James Cameron debunks that O.J. Simpson ‘Terminator’ painting myth: ‘Arnold is wrong’

Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator
Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator.
(Orion Pictures)

For years, a piece of rumored “Terminator” lore has plagued creator James Cameron. Was O.J. Simpson the original choice to play the titular Terminator, a cyborg assassin sent back in time from the year 2029 to change humanity’s fate and a role that famously went to former body builder and future governator Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Schwarzenegger himself has said so, many times over the years, spinning a wild yarn about an original Cameron painting of the T-800 gifted to him by the director that hangs on his office wall. If you scraped off Arnold’s likeness, Arnold claimed in numerous interviews, you’d find O.J.’s face underneath.

“Let me correct that right now,” said Cameron, phoning The Times this week ahead of the release of “Terminator: Dark Fate” from New Zealand, where he is filming his “Avatar” sequels. “Arnold is literally just wrong. I know it’s hard to imagine! You don’t argue with Arnold.”


As the “Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” director has explained over the years, Simpson’s name was suggested during early casting stages circa 1983 — and quickly shot down. “I got a call from Mike Medavoy who ran Orion, which was jointly financing with Hemdale,” said Cameron. “And Medavoy said, ‘Are you sitting down? I’ve got this movie cast: O.J. Simpson as The Terminator and Arnold Schwarzenegger as [Kyle] Reese.’”

“[Producer and co-screenwriter] Gale Hurd and I looked at each other like that was the stupidest thing we’d ever heard in our lives,” said Cameron. “And I told him on that phone call, ‘It’s not O.J. Simpson. We’re not doing that.’ And he said, ‘Well, will you meet with Arnold Schwarzenegger?’”

Cameron makes his return to the “Terminator” franchise as a producer of Nov. 1’s “Terminator: Dark Fate,” the sixth entry in the science fiction franchise, which is directed by Tim Miller (“Deadpool”) and also produced by David Ellison. Schwarzenegger is also back in the new film, which serves a direct sequel to “T2,” reuniting with costar Linda Hamilton alongside new series stars Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes and Gabriel Luna.

But 36 years ago, as ill-suited as Cameron felt former NFL star Simpson was for the robotic role, he was also unconvinced he should cast Schwarzenegger as freedom fighter Kyle Reese. (In 1995, Simpson was acquitted for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. In 1997 a civil jury found him liable for their wrongful deaths.)

“I was very negative on the idea of Arnold playing Reese,” Cameron remembered. “It didn’t seem to make sense to me, he didn’t strike me as an articulate guy — I mean, I didn’t know him from Adam. I just knew his persona as a kind of body builder.”

Over the course of one meeting, Cameron changed his mind — and according to Rebecca Keegan’s “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron,” he started sketching Arnold’s angular face on a notepad on the spot. But Schwarzenegger still wasn’t right for the role of Reese, which eventually went to actor Michael Biehn. Schwarzenegger seemed more drawn to the part of the lethal, imposing Terminator.

“I went to have lunch with him and was utterly charmed by him, found him to be absolutely fascinating and we hit it off completely,” said Cameron. “He loved the script — but interestingly, all the scenes he was quoting to me were not Reese scenes. They were Terminator scenes. He crashes into the police station! He does this and he does that! And while he’s talking I’m thinking, ‘He’d make a pretty damn good Terminator. He’d be a human bulldozer!’”

Schwarzenegger was offered what would become his most iconic role the same day, according to Cameron. “Arnold was never offered Reese,” said Cameron. “O.J. Simpson was never in the mix at all. That was rejected out of hand before it ever got any traction.”

Of the legend that Simpson’s face is painted underneath that character portrait hanging in Schwarzenegger’s office, Cameron says Arnold is “flat-out wrong.” “I didn’t make the painting for him. I made the painting for us, for the production, of him as the Terminator,” he said. “There’s no O.J. under that painting.”

“I gifted him that painting after the film, and I’m going to go over to his office and get it back now,” he laughed. “I’m gonna go over there and go, ‘Arnold! I’m taking this painting back because you don’t appreciate it!’”