The throngs of photographers have been warned. ''Please stand back from the table,'' scolds the curator of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. ''These are national treasures.'' Is he talking about Susan B. Anthony's shawl? Or maybe Thomas Jefferson's Bible? Not quite. On this December morning, the man at the podium is referring to the Stars and Stripes trunks that Sylvester Stallone wore while knocking out Mr. T in 1982's Rocky III.
Even Stallone seems surprised by the ''national treasures'' line. Seated in front of the table displaying his trunks, red boxing gloves, and other Rocky memorabilia, the actor turns to his wife of nine years, Jennifer Flavin, and gives her a happy, if-you-say-so shrug.
''It's like, come on really?'' he says later, leaning back in a plush armchair at a Washington, D.C., hotel. ''I went, Wow. You are a lucky man.''
Stallone is hoping more luck or at least goodwill is headed his way. Thirty years after his scrappy southpaw boxer from Philadelphia first entered the ring with Apollo Creed, the actor, now 60, is going one more round in Rocky Balboa (Dec. 20). In the series' sixth (and final at least for now) chapter, the Italian Stallion is a lonely retiree/restaurant owner grieving the death of his beloved Adrian (Talia Shire). When an opportunity comes to fight the current champ (played by professional boxer Antonio Tarver), he takes it, hoping to purge himself of his heavyweight emotional baggage. ''I thought the character had something to say,'' explains Stallone, who wrote, directed, produced, and stars in the movie. ''Which I guess means that I had something to say.''
Stallone is the first to admit that Balboa, with its themes of aging and letting go of the past, is the most autobiographical Rocky movie since the original in 1976. ''When you get older, you get less of a forum to speak. It's like, 'Oh, you had your moment, time to move on,''' explains Stallone, who spent part of his childhood on the same mean Philly streets as Rocky. (He now lives in L.A. with Flavin and their three young daughters.) ''I am a has-been, no question. But that doesn't mean you can't still contribute.'' The star's don't-count-me-out-yet determination appealed to Joe Roth, president of Revolution Studios, which cofinanced the $24 million project: ''The script was a perfect metaphor for Stallone's life at 60, he becomes an underdog again.'' Roth also enjoyed seeing Stallone, after years of trying to break free of Rocky typecasting, embrace the beast. ''This character is an expression of his own heart. Rather than fight it, he's using it to tell us how he feels.''
Of course, a cynic might wonder if he simply feels hungry to revive his glory days. After Rocky earned him Oscar nods for acting and writing (in addition to winning Best Picture), the muscly actor with the droopy eyes became the face of 1980s action flicks with the hit Rambo trilogy. By 1994, he was Hollywood's highest-paid performer, with a $20 million-plus per-picture fee. But then, his movies started tanking: Judge Dredd, Assassins, Daylight. And while critics praised his understated turn in 1997's gritty indie Cop Land, the projects that followed, like the racing drama Driven, failed to connect with audiences. ''This is not intended, by any means, to jockey for some kind of newfound fame. I swear to you,'' Stallone says. He's always wanted to right the wrong that was 1990's Rocky V, which found the former champ brain-damaged, broke, and reduced to street fighting. (It grossed just $41 million, compared with the combined $447 mil of the other four.) ''It didn't even belong in the series,'' he sighs. ''The fans, that's what I felt bad about. Everyone says, 'I hate the fifth one!''' And so, even if Balboa fails to become a gigantic hit a national treasure, if you will he's content that creatively, at least, ''the character jogs off into the sunset with a little bit of nobility.''
As for Stallone, who has built his career on sculpting his body into he-man contours, growing older hasn't been easy. ''I can identify with the Tin Man before he gets the oilcan a little creaky,'' jokes the actor, who still works out ''about three times a week.'' But when he'll muscle his way into a fourth Rambo movie, as he previously announced, is now ''up in the air.'' Nailing down that kind of story in this war-torn era, he explains, ''is very precarious. People are sensitive.'' What he'd love to do is direct the Edgar Allen Poe biopic he wrote more than 30 years ago. No, he wouldn't star in it he'll happily stay off camera now. ''There's only so much you can do as an actor at a certain age,'' he notes. So could the AARP Rocky be his last onscreen performance? Borrowing a line from the Italian Stallion, he says: ''I gotta go out the way I gotta go out.''
My Brilliant Career
Yo, Sly! Tell us about coming full circle.
''Few characters can say things that are so naive but, in his world, profound.''
First Blood 1982
''I was having an out-of-body experience. I never did any of those [comedies]. It was my alien double.''
''It's almost medieval, the way he approaches warfare,'' Stallone says of the Nam vet.
Rocky IV 1985
''The only one that was really about the fight.'' Because, you know, Rocky helped end the Cold War.
Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot 1992
Cop Land 1997
He gained 40 pounds for ''one of my favorites.''
Spy Kids 3-D... 2003
''For the kids. I had a great time with director Robert Rodriguez.''
The Contender TV 2005