Sylvester the pussycat Make-over: Stallone abandons the image that made him rich and switches from invincibility to vulnerability.

December 06, 1996|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- All this talk of Sylvester Stallone's make-over from monosyllabic muscleman to pudgy Everyman has disturbed my sense of order so much that I beg him to join me in pushups. Just a few, I urge, entering his Central Park South hotel suite. "No, no, no," he says, explaining later, "A little listlessness has set in."

The slight bulge hanging over his slacks as he sits in front of a half-smoked cigar is proof. But the changes brewing inside his gut aren't as apparent, so Stallone announces them. He says he has sworn off the "overly feminine" narcissism that had consumed him. His characters will now try to talk their way out of jams instead of punching or shooting. And he pledges to be a devoted lover, letting his playboy ways gather dust along with Rambo's AK-47.

Yo, change of life!

The signs were so portentous that Sly couldn't ignore them. Turning 50. The 20th anniversary of "Rocky." And, above all, the near-death of his infant daughter. Sophia was born a few weeks ago with a hole in her heart and had to undergo open-heart surgery. She's recovering nicely, Stallone reports, but the waiting was excruciating.

"For the first time in my life, I had absolutely no input, no power, no worth," he says, pulling out a photo of a sleeping, red-faced cutie. "I felt ashamed. I made a pact that if she survived this, I was never going to take anything for granted, ever. When she was given back, this was an omen. I hope I can live by that."

Stallone, twice-married with two sons, and Sophia's mother, model Jennifer Flavin, also have experienced a healing of sorts. Their off/on relationship is very on with a wedding planned in a few months.

A changed man

"You can go out and look for diversification, but c'mon, at the end of the day, who are you really going to open your heart to -- a sexual encounter or someone you have literally been to hell and back with? I've slayed my last dragon. I'm a changed man."

He hopes Hollywood will eventually agree. Because while he may command $20 million a picture, he's still a slave to the macho ideal that studio executives refuse to purge from their profit-marginal brains.

It's going to take baby steps. Step 1 is "Daylight," opening today. The Holland Tunnel linking Manhattan with New Jersey blows up in a freak accident. Stallone plays a fired EMS chief who must lead a group of clashing personalities out of the wreckage before the whole thing caves in. He doesn't kick butt. He's even out-studded in the beginning by a sportswear executive. But he's still the hero.

"I'm trying to get back to the fellow who goes into battle knowing he doesn't have a chance but he has the non-physical courage to stand up, kind of a martyr quality," he says.

"Daylight" also features Amy Brenneman ("NYPD Blue"), Sage Stallone (one of Sly's real-life sons and also his son in "Rocky V") and a Weimaraner. The effects-packed thriller, shot mostly on a Rome sound stage, rang in at $82 million, according to its director, Rob Cohen. This means blockbuster expectations.

Avoided 'Ransom'

"Daylight" was originally scheduled to premiere a month ago, but Stallone walked away from going toe-to-toe with Mel Gibson and "Ransom." Is non-confrontational marketing part of the new image, too?

No doubt he could whip Gibson at the kitchen table. Piling on the French toast and pancakes and everything else -- "Where's my peanut butter!?" -- Stallone packed on 35 pounds to play a small-town sheriff "with a big heart" in "Copland," due out next summer. The shooting is over but he's kept 15 of the pounds on. Gone are the hollow cheeks, the 30-inch waist and the bulging veins on his inflated muscles.

"Your aura comes in the room first, then your chest, then you," he recalls of his sculpted days. "People don't like speaking to people like that. There's a certain tentativeness. You're not one of them. That's what I'm trying to eliminate."

It hasn't been easy. While shooting "Copland," he found himself constantly explaining to onlookers why he was so hefty. Then he had a Richard Simmons-like epiphany.

"This is exactly what is wrong with what I've been doing," he realized. "Fat people don't go around making excuses. This is me. Take it or not."

Robert De Niro, who gained another person to play the aging Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull," teams with Stallone for the first time in "Copland." "Amazing," Sly gushes about the experience. The action actor still remembers "Taxi Driver" and "Rocky" opening next to each other on the Upper East Side, Christmastime 1976. "I took one path, he took another," the softened Stallion says.

The ever-verbal De Niro said of their sentimental pairing, "It was OK."

Stallone will flex his vocabulary in his next project. He plans to play a hostage negotiator and says the deal will be sealed soon. He feels he can take the criticism if the role isn't as physical as fans might expect. After all, he survived "Judge Dredd," a sci-fi disaster.

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