Stallone on Stallone -- The ''Cliffhanger'' star looks back at some of his career highs and lows, including ''Rocky,'' ''Rhinestone,'' and more

When John Lithgow, who plays Cliffhanger‘s dastardly British villain, first met Sylvester Stallone, he extended an actor’s compliment, praising him for being so willing to stretch. ”Yeah, you know what you get for stretching,” Stallone growled. ”Nothing but stretch marks.” Here, the Italian Stallion chews over his oeuvre, and — was there any doubt? — proves he’s willing to take his punches.

THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH (1974) Newcomers Stallone, Henry Winkler, and Perry King play innocent ’50s gang members. ”I have very fond memories of it. The acting was very naturalistic because we were really winging it, and I didn’t know any ‘cinema tricks.”’

ROCKY (1976) He wrote the screenplay, insisted on starring, and became a bicentennial success story when it won the Best Picture Oscar.Rocky was probably the purest of all my performances and the most insightful. It was far better received than I ever thought it would be. Being naive, I thought I was basically doing a film to while away the summer.

”The most important scene was going to be cut for lack of money [Rocky’s prefight crisis of confidence, when he confides to Talia Shire’s Adrian, ”I can’t beat him. Who’m I kidding? All I want to do is go the distance.”]. They were literally packing up the equipment. But I stood my ground. So they said, ‘Okay, you only get one take, no angles, no coverage.’ The next day, they said, ‘You know, Sly, that’s the most important scene in the movie.’ I said, ‘Thank you.”’

PARADISE ALLEY (1978) This period wrestling melodrama marked Stallone’s directorial debut. ”Also one of my better performances. The character I play is kind of distasteful, but I never worked more on trying to catch the Damon Runyonesque speech pattern. I loved directing. It just seemed to go naturally with my hyperactivity. Again — I use the word a lot — there was that naivete. But that’s what was special about the early years before I became the old pro.”

F.I.S.T. (1978) Director Norman Jewison’s fictionalized version of Jimmy Hoffa’s career was more Hoffa than Danny DeVito’s Hoffa. ”A real eye-opener. That was the beginning of me understanding that I’d been typecast as Rocky. F.I.S.T. and Nighthawks people bring up the most as my most forgotten films.”

ROCKY II (1979) As much a rematch as a sequel, this time with Stallone writing and directing. ”Once you’ve tasted success, to follow that up is almost as interesting. Of the Rockys, it was kind of overlooked, but I think it was one of the better written ones. Everyone had their characters so down, all I had to do was say, ‘Action.”’

VICTORY (1981) POWs in a German camp turn into a bunch of soccer nuts. ”Working with John Huston was the enticement. At time, he was not feeling very well. I envisioned it to be like a Stalag 17, a depressive prisoner-of-war camp. What came out was like a holiday camp. It was just a little too benign.”

NIGHTHAWKS (1981) Stallone and Billy Dee Williams follow the trail of a terrorist in New York. ”It was a little bit ahead of its time in that I was dealing with urban terrorism. Now, with the World Trade Center, it’s happening. At the time, people couldn’t relate to it, and the studio [Universal] didn’t believe in it. Rutger Hauer’s performance held it together — he was an excellent villain.”

FIRST BLOOD (1982) Out of this melodrama about a vet who goes berserk in the Pacific Northwest came a new pop icon: Rambo. ”I thought it was going to be the end of my career. The book was interesting, but I thought he was such a psychopath, it would never fly. Every day I worried. When we saw the first cut it was devastatingly bad. My agent said, ‘Maybe we can buy it back.’ But we cut it to about 90 minutes, and the result was, I think, one of the better vehicles I’ve ever been in.”

ROCKY III (1982) In search of another worthy opponent, Stallone drafted Mr. T. ”To me, it’s the smoothest of them all. Again I went back into my life. Now Rocky’d become very successful, and he’d lost his eye of the tiger, his edge. He’d developed fear of trying to do things new and unknown. That movie was kind of a psychodrama for me.”

STAYING ALIVE (1983) Serving as John Travolta’s director-mentor, Stallone turned this Saturday Night Fever sequel into A Chorus Line on Steroids. ”I liked John, so I thought, okay, I’ll do the script. But the story was very negative — he’d gotten into drugs, his girlfriend was a prostitute. So I rewrote it from page one.”

RHINESTONE (1984) A forced duet with Dolly Parton, it struck one false note after another. ”I started to fall prey to ‘He doesn’t take any chances,’ and that’s when I did Rhinestone. I thought it was going to be like a droll Mike Nichols comedy, but it turned into Porky‘s of the South. I came to the conclusion that if I want to stretch, I’ll go to a gymnasium.

RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985) The warrior became a megahero as Stallone refought the Vietnam War. ”It was released on the 10th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war, and America was going through this saber-rattling stage. So we just let it fly. I wrote the line, and I tried to live up to it, ”To win a war, you have to become war.” I tried to play him as a complete machine — no sense of feelings, pain, or fear of death.”

ROCKY IV (1985) In the least plausible entry in the series, Rocky becomes a Cold Warrior challenging an über-Soviet played by Dolph Lundgren. ”I knew we’d done everything possible with the Rockys, so I tried to call upon a historical event — the Joe Louis- Max Schmeling fight. Also, it was kind of like tying it to my life when you sometimes get bigger than you really are. The character overwhelms the small man who created it. Dolph was a godsend. I had looked all over for big men — but he was the perfect creature.”

COBRA (1986) Stallone played a rebellious L.A. cop as a knight in black leather. ”My outlook at the time on police enforcement: If you play by the rules with felons, they’re always going to win. So I created a character that basically gets down on their level — he was your first rock & roll cop. I tell you, if I had paid more attention to that character, he could have gone on to bigger and better things. I dropped the ball on that one.”

OVER THE TOP (1987) A father-son melodrama about arm wrestling. Nuff said. ”It was not a very good experience. It was something I shouldn’t have done. It caught me at a weak moment. There was a lot of money involved. And at the time I thought I could make anything work. It was just foolish.”

RAMBO III (1988) Rambo goes to Afghanistan. But the movie opened cold just as the Cold War melted away. ”There was a stunt I’m so incredibly proud of. I was on a horse and I had to reach down and pick up this sheep at a full gallop. I tore a muscle that took two years to come back. I don’t know what I was thinking.

”The movie came out just when we wanted to treat the Russians as our friends. That hurt. I think if we had done the film a year earlier, the results would have been a lot different. So I’ve learned not to do geopolitical stories anymore.”

LOCK UP (1989) A grade-B prison drama with Donald Sutherland as the sadistic warden. ”Not a film that was produced and performed with enough maturity to really make a significant impact on the audience or my career. And that’s the truth.”

TANGO & CASH (1989) Stallone and Kurt Russell teamed up to play an odd couple of cops. ”Even though it had conceptual contradictions, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience with a truly great friend in Kurt Russell.”

ROCKY V (1990) In his valedictory, Rocky returned to his hometown of Philly and retired his gloves.Rocky V I loved. It lacked the fireworks, but it was the truthful segue into his life postfighting. Rocky I and Rocky V — I think they were good bookends.”

OSCAR (1991) and STOP! OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT (1992) Mafia farce and mom-and-son slapstick. Neither one was much fun. ”The participants originally involved never came through, and I ended up working with different people, different concepts, and different scripts. I thought Stop! Or My Mon Will Shoot would be a throwback to Where’s Poppa? And with Oscar, I thought I’d be doing something like The Lavender Hill Mob. I’ve studied farce — farce is a constant revving at 150 miles per hour. Those movies just went on and on with no laughs.””