then, when an ESPN computer simulation pits an in-his-prime Rocky versus the current champ, interest builds for an exhibition match to settle matters once and for all.

In person, Mr. Stallone is warm and self-effacing, exhibiting the kind of humility born, perhaps, from decades of prosperity. If he’s embittered that Hollywood doesn’t come calling much anymore, it’s impossible to tell. He says the first “Rocky Balboa” drafts had Adrian still among the living, and the story featured Rocky trying to save a troubled youth center.

“It was OK, but it was all about solving a financial problem,” says Mr. Stallone, whose gym-enhanced frame all but bursts out of a navy blue shirt.

That’s hardly the kind of comeback worthy of Bill Conti’s famous Rocky theme.

The final draft put Rocky “back to ground one,” Mr. Stallone says.

The same can be said of Mr. Stallone, who wrote, directed and stars in the new film, shot on a modest budget and with no bankable stars.

It’s similar to the style that forged the “Rocky” myth in the first place.

A young, impoverished Mr. Stallone could have sold the original “Rocky” script and enjoyed a quick payday, but he insisted on starring in any film made from his screenplay.

That persistence gave him his career.

The original 1976 smash won an Academy Award for best picture, earned Mr. Stallone two Oscar nominations (for writing and acting) and set his career ablaze.

His wounded eyes and uniquely dark features didn’t hurt, either. He worked relentlessly from that point on, starring in forgettable fare such as 1978’s “Paradise Alley” and 1981’s “Victory.” The following year, Mr. Stallone scored his second franchise player, the wounded war veteran John Rambo.

The ensuing years also brought plenty of stiffs (1984’s “Rhinestone” and 1991’s “Oscar” to charitably name just two) but the “Rocky” and “Rambo” features kept Mr. Stallone flush with fame.

Today, though, with the industry having long since moved on to other stars, Mr. Stallone can’t be sure how audiences will react to his new film. “I wrote it for baby boomers, not for 21-year-olds,” he says.

Should “Rocky Balboa” get TKO’ed by audiences and his promised “Rambo” sequel face a similar fate, Mr. Stallone could slip behind the camera permanently.

“If I could just write and direct; that would be very good,” he says.

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