In Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding there’s a sub-chapter heading entitled “Fear of Smallness”. Dealing with body-fat percentages, it’s a passage almost as brief as the trunks that used to adorn his nether regions during the time when he captured seven Mr. Olympia titles. Arnold has never really done small. Or, for that matter, fear.
Schwarzenegger has always preached the power of visualisation, but what has separated him from others subscribing to the same philosophy is the vast scale of his ambition and his ability – undaunted by the obstacles in his path – to see himself achieving greatness. Seemingly, the only thing bigger than his body has been the size of his dreams. Thus in the three acts that have comprised his life so far he has all but invented the sport of bodybuilding, become the biggest movie star in the world and governed an economy bigger than Russia’s for seven years. Who else on Earth has achieved so much in three such discrete disciplines? It’s like Usain Bolt also becoming a chess grandmaster and head chef at Noma. While speaking French.
Now, he’s embarked on an unlikely fourth act, a return to the big screen, first with last year’s return to his most famous franchise, as the time-travelling cyborg with a penchant for public nudity. Terminator Genisys may not have fully recaptured the magic and menace of James Cameron’s first two instalments, but it signalled to the world that Arnold was indeed back. The 68-year-old followed it up by breaking new ground with his debut in the indie film sector with the low-budget Maggie, the story of a father trying to protect his daughter, stricken with a virus that will change her into a zombie. It’s typical of a man not prone to looking in the rear-view mirror that he should be breaking new ground well into his seventh decade.
ACT 1: GENESIS (1947-1981)
Arnold Schwarzenegger was born on July 30, 1947 in the village of Thal in the south-east of Austria. He was the second son of local police chief (and former Nazi) Gustav and his wife Aurelia (making “who is your daddy and what does he do?” ever an awkward line of questioning). His father showed a marked preference for Arnold’s older brother, Meinhard, and treated Arnold harshly throughout his life (when Arnold wrote letters home, Gustav would return them with spelling and grammar errors highlighted in red). As a teenager and against his father’s wishes, he developed an interest in bodybuilding, idolising English muscleman Reg Park. Copying Park’s career trajectory, Schwarzenegger competed in and won bodybuilding competitions (in 1967, aged 20, he became the youngest ever Mr. Universe) before moving to the US in 1968 where he found work in a few low-budget films. In 1972 he met photographer George Butler, whose pictures would later illustrate a 1974 feature by writer Charles Gaines in Sports Illustrated about the uncharted demi-monde of bodybuilding. This meeting eventually led to 1977’s Pumping Iron, which, in semi-documentary style, told the story of Arnold’s attempt to defeat fellow strongman Lou Ferrigno and become Mr. Olympia for the sixth time.
Arnold Schwarzenegger: I never felt that I was good enough, strong enough, smart enough. He [his father] let me know that there was always room for improvement. A lot of sons would have been crippled by his demands, but instead the discipline rubbed off on me. I turned it into drive.
John Milius (director of Conan The Barbarian): Until Arnold, people thought bodybuilders were perverts or vain circus freaks. Arnold changed that. He turned himself into a household word and made it a virtue to work out.
Lou Ferrigno (co-star in Pumping Iron): I was ecstatic to be in that movie because I knew that whatever happened I was going to be part of something that was history because of myself and Schwarzenegger. Arnold was five times Mr. Olympia and to be on stage with him meant you were on stage with the best. It was a lot of fun and it put bodybuilding on the map.
Peter Manso (journalist who interviewed Schwarzenegger for an infamous 1977 Oui magazine article): Initially I figured it would take a while to adjust to the sheer physical presence of the guy, but that wasn’t so. He didn’t appear particularly monstrous, although he’s definitely not the kind of fellow I’d like to pick a fight with. First and foremost, Schwarzenegger was a European, with the manners and humour to match. Never before in my life have I had the nerve to ask somebody the size of his cock. That was not, of course, my first question.
Sylvester Stallone (friend): I remember him at the  Golden Globes and I said, ‘Who is this guy?’ As big as the whole table. Kind of rained on my parade. Rocky was Best Picture and he was Best Newcomer [for 1976’s Stay Hungry] and he kept staring at me, getting bigger and bigger. And finally, they said, ‘Best Newcomer, Arnold Schwarzenegger’ and I was like, ‘Come on, he’s a joke, no one has a name like that. He’s doomed, over, flash in the pan.’ Then Rocky won Best Picture and I jump up like an idiot and there was this bowl of flowers and I throw them up in the air and they landed all over his shoulders and I could see him thinking, ‘Am I going to cross-pollinate this guy?’
ACT 2: THE BIGGEST TALENT IN HOLLYWOOD (1982-1992)
After seeing a rough cut of Pumping Iron in 1976, producers Edward R. Pressman and Edward Summer approached Schwarzenegger to appear in their planned adaptation of Robert E Howard’s Conan stories, paying him $250,000 and putting him on a retainer. When Conan The Barbarian opened in 1982, it announced its muscular hero as an international star. Two years later, having secured the lead role in James Cameron’s The Terminator (after the studio’s original choice O.J. Simpson was rejected on the grounds that he was considered too nice to play a killer) Schwarzenegger was established in the top rank of action movie stars.
Milius: Back when I made Conan, no one had ever made a movie like that with real athletes. Sandahl [Bergman] was a dancer and Gerry [Lopez] was a surfer, and Arnold was Mr. Olympia. They are serious, hard-working people; they work harder than anyone.
James Cameron (director of Terminator 1 & 2): We did the first Terminator for the price of Arnold’s mobile home in the second. He was put forward for the role of Reese, ultimately played by Michael Biehn, and it’s a very verbal character and he basically explains the entire future world with about 20 pages of expository dialogue. When I went to meet with Arnold it was to basically derail that. But when I met him he was incredibly charismatic and focused and smart. While I was sitting there, I started thinking, he would make an incredible Terminator. So maybe let’s just hang a left turn and explore that idea. We pitched the idea of Arnold as The Terminator to his agent (Lou Pitt) and the agent turned us down. Then Arnold fired him the same day and we had a deal the next day. Actually, he hired the guy back. He just fired him to teach him a lesson.
Schwarzenegger: I argued with Jim Cameron about whether I should say, ‘I will be back’, as it sounded stronger, more machine-like. He said, ‘I wrote it and it’s “I’ll be back”, so do me a favour and just say it.’ We argued about it but I didn’t understand why that would be an interesting line at all.
In the final six years of the Eighties, Schwarzenegger consolidated his position with a series of hugely successful action movies including Commando, Predator and Red Heat. In 1990, having missed out on the lead in 1987’s RoboCop, he teamed up with that film’s director, Paul Verhoeven, for the Philip K Dick adaptation Total Recall.
Mark L. Lester (director of Commando): Going around with Arnold and hanging out with him before the script was finished, I thought, ‘Wow, he’s really funny, but no one’s utilised that’. He already had it in him, but I brought it out, that he could be sympathetic, and that went on to be his persona for many movies.
Sharon Stone (co-star in Total Recall): I remember a scene we shot where I had on a little nightgown and he was supposed to be nude. He had on tiny little underpants. He was so shy, it was adorable – there was a tremendous vulnerability.
ACT 2.1: BECOMING EXPENDABLE (1993-2003)
Schwarzenegger’s decade-long hot streak came to an abrupt halt with the release of John McTiernan’s uberflop The Last Action Hero. It proved the limitations of even Arnie’s popularity and ushered in a decade of indifferent movies that performed badly and received critical kickings galore. Whether Patrick Stewart or Anthony Hopkins, both considered for the role of Mr Freeze in Joel Schumacher’s disastrous Batman & Robin, have ever bought Schwarzenegger a drink to say thanks is not known.
McTiernan: To be rejected so soundly. It kind of broke his heart.
Schwarzenegger (on playing Mr Freeze): I don’t regret it at all. I felt that the character was interesting and two movies before that one Joel Schumacher was at his height. So the decision-making process was not off. In most cases I don’t regret the movies that failed or were not as good. It’s always easy to be smug in hindsight, right?
Kevin Pollak (co-star in End of Days): I started to realise that he really is to the cinema, to Americans, our Superman. In the sense that when you meet him and talk with him initially, it feels like you’re interacting with an action figure, not someone human or real. But he is also very aware of and comfortable being sort of a tourist attraction on any set that he works on. When friends and family of anyone visit, he’s quick to pose for a picture, very gregarious and friendly in that regard.
ACT 3: THE GOVERNATOR AND BEYOND (2003-20015)
Schwarzenegger proved Spottiswoode right, reinventing himself in the most spectacular style. With his action hero status diminishing, Schwarzenegger moved into politics with his wife, Maria Shriver, scion of the Kennedy clan, playing a key role. He wrongfooted his opponents by announcing his intention to run for the Governorship of California at the eleventh hour on The Tonight Show in August 2003 with Jay Leno and was elected in October of the same year. Initial success and popularity soon gave way to an all-too-familiar political impasse, which saw his ratings plummet. In 2011 he left the office and resumed his movie career. In the wake of the revelation that he had sired a son with his housekeeper, Shriver left him. The success of The Expendables has restored his box office muscle and helped make Terminator Genisys a reality. If his current plans come to fruition he will presently be making sequels to Twins and his Conan series.
Schwarzenegger: My relationship to power and authority is that I’m all for it. People need somebody to watch over them and tell them what to do.
Susan Kennedy (Democrat and Schwarzenegger’s Chief of Staff): There were a lot of times when we said, ‘You just can’t do that’. He was always like, ‘I don’t care’. Ninety per cent of the time it was a good thing.
Stallone: He’s my best friend now. It’s strange, given what big rivals we used to be. He’s still ridiculously competitive, though. I have this watch, which is the only one of its kind in the world, so I wore it to our last lunch. Arnold was desperate for me to get him one but I had to explain that wasn’t possible. He was so mad!
Lane Leavitt (stunt man on The Last Stand): Arnold at 65 was more of an athlete than most Hollywood actors at 25.
Henry Hobson (director of Maggie): He has this mantra which is, ‘Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance’ and he would repeatedly say this on set. Once he believed in the project and in me it was full steam ahead and he was very generous with his time and energy.
Butler: In the beginning he was an awkward bodybuilder in a dark subculture that America wanted no part of. At the end he was an international star, ready to become the richest man in California and eventually the highest-paid movie actor in history.
Schwarzenegger: What is the point of being on this Earth if you’re going to be like everyone else?