Sylvester Stallone gets over his fear of heights on the movie's Alpine set

An icy wind blows on Lagazuoi, one of several snow-capped mountains looming over the Italian village of Cortina. A crane-mounted camera stares at a patch of virgin snow, waiting. Suddenly, the snow cracks and out pops Sylvester Stallone, eyes wild, breathing hard, chopping away with an ice ax.

”Jess! Come on up!” Stallone shouts into the hole to his on-screen lover, played by Northern Exposure‘s Janine Turner. (There’s no response from Turner, who’s back in Cortina enjoying her day off.) The elevation is just over 10,000 feet on the set of Cliffhanger, an adventure thriller set in what’s supposed to be the high-altitude vistas of the Colorado Rockies (which are nowhere near as eye-filling as the Alps). Stallone is Gabe Walker, a National Park Service rescue ranger trying to stop a team of thieves, led by John Lithgow and Caroline Goodall, from recovering $50 million in stolen cash that has been scattered across a mountainside.

”Let’s do it again,” says director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2). ”We need a tighter close-up.”

”If you get any closer you’ll need a CAT scan,” jokes Stallone. The 46-year-old actor has been chopping his way out of the hole, over and over, for hours. ”Okay,” he says, resigned. ”It’s Groundhog Day.”

Harlin calls the $60 million production, due in theaters next May, ”the last of the big-time outdoor adventure thrillers,” and it marks Stallone’s return to the action genre after two god-awful comedies, Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. ”If this movie hits, people are going to call it a comeback,” says the actor. ”And that’s fair. I tried the kinder, gentler Stallone and it didn’t work. Action is where I belong.”

Except for one little, pertinent detail: Stallone is terrified of heights. ”I figured it’s easy these days to make it look like I’m really climbing — blue screen, special effects,” Stallone says. ”All I knew was, I’m not hanging over a cliff!” And for the first few weeks of filming, he didn’t have to: His outdoor climbing scenes were performed by a double, to be matched later with footage of Stallone scrambling up rock walls at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios.

But after a while Stallone decided, ”I had to do a few stunts for real. You can’t fake everything.” His first taste of genuine cliff-hanging is captured this day not by movie cameras but by photographer Dirck Halstead, shooting stills for the film’s ad campaign. After snapping a few rolls while he and Stallone hang over a bluff with a 2,200-foot drop, Halstead talks the actor into climbing up the mountainside for an extra-dramatic shot.

Harlin uses the incident to goad Stallone into performing similar stunts for the movie itself. ”We shoot for six weeks and no climbing, and then you go over a cliff for Dirck Halstead?” Harlin complains to his star, only half-joking. ”What can I say?” a sheepish Stallone replies. ”That I’m a born model?”

After that, Stallone becomes a stunt-performing fool for Cliffhanger, admitting he has ”kind of clicked into this self-destruct mode.” It’s a semiprophetic comment: In mid-July he cuts his hand during a soundstage stunt. Infection results, and Stallone is sidelined for a week. Such are the risks of realism.

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