Stallone takes the gloves off

As Rocky Balboa steps back into the ring, the actor behind the mask pauses for reflection

Sylvester Stallone keeps a photo in his living room of the day he was mobbed in Cannes. The incident took place more than 15 years ago. The huge crowd was festive at first when his limo pulled up for a screening. But once the word was out that “Rocky” had arrived, a powerful current ran through that turned eagerness into frenzy as the mass of humanity packed into something monstrous, rocking the car to the point where it looked like it would overturn. Fearful of what might happen next, Stallone climbed out and up onto the car’s roof and stood waving, beaming, raising a fist skyward in the universal gesture of triumph.

“I had to let them see me,” Stallone says.

Stallone keeps the picture, not because it reminds him of his fame, but for something more transitory.

“I keep it because,” he says with a knowing, ominous nod, “they were yelling for Rocky. They weren’t calling for Sylvester Stallone.”

Now that “Rocky Balboa” at 60 climbs gingerly back into the ring as — once again — a prohibitive underdog against a contemptuous opponent, critics ask, “What’s happened to Sylvester Stallone and his prospects as a serious actor?”

The questions actually began after the first “Rocky,” the bust-out role for a relatively obscure Stallone (the film nabbed seven Oscar nominations in 1976 and went on to win for best picture). And they kept coming up as “Rocky” collected Roman numeral suffixes, as did John Rambo — “Rocky” with a gunbelt and a bad attitude.

Nobody can slight the first “Rocky,” or even what’s referred to as the Franchise, without appearing mean-spirited.

“Some genuinely strong emotional impact emerges from the heavy environment of street grime and gymnasium sweat provided by John Avildsen and producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff,” noted Variety in its 1976 review.

And the film retains its impact for many familiar with the often inglorious tradition of boxing dramas. “A play on the American Dream, Horatio Alger prevailing against the powers that be,” says Budd Shulberg, who wrote “On the Waterfront” and such books as “Loser and Still Champion: Muhammad Ali.”

“A heartwarming fable, brilliantly shot in the ring,” says HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant. “Stallone tells the story of a leg-breaker’s evolution into a fighter who could lose and grow in the process. It’s the classic underdog story that says you can always make something of yourself.”

“It had a sense of humor about itself,” adds Michael Phillips, film critic for the Chicago Tribune. “People like to feel that you can get your life back together.”

However improbable the series became, the character of Rocky put Stallone in the American Film Institute’s 2003 pantheon of top-10 American movie heroes, right up there with Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine in “Casablanca.” More recently, the Smithsonian announced it would display Rocky’s boxing robe and gloves as part of its “Treasures of American History” exhibit in Washington beginning Thursday.

And the original holds up. For example: In the long scene where Rocky, alone in street clothes in the empty sports arena, tours the dimensions of the ring where he’ll soon face Apollo Creed, director Avildsen allows his camera a vertiginous wraparound sweep while Stallone’s Rocky, formerly a guy with limited prospects, now stands with the beautiful realization that he’s become a prince of possibility. He’s ready. The scene is artfully understated, and completely wordless.

Some observers thought early on that Stallone might be the latest in the increasingly rare species of American actor who could be both virile and sensitive, someone with unquestionable screen presence, a ready-made film star. Critic Roger Ebert even thought he might be the new Brando. Hadn’t he shown promise in “F.I.S.T.” and “Paradise Alley”?

But then the duds arrived like bad scorecards — “Rhinestone Cowboy” and the locker-room, towel-snapping “Tango & Cash,” (which Stallone co-wrote). There was “Cobra” and “Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot.” There was the one-stunt “Cliffhanger,” and “Staying Alive,” where director Stallone loaned out his muscles to John Travolta.

Sprinkled among them were episodes of the Franchise, which kept Stallone afloat.

“It’s like, when you’ve been the pilot and things get shaky, you want to be back at the controls,” Stallone said in a 1990 interview.

Critics and knowledgeable observers still gave him the benefit of the doubt. The casting director at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater thought that, with study, he’d make a good “Macbeth.” “He could be a serious actor,” said the late Jack Kroll of Newsweek, “if he surrounded himself with intelligent people who gave him good advice.”

But eventually even his supporters lost interest. If Stallone had worried aloud about being typecast as “a side of beef,” none of his other roles changed anyone’s mind.

Then “Copland” came along in 1996, where Stallone let himself balloon out as an honest New Jersey cop, and held his own against the likes of Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in a critically hailed ensemble piece that jolted the chatterati out of their fitful slumber. He reportedly worked for $60,000 in that role (his regular asking price then was $15 million). Suddenly the question resurfaced: Can he do it?

Can he sublimate Rocky’s unique mix of soulfulness and unburied rage into other indelible characters, like Brando did with Stanley Kowalski?

Then, just as suddenly, his career flatlined again: “Get Carter,” “D-Tox” — the straight-to-video vaudeville hook. Time for Rocky to come out for the bell once more, even if it means squinting under the ring lights.

“I think he misplaced his career,” says Peter Rainer, film critic for the Christian Science Monitor. “He got caught up by being typecast early in the two most successful franchises of the era. Rambo is a subliterate macho man, a video character. Those successes made it difficult for Stallone to change. If he’d lived in the Cagney-Bogart era, he might’ve been able to play tough guys early and then move on. He’s worked with few good directors.

“When ‘Copland’ didn’t work out commercially,” Rainer continues, “he got caught without a parachute. People like to think of him as a full-out brawler. But I think he’s best when he plays low-key, like he did in that first scene when Rocky meets Adrian. It’s a charming scene, well-done. Sixty is not the end of the line. He still has a future. But when you live that kind of life — the houses, the cars, the entourage, lots of bills — it’s complicated.”

Indeed, to talk with Stallone is to be disabused of any notion that he and Rocky are the same person. He’s articulate, thoughtful and surprisingly candid.

“I’m the byproduct of Rocky, and Rocky is the byproduct of me,” Stallone says. “When you’re acting, you’re the illusion of your character. It’s a phenomenon. I never dreamt it would become what it did. Remember, when the first Rocky came out, the filmmaking was good, but it was dark. ‘The French Connection.’ ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday.’ They were anti-this, anti-that. But in 1976, we have a new president. It’s the nation’s birthday. People were ready for something else.”

Stallone admits to what he calls “a long dry spell” after “Copland” (“the offers haven’t come”). And he was disappointed at that film’s lack of financial success, though he enjoyed the ensemble work.

“The past 10 years have been the most insightful of my life,” he says. “After 45, the question is, ‘Would you do it again?’ Yes I would. The options are limited now, but not the questions. How do we rid ourselves of the gnawing sensation: ‘Why do I feel so unfulfilled?’ It never goes away. Some people can feel bliss. I just ask, ‘Is that all there is?’ Maybe that’s the way we’re built, to have this dialogue with our subconscious that’s haunting us.”

Fame has attended certain people since the beginning of recorded time. But maybe, in our media-saturated world, the dilemma has never been so great that a man can belong to the ages but not to himself.