Fresh from spending a long Los Angeles afternoon repeatedly slamming a pimp's face against a metal table on the set of his in-production police thriller, Red Heat, Arnold Schwarzenegger drives to Hollywood in his big red Jeep, strides purposefully through the gaggle of parking lot paparazzi at Spago, eases his large frame into a window seat, orders the duck pizza and a bottle of Evian water for starters and lights up a stogie the size of Rhode Island.
Schwarzenegger doesn't simply smoke his stogie. He hangs out with it for hours at a time. He cradles it gently between thumb and forefinger, drags on it thoughtfully and squints his blue-eyed, butt-kicking squint through the clouds of pungent stogie smoke that drift upward over his finely chiseled cheekbones, seriously bushy eyebrows, prominent forehead and close-cropped brown hair.
Clearly, Schwarzenegger and his stogie are much more than a man and his cigar. Having appeared with him in his last three pictures—Raw Deal, Predator and, his latest, The Running Man—the Schwarzenegger stogie, jammed between the clenched Schwarzenegger teeth, has become as much a part of the Arnold Movie as the need to blow apart as many extras as the budget allows and to punctuate the bloodshed with bons mots. "Give you a lift?" Schwarzenegger asks politely as he flings a prison guard to his death in The Running Man. "Stick around," he sneers as he impales an enemy guerrilla on a tree in Predator.
At 40, Schwarzenegger is a genuine phenom in a town that historically has not treated its musclemen kindly. Hollywood's highway to oblivion is paved with large guys in loincloths, but you're not going to find Schwarzenegger laid out there. He's the first world-class bodybuilder, and one of the few athletes of any kind, who hasn't fallen into the Pit of Laughable Quickies that has gobbled up his heavily biceped predecessors. Remember Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe, two of the early Tarzans? How about Steve Reeves in Hercules, wrestling a supposedly bloodthirsty lion without ever appearing in the same frame with the beast? (Lion, reaction shot of Reeves, lion, reaction shot.) Remember how drowsy the lion looked? Remember Jim Brown, the legendary running back, grimacing his way through turkeys like I Escaped from Devil's Island? How about Fred (Blaxploitation) Williamson in Black Caesar and Black Eye, or Joe Namath as an unconvincing motorcycle-riding hero in C.C. and Company? And how about O.J. Simpson as a doomed astronaut in Capricorn One? Were those guys hoots, or what?
December 7, 1987
The tube has proved kinder than the big screen to thick-thighed thespians. Lou Ferrigno, Schwarzenegger's rival in 1977's cult muscle-movie classic, Pumping Iron, painted himself green and did a few TV seasons as the Incredible Hulk; then in 1983 he made a limp spaghetti Hercules for the silver screen and faded away. Merlin Olsen spent a couple of years as the Big Defensive Tackle on the Prairie; Ed Marinaro and Mike Warren copped some Meeting glory on Hill Street Blues; Fred Dryer continues to blindside evil on Hunter, and Alex Karras is parent to a black sitcom son on Webster. Although Karras showed early dramatic promise by punching out a horse in the Mel Brooks western spoof, Blazing Saddles, none of these guys has ever seriously threatened to make the big leap from jock-actor to major star.
Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, has parlayed his two bare-chested Conan epics of 1982 and '84 into a string of fully clothed box office hits, from The Terminator (Arnold as a murderous cyborg) to Commando (Arnold single-handedly destroys an entire army to rescue his kidnapped daughter) to last summer's Predator (Arnold battles a deranged warthog from outer space).
Like Conan the Barbarian, Predator grossed more than $100 million worldwide while grossing out movie critics in many lands with its emphasis on disembowelment and similar unpleasantness. But years of critical battering have failed to bruise either the Arnold Psyche or the Arnold Box Office. He frames the sharpest taunts and hangs them in his home. One is a review of Schwarzenegger's 1979 cowboy farce The Villain, in which the critic expounds on how the horse is significantly more expressive than its rider.
On the set of Red Heat, writer-director Walter Hill watched a stone-faced Schwarzenegger, who plays a merciless Russian cop, slam that pimp's head into that table with such conviction that even Hill couldn't help flinching. "When you make an Arnold movie," Hill says dryly, "you're not exactly thinking about the refined sensibilities of The New York Times. Know what I mean?"
The Running Man—a futuristic tale of deadly, government-controlled TV game shows in a totalitarian America—opened last month in 1,600 theaters filled with the Arnold-obsessed and, despite the usual critical sneers, immediately became the top-grossing film in the country. Like every Arnold Movie, it was written and packaged specifically to market the Arnold Mystique according to the Arnold Plan that has been carefully orchestrated by Arnold Himself, just the way every step of his sensational bodybuilding career was.
The heart of the Arnold Plan has always been the selling of the Arnold Bod—the 57-inch chest, the 33-inch waist, the 22-inch biceps, the 28-inch thighs. Though it's trimmed down somewhat since Schwarzenegger's unprecedented seven years as Mr. Olympia, the biggest title in bodybuilding, the Arnold Bod still looks like a topographical map of the Rockies: all peaks and valleys and dangerous rock formations and arteries swollen like rivers at flood time. From the late 1960s to the mid-'70s, Schwarzenegger spent seven hours a day, every day, building those mountains, pec by pec, delt by delt, at the gym owned by his lifetime pal Joe Gold in Venice, Calif. Today, he spends an hour a day, every day, maintaining them at Gold's new World Gym in Santa Monica with his lifetime pal Franco Columbu.
"I do not go happily through my day without working out with weights," Schwarzenegger says in deep, guttural, no-nonsense tones. "I have no weights at home. I love going to the gym. I love the gossip with the guys. I don't need to tell my wife, 'Friday night is man's night out,' because I have my man's period of time every morning when I hang out with the guys at the gym."
When he goes on location, Schwarzenegger brings along the equipment that producer Dino De Laurentiis first bought for him to use during the filming of Conan the Barbarian. Sets it up in the hotel. Pumps his daily megadose of iron. He does this because he knows, and has always known, that his muscles are the merchandise, the real thing, the true grit, the main event, the meal ticket. He's big because they're big.
He's big in real estate, too, with a healthy chunk of Denver and a piece of Southern California among his assets. He's smart about money, and very conservative. But nobody's going to pack 1,600 theaters to see Conan the Contrarian or The Running Landlord. No. The muscles are the message. Always have been.
In his Mr. Olympia years, they were displayed naked and oiled and pumped to within an inch of surrealism. Candice Bergen photographed them and Jamie Wyeth painted them. Now, in his Hollywood years, Schwarzenegger covers them up like concealed weapons for long periods of time on screen, which is clever because that creates dramatic tension. You know they're there, biding their time, anxious to crack ribs and crush heads. When Schwarzenegger finally takes the wraps off, you react like his costar Kathryn Harrold did in Raw Deal when she got her first gander at the Arnold Bod and gasped, "Oh, my Gawd!"
Schwarzenegger, a policeman's son, has come about as far as a man can from his childhood home in Graz, Austria, where there was no telephone, no flush toilet, no refrigerator until he was 14. "When it came, I remember, we were all standing around the kitchen looking at it," says Schwarzenegger, who was one of two children, as if describing his first trip to Disneyland. "Then my mother opened it up, and we all stuck our hands in there, and it was cold, and we were freaking out like this was the strangest thing you could imagine. When you have this kind of upbringing, you don't take anything for granted."
He never has. Austria, he says, is a nice place to play a stringed instrument, a nice place to act old and safe and sleepy when you are still young. But it's not for hungry hearts.
So he comes over here in 1968 to compete because his dream is bigger than Austria. He's 21 years old. He has begun major construction on the Arnold Bod because he knows that his idol, Reg Park, started with the body, won a bunch of titles, made a bunch of Hercules movies, parlayed his name recognition into a string of gyms in his native South Africa and walked away with his pockets bulging bigger than his biceps, which were plenty big.
The 1968-model Arnold Arms and Arnold Chest are already massive, and he's working on the calves. He's carrying 250 pounds on a big-boned 6'2" frame. Already, he has a Mr. Europe and a Mr. Universe title under his belt and a head full of Mr. Olympia dreams.
Joe Weider, a muscle-magazine maven with the gift of gab and a lot of vitamins to sell, takes Schwarzenegger under his wing. Talks to him as a father talks to his son. Kid, he says, you got a build on you like Hercules. I've been schmoozing with some movie people. They got a need for a kid with a build on him like Hercules. Let me do the talking.
Schwarzenegger's eyes light up. Back home in Austria, when he wasn't pumping rusted iron and chinning himself on trees, he had spent his formative years watching Hercules Unchained, Hercules in the Haunted World, Hercules and the Captive Women, Hercules Against Rome, Hercules Against the Sons of the Sun, Hercules Against the Moon Men—everything except Hercules Goes Bananas, which happens to be the title of the picture Weider is touting.
"Weider is such a hype artist," Schwarzenegger says appreciatively, while sucking on his stogie, shaking his head and grinning his boyish, gap-toothed grin. "He did all the talking, I was just standing there like an idiot. He tells them, 'This guy's a Shakespearean actor in Europe!' And they believed him."
Schwarzenegger is understandably fuzzy about the plot of the film, which eventually was released with the title Hercules in New York. Something about Hercules being punished by Zeus, being sent to a different time period, landing in Gotham and going bananas. "I didn't speak English well," Schwarzenegger says, laughing. "I didn't understand most of what I was saying. I stepped off the boat and starred in a motion picture. It was crazy."
The film was worth $1,000 a week to Schwarzenegger for 12 weeks. That was not crazy. He invested the money in Southern California real estate, forgot about being Hercules and spent the next several years training religiously, winning Mr. Olympia contests and telling Johnny and Merv how bodybuilding would improve their sex lives.
He admits now that his claims about pumping iron feeling better than sex were part of his strategy—as was everything else he did in those years—to sell bodybuilding to a country that regarded it as more than a little weird. "I broke down what the problems were for the image of bodybuilding," he says coolly. "People believed that you had to take a tremendous amount of pills. People believed that you had to sleep 12 hours a day and never have sex, that you had to be on a severe diet and never eat anything but meat. People believed that the guys were dumb."
So he regaled Johnny and Merv with tales of his prodigious strudel and ice cream consumption, his even more prodigious sexual appetites, his need for only one, two, three hours' sleep a night. "Slowly, with a little made-up story, you package the whole thing, you unleash it onto the public, you make it sound real," he says, "and all of a sudden, it tears down all those barriers, all those things that people were scared of.
"The reality of it was that I never in my life pulled back and felt that I had to alter my life-style, whether it was staying out at night, having sex or eating. So, of course, there was some truth to what I said. But I made it more colorful to get the point across because I had to destroy something that was inbred in America. And I had to undo it in a short period of time."
He did, simultaneously selling Schwarzenegger and bodybuilding to the U.S. public until you could say "Arnold" and everyone knew whom you were talking about. He carved the Arnold Bod down to a svelte, severely cut 235 pounds. He made America say, "Ahhh!" But by 1975, the thrill of annually winning the Mr. Olympia title was gone. Goodbye, oil. Hello, greasepaint.
Like a great ballerina with one more Swan Lake in her aging legs, Schwarzenegger would return dramatically in 1980 just before filming Con an the Barbarian, win the title a final time and then leave competitive bodybuilding for good. But his real swan song had come in 1975.
"The idea was to cut the competition off cold. Boom!" Schwarzenegger says while waiting for a grilled sword-fish steak to follow the dearly departed duck pizza. "To have this energy that wants to reach out and hold on to the attention, the victory, all the things that bodybuilding brought me, but suddenly there is nothing to hold on to and that energy must now be channeled into acting, full-heartedly. Rather than wimp out and say, 'Well, if this doesn't work, I can always go back to bodybuilding.' "
Schwarzenegger hears himself philosophizing, cuts himself off abruptly and explains that he is not the kind of guy who lies around on the sofa at home, brooding. He is, he says, pure action. Do it. If you screw up, so what. Just do it. In other words: Goodbye, beefcakes. Hello, Hollywood.
After starring as himself in Pumping Iron, Schwarzenegger was typecast as a Mr. Olympia hopeful in Stay Hungry and underwent attitude transplant surgery by director Bob Rafelson. "He's the guy who made Jack Nicholson cry in Five Easy Pieces" says Schwarzenegger in soft, awed tones. "I was ripped out of the mentality of being an athlete, where you have to keep the blinders on all the time. I tapped a well that I'd never tapped before.
"I mean, when Sally Field grabs you and holds you and looks in your eyes and gives you that last hug before she leaves you, you believe her. And this shows in your face. And when the camera is close on you, it reads everything. You don't have to act. You just have to be you."
Sure, the Hollywood wits told him, with that thick Austrian accent and that thicker tree trunk of a body, who else can you be on the screen but a Mr. Olympia? Schwarzenegger figured he could be Flash Gordon, so he went to take a meeting with producer Dino De Laurentiis. Trouble was, Schwarzenegger didn't know the rules yet. He had a habit of blurting out whatever came to mind.
"I walked in, and I just kept staring at this desk," Schwarzenegger says. "It was enormous. Antique. Probably from Italy somewhere. And he was standing behind the desk. And only his shoulders and his head stuck out above it. I just couldn't figure it. So I asked him, 'Why does a little man like you need such a big desk?' And he went crazy."
For a guy with a heavy Austrian accent, Schwarzenegger does a pretty good imitation of a guy with a heavy Italian one. Flourishing the stogie in an aggressive manner, he impersonates De Laurentiis shouting angrily, "You have an accent! I cannot use you for Flasha Gordon! Nah! Flasha Gordon has no accent! I cannot use you! Nah!"
Then Schwarzenegger made another mistake. "I said, 'What do you mean, I have an accent? I barely can understand you.' And that was the end of the meeting. Exactly one minute and 40 seconds on the clock. My agent said it was the fastest meeting he ever saw."
Fortunately, Schwarzenegger is a quick study, and De Laurentiis is quick to forgive. When Conan became a De Laurentiis project, Schwarzenegger became Conan. Girded his loins, loined his lines, put in his time on the Wheel of Pain and the Tree of Woe, punched out a camel, bit the head off a vulture, made love to a wench who turned out to be a toothy demon with blue skin, broke off the romance, threw her in the fire and suffered the insane, faux-Nietzschean ramblings of James Earl Jones as the arch-villain, Thulsa Doom.
With $20 million being spent on the Conan production and another $10 million budgeted for promotion, Schwarzenegger was in barbarian hog heaven. "Conan." he says simply, "was God's gift to my career."
After starring in the money-making sequel, Conan the Destroyer, Schwarzenegger was cast as the cyborg in James Cameron's The Terminator. Suddenly and shockingly, it became apparent that just as many people would go to see him clothed as half-naked. "There was something else there," Schwarzenegger says, squinting through the stogie smoke, suddenly looking strangely Sherlock Holmesian. "But they didn't quite know what."
Unfortunately, his deal with De Laurentiis called for five pictures, and the third one was Red Sonja, a sword-and-sorcery bomb of career-threatening proportions that introduced Brigitte Nielsen to an uncaring world. Schwarzenegger sadly admits that he should have listened to Maria Shriver, then his girlfriend, now his wife, who said. "Don't." Out of loyalty to De Laurentiis, who needed a name to sell the picture, Schwarzenegger did.
"It was cheap," he says sadly. "I said, 'Dino, we've got to agree that there will be no more Conan-type movies because I don't think your love lies with Conan.' " De Laurentiis agreed. Red Sonja sank without a trace. Commando was released and immediately became one of the top grossers of 1985. Schwarzenegger had left his loincloth behind forever.
But not his tendency to be a little too spontaneous at meetings. He had a gag in mind to liven up the climactic carnage in Commando. Excited, he met with Larry Gordon, then the president of motion picture production at Twentieth Century Fox, to discuss the scene in which he would cut an enemy soldier's arm off. "Sometimes these stunt guys take five minutes to die" he told Gordon. "So I grab the arm, chop it off. Blood comes out of his side. I'm holding his arm in my hand. He starts screaming, 'Aaaaah! Aaaaah!'
"I think to myself, 'All the other soldiers are going to hear this and come running.' So I yell, 'Shut up!' And on the word 'up,' I hit him over the head with his arm and knock him out. I run. I notice that I'm still holding his arm. I throw it away like it's still moving in my hand. 'Ach!' "
Gordon studied Schwarzenegger for a long, pale moment. "Arnold," he finally said. "Get out."
To this day Schwarzenegger steadfastly maintains the arm gag would have been funny on the screen. "In Terminator, they laughed when I reached into a guy's chest and pulled his guts out," he points out. "I can get away with things that most people can't."
That's true. But no one knows why. "I'm not sure I can explain the phenomenon of Arnold," says Cameron. "When I wrote Terminator, I didn't have a world-class bodybuilder in mind to play the character. Originally, the Terminator was an infiltration unit, capable of being anonymous in a crowd. Arnold is definitely not anonymous in a crowd.
"We cast Arnold because of his impassive, implacable face. His body, his power were things that you hold in the back of your mind throughout the film as a latent sense of great force on tap but not on display. I think people rooted for him because there's some little chittering demon down in the back of everyone's mind that would like to be him for about 10 minutes, to go in and talk to the boss without using the doorknob."
Every time one of his movies opens, Schwarzenegger pays serious attention to the audience surveys, trying to pinpoint what people like about him. So The Running Man comes out and they take the surveys and Schwarzenegger gets a call from executive producer Keith Barish. "Keith tells me that this picture elicited by far the largest percentage of female enthusiasm of all my pictures," Schwarzenegger says proudly. "So I ask him how they answered the question, What do you like about Arnold? And he tells me that many women wrote down, 'He has a cute ass.' "
"I said, 'Thanks a lot, Keith. That's really helpful. Now I know which direction to take with my next movie.' "
He laughs the Arnold Laugh and puffs the Arnold Stogie and then drives the Arnold Jeep home to Maria in Pacific Palisades. Tomorrow morning, he'll wake up early, play on the beach with his Labrador retrievers, Conan and Strudel, and drive to Santa Monica to work out with his lifetime pal Franco Columbu at his lifetime pal Joe Gold's gym. Then he'll head for work in L.A., bust a few heads, quip a few quips and cause Red Heat director Hill to sigh and say, "He's more than an actor. He's a natural force."
He's an Arnold kind of guy in an Arnold kind of world. On screen and off, he's literally larger than life. On screen and off, there's simply no stopping him.