The Man Inside the Muscles : From Mr. Universe to Mr. Hollywood--How Arnold Schwarzenegger got the last laugh
In the portable gym that he had set up in an empty office here on the Churubusco Studios lot, the star goes through his daily regimen of bench presses, squats, curls and sit-ups with a sort of ritualistic joy. His muscles bulge, his veins expand like small hoses under his skin, his face goes taut as he strains against the weights.
Moments later, at the mobile home that serves as his office and daytime living quarters on the lot, he grips a fork in one hand and a knife in the other--European style--and attacks a purplish log that his cook identifies as rouladen , a baked German dish made by wrapping a minute steak around meat loaf that has a dill pickle buried inside and lathering the whole thing with cabbage sauce.
There are cracks of thunder, and raindrops begin to slap noisily against the surface of the adjacent swimming pool where the star does laps each day after 40 minutes on his Lifecyle exercise bike. In the high altitude, the August air is suddenly cool, and he pulls a heavy, loose-fitting beige sweater over his head and drops it, like a canvas bag, over the bulk assets of Oak Productions. (The company’s name comes “from when they called me the Austrian Oak,” he says. “I throw in a lot of names from early in my career.”)
A telephone rings inside the trailer, and a fax machine begins to purr out the information he’s been talking about--Daily Variety’s box-office chart for the weekend of Aug. 4-6. He begins reading it carefully, commenting as he goes. “You were right, ‘Lethal Weapon’ is over $100 million,” he says. “It will do $125 million, maybe $130 million. . . . Sly’s movie didn’t open. It will do $25 million max. . . . “
The interviewee is now asking the questions. Why did Stallone’s film, “Lock Up,” open so weakly? Did the studio not promote it because they knew it would bomb, or did it bomb because it wasn’t promoted? Is it true that audiences had booed the trailer? What’s going on with “The Abyss”?
“The thing I like about doing publicity during long productions like this is that I can catch up on gossip with journalists,” the star says, flashing a gap-toothed smile that could light some of the shadowy sets of “Total Recall,” the film he is here to do.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has reason to smile, and it figures that he would have one of the biggest, brightest smiles on the planet. The boy who said he wanted to become a world bodybuilding champion grew into a man who wanted to become one of the world’s biggest movie stars, and he got it all. At 20, he was Mr. Universe. At 42, he is Mr. Hollywood, which is even bigger.
To call him “muscleman Schwarzenegger” is redundant. The name, an exercise in itself, has become synonymous with physical strength and power. He is the modern Charles Atlas, Hercules with a cigar, and if you look right above his head you’ll see that he has the world on his shoulders. His muscles, marketed by his equally well-exercised brain, have made a multimillionaire of him and low foreheads (his term for fools) of his detractors. When Schwarzenegger, speaking in an accent thick enough to trap flies, first appeared on the screen, his family could hear the laughter all the way back in Graz, Austria. But nobody’s laughing now.
Schwarzenegger has become his own multifaceted industry with assets estimated by his associates at more than $40 million. He owns several companies, has real estate investments in California and Colorado and numerous fitness-related programs, and, if the deal can be worked out, he will soon be setting up a chain of Arnold Schwarzenegger gyms in the Soviet Union. In the spirit of glasnost and good health, the Soviets came to him.
As a movie star, his appeal is international. His two “Conan” films were worldwide hits in the early ‘80s and helped launch a flurry of lesser sword-and-sorcery movies. Since then, he has scored big with such action pictures as “Commando,” “The Terminator” and “Predator,” and last Christmas he kept up laugh for laugh with Lilliputian funnyman Danny DeVito in the hugely successful comedy “Twins.” During the 1980s, his films grossed $1 billion worldwide.
These days, Schwarzenegger commands as much contractual power as Sylvester Stallone or Eddie Murphy. He is reportedly being paid $10 million plus a percentage of profits for “Total Recall,” and was given approval over the director, the script, the cast and much of the marketing.
The film, an interplanetary thriller set 100 years in the future, went into production in Mexico City in March. In June, top executives from Tri-Star and Columbia, the merging studios that will release “Total Recall” next summer, were summoned to Churubusco by Schwarzenegger and briefed on both the production and the star’s plans for selling it.
“I insisted on it,” he says. “I want them to think they’re part of the project. If they feel they’re part of it, they’ll go all out for the movie.” As for his involvement in marketing, “I want to be part of it. I know enough about it, and they know I know enough about it.”
Schwarzenegger’s marriage three years ago to NBC news personality Maria Shriver, following an eight-year courtship, answered the Neiman Marcus question, “What do you get for the man who has everything?” The marriage made Arnold an in-law of the Kennedy clan and ended one of Hollywood’s most active bachelorhoods. The couple have an 8,000-square-foot home in Malibu, where their bicoastal schedules have allowed them to get together at least often enough to do some family planning. Their first child--the “Schwarzenshriver,” Arnold calls it--is due to be released in December.
But is he happy? Does a shark like seafood?
“If I wasn’t happy, I would be an idiot,” he says. “Look at the life I live.”
Follow Arnold Schwarzenegger around for a couple of days and you’ll observe someone who knows exactly how much space he’s taking up--both physically and as a star. He is 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs 210, down 40 pounds of high-maintenance muscle from the days when he was winning the Mr. Universe title five times and Mr. Olympia seven. But he looks bigger, certainly wider, than other men of his height and weight. He has the thick neck and sloping simian shoulders that, even beneath the baggy sweater, give away those thousands of hours of weight training.
On the set, Schwarzenegger jokes almost constantly and teases everyone from his co-stars to the Mexican extras and stage hands. The teasing is blunt, sometimes vulgar and often awkward (a Mexican stunt woman blushes, then laughs with everyone else when Schwarzenegger makes a pointed reference to the alignment of her breasts), but you can’t find anyone on this set who doesn’t profess liking him.
“He teases everybody, and the more vulnerable they get, the more he goes for it,” says Rachel Ticotin, who plays Arnold’s Mars-based girlfriend in “Total Recall.” “He has so much warmth, nobody really takes it personally. No matter what he says, or what he’s attacking, it’s OK. He’s harmless.”
Screenwriter and co-producer Ronald Shusett, who was awakened from an afternoon nap on the set one day by ice water poured on his crotch by the star, says Schwarzenegger’s locker-room humor has kept nerves from getting frayed on a grueling, 20-week location shoot: “This is the sort of project where everybody can be on each other’s nerves, and Arnold seems to know just when to crack a joke to keep things loose.”
Veteran production manager Elliot Schick, who began his career near the end of the Hollywood studio system, calls Arnold “the nicest star I’ve worked with since Barbara Stanwyck.”
Occasionally, the star can also act the part of a bully. When a production assistant circulated a flyer announcing the time and place of the obligatory wrap party, Arnold had a few choice words for the producer who had made the arrangements at an inexpensive restaurant 40 minutes from the center of town (“Getting the cheapest deal is in keeping with the way he’s operated all along,” he said), then vowed to throw a wrap party of his own and “see which one draws the biggest crowd.” (The producer’s party was eventually canceled, and Arnold named the place.)
During one of his frequent forays with crew members into the mariachi and flamenco clubs of Mexico City’s night life, Schwarzenegger badgered a non-drinking friend until she agreed to hoist a few tequilas with the rest of them. As Arnold recalled the story, between spasms of laughter, the woman was somewhere between her fourth and sixth drinks when she turned to a crew member sitting next to her and threw up on his chest.
“Arnold has that streak in him, he loves to goad people into doing things that embarrass them,” said one “Total Recall” crew member. “He can be relentless at getting people to do what he wants them to.”
The portrait that some of Schwarzenegger’s co-workers paint of him is that of a classic hail-fellow-well-met, a gregarious people person who enjoys spinning tales and knocking back drinks with friends. The actor boasted to a reporter that he can quaff 15 tequilas in an evening without becoming drunk or hung over, a cardiovascular blessing that he attributes to his bulk and conditioning. But his system failed him recently when about half that many drinks sent him crawling woozily to bed with his clothes still on.
“I only had 7 or 8 tequilas, but I’d been taking antibiotics for a sore throat and they really hit me.”
Such big evenings are rare for him, he says: “At home, I have one glass of wine with dinner, and nothing with lunch. I have my schnapps here or there. On location, things are a little different. Every so often, there’s an occasion to go to a drinking place where you can have some fun.”
Schwarzenegger admits that part of his hang-loose style on the set is calculated. “The best thing you can do is have a good atmosphere on the set,” he says. “Everyone works really hard and it’s more fun.” The closest he ever came to experiencing tension with another actor was with Carl Weathers during the making of “Predator” in Puerto Vallarta. He says Weathers complained about the looseness on the set and was particularly put off by the cigar smoke that seemed to billow like a bad day in Los Angeles around Arnold’s head.
“He said, ‘I can’t concentrate with cigar smoke,’ Arnold says. “Later, Carl asked me for a cigar. He said, ‘I’ll just chew on it.’ He did that for a couple of days, then lit it up. Pretty soon, everybody was smoking cigars. The jungle was full of cigar smoke.”
Schwarzenegger has little patience for temperamental actors or stars who take their work too seriously or go off the clock as soon as filming ends. He sees publicity and promotion as investments in his own future and manipulates those opportunities as carefully as he would his stock portfolio.
“A lot of actors don’t understand why it’s important to spend a week in Europe and travel around and make a name for yourself. They don’t know why it’s important to get a little background on France and its current situation so when you do interviews (with French journalists), you can talk about their country, let them feel you have an interest in them.”
Bob Rafelson, who directed him in the 1977 “Stay Hungry,” said Schwarzenegger was always aggressive when it came to selling himself.
“When we had screenings of ‘Stay Hungry,’ Arnold would literally wait by the door and introduce himself to people walking out,” says Rafelson. “He would say, ‘Hi, I’m Arnold Schwarzenegger, do you want to talk to me?’ ”
Schwarzenegger, who has mastered English slang if not the grammar, uses an anal colloquialism to describe actors who “think this craft of acting makes the world go around. They’re pseudo-intellectuals who talk about (bleep) they have no idea about. I think, ‘God, I hope I don’t have to work with people like that in my life.’ ”
Because of his size and accent, characters have had to be carefully tailored for Schwarzenegger. Fittingly, for a guy whose idol was English bodybuilder-actor Reg Park, Arnold’s first role came in a TV movie called “Hercules Goes Bananas.” It was a spoof on the Reg Park/Steve Reeves Hercules movies, with the Olympian god set loose in modern New York City. The producers had called Joe Wieder, a publisher of muscle magazines, and asked if he knew of “a muscleman who could act a little.”
“Joe said, ‘I got the perfect guy, he’s done Shakespearean plays in Germany, he’s a great actor, but his English isn’t too good.’ It was all bull. I didn’t speak much English at all. We went to meet these guys and Joe said, ‘Don’t say anything. I’ll do the talking.’ ”
The $1,000-a-week job, which Schwarzenegger performed under the shorthand name of Arnold Strong, was more important in the arc of his business career than as a launching pad to stardom. He says his ambition when he got to America was to get into the food supplement business and to start a chain of fitness centers. He envisioned a time when there would be as many gyms in America as supermarkets. (“There you get the food, here you burn it off.”) When he arrived on Santa Monica’s shores, he was the most recognizable figure in international bodybuilding and an instant celebrity among the inspired at Gold’s Gym. He was also broke.
“I got money from (Joe) Wieder for writing articles for his muscle magazines,” Schwarzenegger recalls. “I wrote each month in German how I trained and gave it to a translator. They sent a photographer to the gym. In return, Wieder gave me an apartment for free and a leased Volkswagen and $60 a week spending money. That’s what I lived on for the first two years.”
During that time, the hulk also hunkered down in school, “inhaling” English and business courses. Once in a while, he also inhaled a little marijuana smoke.
“We smoked pot once or twice a week before we went to the gym,” Schwarzenegger says matter-of-factly. “Sometimes at parties, someone would pass a joint around. It never interfered because it was so casual.”
Arnold is seen smoking pot near the end of “Pumping Iron,” the 1977 documentary about his drive for another Mr. Olympia title. He thinks that’s the last time he sucked drugs into his lungs.
“You have to make up your mind what you want to do in life. Do you want to be passive, or do you want to be active? One thing you know, if you smoke pot, you’re not going to be active.”
He says he was afraid of the stronger drugs around then and never took them. “Someone would come into the gym and say, ‘Man, I was spaced out. I ate some mushrooms and I wanted to jump in the ocean.’ I thought, ‘Wait a minute, that’s really out of control. I don’t like that.’ ”
The “hippie stage,” as he recalls life in the United States when he first glimpsed it, was a shock for someone from a conservative European background.
“I was very protective of what I learned about America and I didn’t want any changes,” he says, adding that he resented the political dissent among students and left-wing politicians in the United States. “I realized as time went on that that’s what is great about America, that the people have freedom to express themselves.”
Mainly, Schwarzenegger’s focus in those early days was on learning how the U.S. economy works at the grass-roots level so he could snatch some of that American Dream he’d heard so much about. It didn’t take long. Within two years, the money he had saved from “Hercules Goes Bananas,” bodybuilding demonstrations and local bricklaying jobs totaled $28,000. With another $10,000 borrowed from Wieder, he bought a six-unit apartment building that became his first move in a Monopoly game he continues to play. (Among his currents possessions are Oak Plaza in Denver and a new office building on Main Street in Santa Monica.) He also wrote a 28-page exercise booklet and used it to launch a highly successful mail-order fitness business.
By the time he appeared in “Pumping Iron,” the film that introduced his outsized personality and helped erase the image of bodybuilders as gay narcissists, he was a well-heeled sports hero with enough business savvy to know that his next career goal--to be an actor whose name would be mentioned in the same breath with Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood--wouldn’t be achieved overnight.
“Athletes usually jump in at the top, take the money and run, the ‘Mark Spitz syndrome,’ ” he says. “They have agents hanging on them before they finish competing and they get a movie and (a TV) appearance with Bob Hope. That’s the worst thing you can do. Bob Hope is a nice guy . . . but he gets the last line and you’re left standing there like a wet dog.”
During the ‘70s, Schwarzenegger worked on a variety of TV and movie projects. He made a guest appearance on a Lucille Ball special, was a guest star on an episode of “Streets of San Francisco,” appeared with Kirk Douglas and Ann-Margret in the 1979 Hal Needham Western spoof “The Villain,” and played Jayne Mansfield’s muscular husband Mickey Hargitay in a made-for-TV movie about her life.
His first big break, though, was in being chosen by Rafelson for “Stay Hungry,” a critically acclaimed drama set against the bodybuilding world in the South. Arnold was third-billed behind Jeff Bridges and Sally Field.
“I wavered a long time on whether to use him in the film,” Rafelson recalls. “He kept saying I should cast him in the movie, that I ‘vood look all o-fur de voold and sooner or lader vood comb back to him.’ He was right.”
Rafelson says he retailored the character for Arnold, simplified his dialogue and sent him to an acting coach. But he says he knew then that Arnold’s attitude and industriousness would eventually make him a star. “In ‘Stay Hungry,’ you could see the sweetness that has characterized all his best parts,” Rafelson says. “There is an intelligence and presence about him that goes way beyond his physical size. It’s internal, and you either have it or you don’t.”
Schwarzenegger says he has only recently become interested in acting as a craft. His first goal was to become a star, which he did through a series of action films beginning with “Conan the Barbarian” and its sequel “Conan the Destroyer.” In rapid succession, he followed with “The Terminator,” “Commando,” “Raw Deal,” “Predator,” “The Running Man” and “Red Heat,” films that fitted him for action, then “Twins,” the Ivan Reitman comedy that fitted him for laughs.
“One tends not to look at (Arnold) as an actor but as this large personality,” said “Twins” director Ivan Reitman. “But he worked as any other good actor (does). He took the role seriously, he rehearsed, he asked questions. . . . It was very easy to make the comedy come out of his character.”
Gene Siskel, a film critic that Schwarzenegger says he will never be able to please, says that although he loved “Stay Hungry” “it’s very difficult with his accent and physical presence to get lost in the character. . . . What he’s chosen to do is not fight that (and) commercially, you can’t argue with what he’s done.”
But even Siskel acknowledges that Schwarzenegger brings inherent charm to his characters.
“There is a smile there that seems to be genuine,” Siskel says. “George C. Scott once told me that one of the keys to successful acting was a joy of performing quality while remaining in character . . . that joy of entertaining that makes it look like they’re having fun. And they probably are. That comes through with Schwarzenegger to a degree.”
Says Walter Hill, who directed him in “Red Heat”: “Arnold’s like a modern Theseus. He has almost a mythic relationship with his audience. He loves being their hero.”
So far, Schwarzenegger’s career has been a series of stretching exercises, carefully calculated moves designed to first add bulk, as a box-office star, then definition, as a credible actor. With each movie, he says he tries to add a dimension. See Arnold’s muscles. See Arnold fight. See Arnold be funny. With “Total Recall,” in which he plays a man being driven by a life he can’t remember, he expects to add a touch of vulnerability. See Arnold get kicked in the groin. One day soon, he says he will do a conventional dramatic love story. See Arnold French-kiss.
“I know I could do a great love story,” he says. “But I wouldn’t just try to do it. I would go to an expert in those kind of movies, a director like (Claude Lelouch) who I know can get from me what he wants. But if you just go get Joe Blow to direct, or say I am going to direct it myself because I have the power to do so, that will be enough of a reason to go right in the toilet.”
If his acting career does go in the toilet, Schwarzenegger says he will probably get involved in producing movies, or “some other intense business.” He says he has no interest in politics, even though Republicans who see him as an American oak keep inviting him to run for something. He says he has sent word to the Bush Administration that he’d like to head up the President’s Council on Physical Fitness (“It’s something I know I can do better than anyone has done so far”), but hasn’t heard back yet.
Like all bodybuilders, Arnold has spent a lot of time looking at himself in the mirror, but he has seen more there than an image of rippling muscles. He has seen his future and all that it has turned out to be. He talks about his body as if it were a natural resource, an oil well out back that just keeps pumping wealth. But it’s a resource he created himself, and it wasn’t easy. The first time he worked out, his muscles were so numbed he fell off his bicycle on the way home.
“I love these guys who come into the gym and say, ‘Give me an exercise program, but I don’t want to look like this,’ pointing to a picture of a Mr. Universe,” Schwarzenegger says, grimacing in sarcasm. “ ‘Don’t worry, it’s not likely.’ ”
Schwarzenegger doesn’t like to analyze his own motivation (“I never do it, it’s a waste of time”), and he gently chides his interviewer by referring to him as “the psychiatrist.” When the questions keep coming, he gamely attempts to open up by mentioning the pain he felt when he lost both his father and his brother during the same year. And, yes, he is sentimental. He cries at movies, he says, and will probably cry when Baby Schwarzenshriver arrives. The last movie that broke him up was “Field of Dreams.”
“I didn’t analyze why the film got to me,” he says. “I don’t really care why. The wonderful thing is that it got to me.”
He also admits to being an old-fashioned romantic. Consider the way he finally popped the question to Maria.
“I carried the engagement ring around with me for half a year. I could never find the place I thought was right. I went to Hawaii and thought maybe this is it. What a stupid thing, everybody goes to Hawaii to get engaged. Then another trip and another. Finally, we went to Austria. I was showing Maria the place where I grew up. We were driving by this lake and I said, ‘Would you like to go rowing?’ She said, ‘I would love to.’ There we were in the middle of this lake that I learned to swim in, in my home village. I thought, ‘This is great, this is it,’ and I pulled the ring out and proposed right then. It became a very romantic day.”
With that lightning quick entrepreneurial mind, Arnold segued directly from the rowboat on the lake in Graz to some moment still off in the future of his film career.
“I can use that (emotion) in movies,” he says. “If a big muscular guy is sentimental, it’s a big surprise for audiences. If a skinny guy is sentimental, it’s normal. . . . I think people will be very surprised in the future (by) what they see me do.”