On the walls are paintings by Monet, in the formal living room is a sculpture by Rodin. And the inhabitant of the house, which is nestled at the tip of Santa Monica Canyon, is in the midst of a dissertation on the deductive reasoning process of Edgar Allan Poe.

But wait, what's this? A life-size painting of a boxer by the prince of high tack, LeRoy Neiman?

Could this be the home of the man who once said of himself, "My temperature was higher than my combined SAT scores?"

Meet Sylvester Stallone. He is seated in his billiard room wearing a tightly knit, cream-colored sweater, dark sweat pants and boxer's shoes. And muscles. Muscles everywhere.

"I dress for everything," he says, fingering the small gold boxing glove dangling from his gold chain necklace. "Ski lifts, boxing, track and field."

Nearby, in the trophy room, are his prizes: the Best Picture Oscar for "Rocky" and a Gold Record for the film's sound track.

And not far away live his soon-to-be ex-wife Sasha and their two children.

"This is just one of those things where you can't live with 'em, and you can't live without 'em," says Stallone, 38, after 10 years of marriage. "But you can live down the street from 'em."

He adds seriously, "I thought it was done right this time, because there was no third party involved. This was just a parting of the ways."

On the surface he seems content, at ease. But the surface is easily scratched.

"There is a certain unrest in me," he says, "no matter what I have acquired materialistically.

"It rises up sometimes and it's very hard for me to control. It's almost a manic energy, followed by extreme quiet and peace. And then it comes up again, and I'll work like crazy . . . for instance, tonight I'll be boxing until 1 in the morning."

Why does he work so hard?

"I don't know if it's that fear of not being able to live up to my own expectations. Or fear that I'm going to let the people down." His voice drops to a whisper. "I just know I never really say, 'God I have arrived. I've made it.' "

He motions toward his posh surroundings, encircled by an imposing, fortresslike wall. "I look at this and I say I'm basically renting space. This is nice, but it will all someday belong to someone else. This is not permanent. It's transitory.

"What is permanent is what I can build -- what I will make. That will last. This is someone else's creation, someone else's art, someone else's brilliance. I can't sit and dote on it, I've got to do something, too. So in some ways, this is an enticement for me to work even harder."

His smile is uneasy.

"Strange, huh?"

His restlessness drives him to work. "Like dominoes, my projects are all lined up," he says.

First, "Rambo: First Blood Part II," in which Stallone, as embittered Vietnam vet John Rambo, does battle with Vietnamese and Russian forces as he attempts to rescue American MIAs. It's the sequel to the 1983 "First Blood," and brings Stallone back to "action-adventure" following his attempt at comedy last year in the spectacular failure "Rhinestone," with Dolly Parton. ("Rambo" opens today.) And as if to herald the macho man's homecoming with special flair, he's bare-chested through most of the movie and its sweat-soaked scenes.

And then a return to Rocky, the character who began bringing in the piles of money that bought this house (Daily Variety says box-office rentals for the first three "Rocky" films are in excess of $163 million). For the fourth round, the Italian Stallion enters the arena of international politics. "He'll fight a Russian and, just like the Russian, he'll be a pawn," says Stallone, who cowrote and is now directing it. (It's due out next Christmas.)

Further in the future is "Over the Top," an arm-wrestling saga, followed by "The Executioner," based on a series of books by Don Pendleton about a mercenary character who, like Rambo, is short on talk and big on action.

"I'm starting to find that many characters overlap the Rambo character. If I play anything silent and straightforward, it's going to be compared to the Rambo character. The same thing happened with 'Rocky.' After 'Rocky,' everything I acted in was more or less Rocky joins the union, Rocky goes to New York, Rocky goes to Paris. Now Rambo is a very accessible handle. It's no problem . . .

"It's frustrating when the public won't accept you in new kinds of roles. But it's also a real lesson."

Unlikely as it now seems, Sylvester Stallone was supposed to star in both "The Cotton Club" and "Beverly Hills Cop."

"I don't think Robert Evans had his product 'The Cotton Club' come out the way he wanted," says Stallone. "I'm sorry about that -- but I don't think I could have helped it either."

And he doubts that "Beverly Hills Cop" would have been the blockbuster it is had he starred in it. "I had rewritten the script in a heavier thriller tone -- which worked for me.

"To play that character, you needed someone who is vulnerable. You have to believe that you could throw him through a window and that he wouldn't come back and raise havoc. It would have been a little hard for people who have seen me as Rambo to buy that. So I thought for all intents and purposes it would hurt the film if I did it . . .

"And I have no regrets. Because here it is making $200 million with Eddie Murphy. And it may have been a total disaster for me."

His heart -- and, doubtless, box-office tallies -- tells him that audiences prefer him in visceral roles.

"The day I start thinking about a part -- intellectualizing about a part -- I know that I'm in the wrong movie. The last thing I need in a film role is a lot of analyzing. For me, it's got to be emotional. It's all got to come from here," he says and places his hand over his heart.

As a director, Stallone also opts for visual punch.

"For the 'Rocky' films it's chop-chop-chop-chop, chop-chop-chop-chop. It's almost like a diced salad. You have to keep it going."

When he employed a similar frenetic pace in directing "Staying Alive," with John Travolta, "The critics said, 'Why is it that he cut every time John moved his leg?' I cut because it made him move faster. I mean, he's not Nureyev. That's what made the scenes dramatic. One second here, another second there."

"Staying Alive" did not leave the critics laughing. "Oh, they hated it. People came up to me and said, 'Why were you so skewered? Why were you so attacked?' I told them, pick a number."

Critical reaction to the "Rocky" sequels has been equally uneasy. "I understand the critics' dilemma -- I really do. But the critic should also understand the actor's dilemma. His job is to convey what he's feeling inside, to the largest number of people. They call it commerciality. I call it communication.

"I could go out and make a film that no one goes to see -- a film that is hard-edged, insightful, painful, controversial. But I would rather do something that is meaningful to the masses."

Then again, Stallone admits, there have been times when the press has had every right to chastise him -- particularly in the years following his initial success.

"I was extremely outspoken about other actors, about politics, about anything. Any subject they brought up -- thermal energy, capital punishment -- I was a regular Mr. Wizard. I should have stuck with what I knew best. Instead, I became an authority on everything and a specialist in nothing. Oh, God, anything they asked me, any subject . . .

"I expect that my career will kind of always be controversial. Because the way I came into the business was what you'd call off the wall."

He discovered acting while attending a suburban Philadelphia high school for troubled boys. In college, at the University of Miami, he played Biff in "Death of a Salesman," and excelled at unexceptional scholastic achievement. With only three credits needed to graduate, he quit and headed for New York. Endless auditions followed, as did a soft-core porn film, "A Party at Kitty and Studs" (since retitled "The Italian Stallion" and available on videocassette).

"Oh, it was so bad. All that baby oil and tin foil. It was just the lowest." The Age of Aquarius being what it was, Stallone was also nude in the off-off-Broadway shows "Picasso's Desire" and "Score."

"This was back when 'the revolution' was coming. After Woodstock. Everyone had to take their clothes off to show that they were free. Well, I was free all right -- free and cold. But hey, at the time, $30 a week was big money for me.

"So I did it and you know, I look back on it and I'm glad in some ways that I did . . . To come from where I came from, as low down as I came from, as far behind the eight ball . . . and finally to be put in a position where I am, to have 'Rockys' and 'Rambos' and films of that quality, I can say that I have run the total gamut in this business. I haven't missed a bump or a pothole on the road to success."

Some of those bumps have accumulated into a history of battles with directors he has known, including a famous bout with Norman Jewison during the filming of "F.I.S.T." and more recently with Ted Kotcheff on "First Blood," and they began shortly after he became only the third man to be nominated for Oscars for both screenplay and acting (following Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles) for the Best Picture-winner, "Rocky."

"I'm basically a writer who interprets his own work," says Stallone, who has a penchant for rewriting scripts (including those of "F.I.S.T.," "Rhinestone" and "Rambo"), and for giving directors advice.

"Well, you know, you have to have an ego to survive. If the ego is in the best interest of the product, then I think it's a good ego. If the battle is over a bigger dressing room or a name above the title -- and in 'Rocky' my name is underneath the title -- then to me it's not worth the fight. But if 50 extras are cut out of a scene and I think they're important to it, I'll voice my opinion. Therefore, I get a reputation as being 'difficult.' "

There is a gym just beyond the huge swimming pool, which is where the man who failed his physical exam for the draft works out every day.

"It seemed incredible -- right?" says Stallone of that failure. "Here I was, lifting weights and in great shape. I thought, here I go." But the doctors felt otherwise. As Stallone tells it, he once fell asleep ("after drinking too much") into a speaker "about the size of a small cave" at a Canned Heat concert. "And I woke up after the concert and my hearing was off."

During the height of the U.S. involvement with Vietnam, Stallone was a college student. "I was caught in the middle of the controversy. I was really confused by it. But I never, ever believed for a second all that baby-killer dialogue."

His hearing may still be problematic, but his body is another story. Those muscles didn't come from sitting around.

"I started training for 'Rocky IV ' in the last two weeks of filming 'Rambo.' That makes 14 straight months of training . 'Rocky' demands endurance, being able to take the punishment in the ring, because there are a lot of actual blows being thrown.

"The training has come almost to the point of being detrimental to my health. What happens is that the body begins to break down faster than it can heal. You look good on the outside, but on the inside your blood sugar is dropping to dangerous levels. It's very serious. You can cause irreparable damage." With a sigh he adds, "If I can just get through this movie, then I won't have to train like this again."

As Rambo he has no physical impairments -- excluding extensive body scars. And if Rambo looks likely to become his patriotic alter ego, Rocky is his persistent shadow. For years, he tried to shake the public's confusion between him and his creation. Now he talks about him as he might a favorite son -- or at least a favorite sparring partner.

"Where Rambo wants to die, Rocky is looking forward to life. He's more difficult to play because the outcome of the 'Rocky' films is a foregone conclusion. You know he's gonna fight again -- that he's gonna win. So I try to create for him a real dilemma -- the fear of loss and disgrace. We all identify with that.

"You know, Rocky is incredibly ethical -- to the point where it's almost impossible to live by his code, which is total self-sacrifice, self-effacement. To him, life is a comedy. He never takes it too seriously. He's like the Charlie Chaplin character. If it hurts, he'll just spin his boxing gloves and walk into the horizon, and try to do his best.

"He doesn't stay down for long. He really isn't a complainer, despite the pain he has to endure. And I think that's the message. Nothing comes easy for him. Everything is hard. He's not fast, he's not strong, he's not big, he's not overly intelligent, he's not supercoordinated. What he is is willing to go to the edge of disaster -- to stand on the brink and look death in the eye. He's willing to prove his heart.

"I believe we are born with a certain character -- our colors, our stripes, our spots. We can dress any way we want, we can assume any accent we want or any posture. But the fact is, you cannot change your character. You may tell me you're a lion, but underneath you may be a wolf. Rocky has tried so much to assume this country gentleman demeanor. The tie, the jacket, the coiffed hair. But underneath, he is still a gladiator. People know this."

So what if some people cry uncle when they hear that Rocky is coming back again. That doesn't bother Stallone, the picture of restless contentment, one bit.

"I'm going back to what I know is safe, high ground," he says. "It's what I think the audience enjoys watching me doing -- and what I enjoy doing."

And then there is that dissertation on Poe. Among Stallone projects yet to be finalized is the filming of his pre-"Rocky" script (penned in 1971) about Edgar Allan Poe's life.

He raises his voice dramatically when discussing his longtime passion for Poe. "They always portray him as some stumbling drug addict. But that's wrong. He was a man who was so brilliant that he unhinged himself. I mean he was just extraordinarily gifted. The man created the mystery story. He was the last word in syllogism.

"You know how that works? If you've logically gone through every conceivable possible combination of a mystery over who is guilty, whatever remains is the answer. That's a deductive logical process. That's syllogism."

And that's Stallone.