Q: You keep your nose pretty clean these days. What’s your secret to long-term survival?
A: I believe an artist dies twice. The first time, it’s just terrible—I’ve been there when the phone isn’t ringing for years. I’m grateful for Rocky Balboa, because I don’t think it could have happened five years ago. But the most important thing is not to implode. People go from the mountain into the valley and click into that dark, reptilian part of their brain and self-destruct. I see it all the time—people get frail, they get depressed, the light goes out. There’s no cure for it other than a physical diversion. I don’t care whether it’s golf, running, or weight lifting.
Q: What advice would you give Mel Gibson if you had him over to smoke a Fuente?
A: Um . . . ride a bicycle?
Q: You’ve long wanted to shed your action-hero image—so why a sixth Rocky, why Rambo IV?
A: Times change. Ten years ago, everything had a different feel. When I said I wanted to do this film, I got the reaction I expected, with insults on every talk show: Bill Maher, Conan, Jay Leno. I get that, because that’s what the story’s about. Rocky has this incredible grief inside, and he can only work it out physically—it’s got nothing to do with glory. Rocky Balboa’s about dealing with the last half of your life, about grief, after your spouse dies and your daily routine changes drastically. And everything hurts a little more in the ring, but what you lose in speed you make up in wisdom and will. With Rambo I wanted a story about psychology and truth, with a hero who’s always in denial. A lot of guys don’t want to admit that they have a propensity for generosity and for violence. Rambo’s spent 15 years in Thailand, where just over the border in Myanmar, you see probably the most profound human atrocities on the planet: crucifixions, people being buried alive, farmers’ houses getting burned to the ground. Missionaries go there all the time, but you can’t depend on the U.S. government to get them out. That’s how Rambo gets drawn into this heart of darkness.
Q: You were down to your last hundred bucks when you sold the first Rocky script. Should kids try this at home?
A: No doubt about it. You’re going to fight a lot of wars, and lose some, but success comes when you least expect it. You might not nail it this time, but three years later someone comes up to you at a party and says, “I just read this old draft.“
Q: Which is harder: boxing or filmmaking?
A: Nothing’s harder than writing. There’s no comparison. With directing you can bounce a lot of ideas around. There’s tremendous support—you’ve got editors and sound mixers. With writing it’s all you, and it’s just crippling when people tear up your pages.
Q: How about writing or quitting smoking?
A: I can’t quit smoking. I switched to cigars.
Q: Before you started shooting the first Rocky, you rode the rails from L.A. to Philadelphia with your flatulent, constipated, 125-pound bullmastiff, Butkus. Was this a highlight or a lowlight of your life?
A: Standing on a platform in Arizona, trying to appeal to his doggishness, trying to get his inner dog to do a dog doo, I realized I had no ability to be a dog trainer. Once we got to Chicago, we’re standing in the gutter in the rain, and his sphincter’s getting tighter than a vacuum lock on a sub. You could use him as a flotation device. People could see me squeezing him like a tube of toothpaste. Finally, off the train in Philly, he paused, dug a little with his foot, backed onto a lawn, and evacuated enough feces to build a pyramid reaching up to his anus.
Q: Who throws the meanest hook: Mr. T, Dolph Lundgren, Carl Weathers, or Estelle Getty?
A: Hulk Hogan. I thought, How athletic can this guy be? But he crushed me. I crumbled like a box of graham crackers. I literally thought I was dead. I didn’t want to look at my chest, because I thought I’d see my heart beating on his calves.
Q: When was the last time you ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art?
A: I’m a complete turtle. I take my legs out of mothballs just for films.
Q: You were born within an hour of President Bush. Has he seen the Rambo movies?
A: Oh, my god! Can you imagine? Rambo wouldn’t be part of the War on Terror—there’s something in him that requires him to die in a blaze of glory. You know, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s a really good friend of mine, and we were talking literally yesterday about how there’s no such thing as a pure Republican, or a pure left of left. There’s great logic and wisdom in both parties. You have to embrace pet projects. Arnold didn’t do that in the beginning, and that was a big problem. You can’t be too insular. I think he’s turned out to be an excellent politician.
Q: If you ran for governor, would people stop thinking of you as a founder of Planet Hollywood?
A: No! I’m proud of that! “Two burgers in every garage!“
Q: Hey, not bad. Do people know you’re funny?
A: How do I phrase this? With a lot of comedians, one of their major attributes is that they look comedic, with a certain hangdog or manic expression. I look like the neighborhood bully. That doesn’t elicit laughter.
Q: What does an original Stallone oil painting fetch on the open market?
A: My last painting went for $75,000, which was about $74,500 too much. It was a portrait of Leonardo as a ghost, an image like a psychedelic Shroud of Turin. A painting only a relative would appreciate.
Q: What’s your tombstone going to say? And don’t mention Planet Hollywood.
A: “Join me! It’s warm down here.“