“Rocky Balboa” and “John Rambo” never pulled any punches, and neither does the man who created two of America’s most enduring action heroes. Even when the talk turns to the human growth hormone (HGH) he was convicted of having in Australia last year, Sylvester “Sly” Stallone doesn’t blink.
“I wish it were true that you could take something like that and get in shape,” the movie icon told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer on Friday in New York.
He was in town to pump his new movie, “Rambo IV,” opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, Jan. 25. Outtakes from the film show the action hero with muscles still bulging, his relatively unlined face mocking his 61 years.
It begs the question, Lauer said, of whether Stallone takes HGH, a drug frequently mentioned in connection with professional athletes, to get that pumped look for his movies.
More from TODAY.com
TODAY's Takeaway: Savannah overshares; Billy Crystal brings '700 Sundays' to TV
- 'You helped me': After 23 years, Desert Storm veteran thanks pen pals
- Alan Thicke: 'I have a better body' than Homer Simpson'
- Kids scared of the Easter Bunny? Well, look at him!
- 'We are not equipped for this': Tamron, Willie face off against animals
- TODAY's Takeaway: Savannah overshares; Billy Crystal brings '700 Sundays' to TV
Stallone said there’s no magic potion to build the physique that has helped carry him to great wealth and fame. “If that were the case, everyone would be a superhuman being,” he said.
“You have to put in years and years and years of hard labor to stay in shape,” Stallone went on. “The most important thing about HGH — and I think more people should be aware of this — is it really takes off the wear and tear that your body takes. The power to recuperate is very, very limited. So all it does is expedite.”
Although associated with sports, HGH is said to be very popular in Hollywood among stars trying to stave off the effects of age. Doctors in anti-aging clinics also prescribe it because of its reported ability to add thickness and elasticity to skin, improve vision, and make it easier to recover after physical exercise — a big advantage for athletes and bodybuilders.
And, apparently, for action heroes.
In the fourth installment of the Rambo series, Stallone storms through the jungles of a cinematic Myanmar — he calls it by its former name, Burma — like a man half his age, killing the bad guys and rescuing a group of missionaries who are being held by the murderous regime that has waged war against its citizens for decades.
“Rambo III” had been a critical and financial flop, what Stallone called a “vanity project” that had the hero in Afghanistan 20 years ago when the Soviets were still occupying that country. Two years ago, Stallone had brought the “Rocky” series to a conclusion with the sixth film in that series. He wanted to do the same for Rambo, and he didn’t want it to be a formula piece.
“I thought, ‘Let me be a little responsible. Let’s do something that’s actually happening,’ ” he said.
“I just felt right now this is a great story,” he told Lauer. “No one knows about Burma. Burma is a horrendous situation ... It’s the longest-running civil war in the world — 60 years against these peasants — and it’s horrifying. It isn’t just a civil war. This is torture, beheadings, cannibalism, buried-alive children — it’s the most horrific situation on the planet.”
In the movie, a disillusioned Rambo has moved to the wilds of Thailand in Southeast Asia near the Myanmar border.
“It’s the same thing that happens with a lot of policemen or military people that thought they were going to change the world,” he said. “They realize their entire life has been a waste, that war is natural, peace is an accident. They feel bitter, estranged.”
Rambo has responded by moving away from everyone and everything.
“He’s in isolation. He’s in a purgatory, almost a hermit,” Stallone said. “He’s atheistic, he’s cold, he’s completely out of touch — spiritually, physically.”
He’s hired by a group of missionaries to take them into Myanmar/Burma. After he returns, the village where the missionaries are staying is overrun by government troops, who go on a rampage of torture and murder.
The violence is stomach-churning, and it’s meant to be. “It should be tough to watch,” he told Lauer. “If you don’t turn a couple of times during the film, I really failed.”
Rambo is hired to rescue the surviving missionaries, and takes a small group into the jungle to accomplish the task against a small army.
The missionaries’ plight awakens something inside Rambo. “A spark,” Stallone calls it, “this last vestige of optimism — ‘If I can get these people out alive, maybe I have done something with my life.’ ”
Lauer didn’t ask Stallone what’s next on his agenda, but the star volunteered after the HGH discussion that he did have something he’d like to do.
“You’re looking kind of physical yourself,” he teased Lauer, who just hit the big five-oh. “I’m doing a blood test on you immediately after the show.”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints