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Sylvester Stallone is back

Sylvester Stallone is back — With ”Cliffhanger,” Sly climbs back into the Action arena and he wants to go the distance

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Sylvester Stallone — the man who was Rocky Balboa, Rambo, and the hardest body in movies — is afraid of heights. That unheroic idiosyncrasy was revealed when Stallone came face-to-face with the Italian Alps. He blinked. ”Forget it, Renny!” he said. ”We’re going to do everything in the lab, on soundstages. I don’t care!”’

Suddenly the future of Cliffhanger, his new high-altitude action thriller, hung suspended in midair. ”I went into shock. I panicked,” Stallone says months later, relishing the drama of it all. His return to big-time action as a National Parks Service ranger fighting murderous thieves on a snowcapped mountain had a $60 million production riding on it — but when Stallone looked upon the 13,000-foot peaks of the Dolomite range, his acrophobia came flooding back. There was no way he was going to make like some human fly — even for a salary estimated to be as high as $15 million. Finnish-born director Renny Harlin had already scouted the precipitous locations — had even hung from the actors’ rigs to prove the stunts safe. But nothing he could say would convince Stallone to let it all hang out on the edge.

And then vanity intervened in the person of photographer Dirck Halstead, who lured Stallone — for the sake of a publicity shoot — to venture onto a ledge jutting out 3,000 feet above a frozen Alpine abyss.

”From that day on I lived in fear,” Stallone says. ”Every day I knew they’d think of something new and more risky. And they did.” Stallone, who remodeled his boxer’s torso into a gymnast’s coiled physique, proudly offers his hands, still scarred and calloused, as evidence that he mastered such moves as the Double Dyno, a vertical jump up a sheer cliff face from one handhold to another.

Of course, Stallone and the other actors were tethered to safety lines — erased in postproduction by computer. And many death-defying sequences would actually be an artful blend of location work, studio fakery, and seamless visual effects. But even if Harlin had opted to forgo the rigors of Alpine filming entirely, Cliffhanger was still a risky proposition. For in the treacherous hills and canyons of Los Angeles, a career was also on the line.

”Let’s face it,” Stallone concedes, ”I have made every conceivable mistake in the spectrum of Hollywood. As a matter of fact, I’ve made them two, three, and four times. I never was a quick learner.”

His first moves had been flawless. In 1976, Stallone, then an unknown palooka, scored a knockout with the Oscar-winning Rocky, which he wrote and refused to sell to a studio until he was allowed to play the lead. Six years later, with First Blood, he stumbled into another signature role as John Rambo, an embittered and nearly inhuman Vietnam vet. Rocky and Rambo — and the six sequels they triggered — made Stallone an international star.

But nearly every time he ventured beyond his two mythic creations, critics jeered and audiences deserted him. Frustrated, constricted by his celluloid image, Stallone realized he had become an all-purpose symbol for the hawkish ’80s.

”I remember seeing Reagan holding up a poster that said ‘Rambo is a Republican,’ and I knew that was it,” says Stallone, who doesn’t like to wear his politics on his sleeve. ”I felt a lot of persecution. If you think about the action-genre heroes, Rambo seems to be the one that’s been singled out. It seems Rambo really touched this nerve because he dealt with a somewhat realistic political situation.” Stallone just shakes his head at the reduction of the warrior to — literally — a national joke: On May 21, Hot Shots! Part Deux, featuring Charlie Sheen’s Rambo parody, opened to higher grosses than did Stallone’s last two films. ”I haven’t seen it yet,” he says. ”I don’t know what to think.”

As his action franchises waned a few years ago, Stallone himself tried to expand into comedy — just like Arnold Schwarzenegger, his Planet Hollywood restaurant partner and chief rival in the action arena. But 1991’s Oscar and last year’s Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot both dive-bombed.

Off screen, Stallone was taking his lumps as well. After the dissolution of his 10-year union with first wife Sasha, his second, made-in-gossip-heaven marriage to Amazonian starlet Brigitte Nielsen lasted just 18 months. Stallone then embarked on a dating game that kept the paparazzi barking at his heels. Triumphant Rocky was turning into a tabloid gigolo.

And so it was high time for the 46-year-old actor to get back into action. He had learned a hard lesson: ”We all have a niche. Maybe action is what I’d been born to do. But it had to be something unique — not just another cop on the beat.”