Building Arnold

From the moment he set foot here in 1968, Arnold Schwarzenegger understood that there is no higher tribute in American public life than "self-made man," and he pursued it with a determination that suggests he first encountered the phrase in a too-literal German translation. He didn't just amass a vast personal fortune, he created a bankable public persona that uniquely blends affability with menace, and he built, most conspicuously, himself. Stand next to him and you are acutely aware that every bulge and hollow of his limbs, every plane and angle of his torso was sculpted, cell upon cell, by his own effort. All great athletes train hard, of course, but there is a grace about the gifts of someone like Ted Williams that makes his triumphs seem almost inevitable. A body like Schwarzenegger's, though, can be gained only hour by hour at the gym, pitting one's muscles against the gravity of the whole Earth. That--plus the anabolic steroids he took at the start of his career, because, as he said in the remarkably candid 1977 documentary "Pumping Iron": "You have to do everything possible to win no matter what."

Even as he eagerly laps up the perquisites of his success--the legendary $25 cigars, the $100,000 Hummers (at least five of them at last count), the famous wife and the company of presidents--he has never lost sight of the fact that history will judge him by what he does for humanity. He said as much in "Pumping Iron," confiding that "I was always dreaming about very powerful people, dictators and things like that. I was always impressed by people who could be remembered for hundreds of years or like Jesus for thousands of years." He kept this vision alive through a film career whose greatest triumph was as a robot sent from the future to save the human race. And he said it again just last week, when he explained to reporters that he would undertake the "sacrifices" of being governor of California because "I felt it was my duty to jump into the race and bring hope to the people."

Schwarzenegger's sense of a special destiny may have been forged in his childhood, perhaps by his father, a strict disciplinarian who made his sons write 10-page essays every week, and long after Arnold had left home was still marking up grammar mistakes in his letters. "I think what made me so driven," he told NEWSWEEK in an interview before the release of his most recent movie, "Terminator 3, "was that I always felt I wasn't good enough, smart enough, strong enough, that I hadn't accomplished enough. There's nothing I do that I couldn't improve on."

Part of the Arnold mythology is that he grew up in poverty. The postwar Austria into which he was born in 1947 was not a wealthy country, but Arnold's father, a small-town police chief, enjoyed a secure place in it. Sometime after Germany's 1938 annexation of Austria, Gustav Schwarzenegger joined the Nazi Party, an embarrassing biographical detail that might have discouraged a lesser man than Arnold from pursuing a political career in America. But in 1990, around the time he took on his first high-profile political post as President George H.W. Bush's fitness czar, Arnold commissioned no less an authority than the Simon Wiesenthal Center to investigate his father's wartime activities. He has donated close to $1 million to the center over the years and appeared at many of its fund-raisers. That was a stroke of political genius that paid off handsomely last week when the center's founder and dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, went on television to announce that Gustav had been thoroughly investigated and cleared of war crimes. (And your point, Ms. Streisand, was what, exactly?)

It would, of course, be unfair to impute the old Nazi's views to his son, although Arnold's opponents will no doubt find a way to mention that Arnold publicly defended former Austrian president and U.N. secretary-general Kurt Waldheim, who has been accused of concealing his knowledge of war crimes committed by his German Army unit. (Waldheim was invited to Schwarzenegger's 1986 wedding to Maria Shriver, but did not attend.) Moreover, Arnold seems to have had a testy relationship with his own father. He missed Gustav's funeral in 1972, although his explanation has varied over the years. In "Pumping Iron," he described it as a matter of self- discipline, an effort to harden himself emotionally for a competition two months off. "I didn't bother with it," he said coolly. By his Playboy interview in 1988, though, he had changed his recollection, claiming that he was hospitalized with a leg injury. "I couldn't go to the funeral... and I took it badly, because I knew how much he had done for me."

One of the things Gustav did was to introduce his son to weight training, as a way of strengthening himself for soccer. The teenage Arnold took to the barbells so enthusiastically that his parents eventually tried to limit his hours in the gym, but to no avail; in lifting weights he had found his passion, an outlet for his ferociously competitive nature and a sensuous experience he once compared to a continual daylong orgasm. Within a few years, he moved to Munich and began entering competitions, where he was discovered by the body-building impresario Joe Weider. Weider saw in Arnold the makings of his long-sought "hero" who could bring his sport from a fringe pastime into the lucrative American mainstream. He brought his protege to the States for the 1968 Mr. Olympia contest (Arnold placed second) and then helped him establish himself in California, --where he trained at the legendary Gold's Gym in Venice.

Anyone who knew Schwarzenegger in those years pays awestruck tribute to his will to succeed. "He was a great competitor," Weider recalls. "He used every trick psychologically, emotionally, everything. He just can't stand taking second place." "Pumping Iron" depicts the 28-year-old Schwarzenegger, in quest of his seventh Mr. Olympia title, bullying and manipulating his less experienced rival, the American Lou Ferrigno. Some of that byplay was staged for the cameras, Ferrigno told NEWSWEEK, but it was true to Schwarzenegger's nature: "He was an arrogant man, a shrewd manipulator. He's very good at mind games. [Other] people do that with women, or for drugs. It came down to: he would do anything he could to win." Doing anything to win, Ferrigno says, included steroids, which Schwarzenegger has admitted taking under a doctor's supervision. In those years, though, there was much less stigma attached to the practice--and despite rumors to the contrary, Schwarzenegger insists that the heart-valve defect that was surgically repaired in 1997 was congenital and unrelated to his drug use.

Schwarzenegger's relationship to "Pumping Iron" is instructive about his methods. A less sure-footed politician might have tried to suppress it--among other potential embarrassments, it contains a brief scene of Arnold taking a celebratory toke on what is unmistakably a joint. In the early '90s, Schwarzenegger bought up the rights to the film, including more than 80 hours of outtakes. "We all thought he'd bury it," says producer-director George Butler. But that, of course, would have only whetted reporters' curiosity--especially about the outtakes, which are rumored to contain even less savory material, including racist jokes and a Nazi salute. (Butler, who would know, says there's "no smoking gun, no Nazi salute" in the footage.) Schwarzenegger, however, confounded expectations by releasing the film for a 25th-anniversary airing last year. "Clearly, he thinks he's charming in the film," says Butler. Of his onetime star, Butler, whose latest subject is Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry, says guardedly: "I admire him. Arnold's not someone you like. You either admire him--or you hate him."

Meanwhile Schwarzenegger was launching another career dear to his heart, that of a real-estate mogul. His first business venture in the States was a two-man construction company with Franco Columbu, a Sardinian body-building chum he had met in Munich. (They still get together over a game of chess; Schwarzenegger, known for his loyalty to old friends, is "notorious in Hollywood for being seen in public with people who aren't famous and don't work for him," one director says.) In short order Schwarzenegger perceived that the people who were paying them to build patios and fireplaces were making more money sleeping in their houses at night than he and Columbu were for their days of backbreaking labor. He bought a small apartment building in Santa Monica, sold it for a profit and bought more, concentrating on run-down properties in the rapidly gentrifying blocks just off the ocean in Santa Monica and Venice Beach. This was the beginning of a real-estate empire that now stretches from the Los Angeles Basin to Denver and Columbus, Ohio, valued in the tens of millions--not counting his own family's ocean-view home on six acres in Brentwood.

At the same time, Schwarzenegger, understanding that gravity imposed certain natural limits on a body-builder's vocation, was looking ahead to Hollywood. The career that may have had its climax last month with the $200 million "Terminator 3" had its modest start in the 1969 "Hercules in New York," a production so spartan that it was catered with peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches from the Automat. (He was billed as "Arnold Strong," appearing opposite the cinema's ur-nerd Arnold Stang, and another actor's voice was dubbed in after the editor gave up trying to decipher the Schwarzeneggerian accent.) Even then, though, he was characterized by "fierce determination and a clear focus on where he wanted to go," recalls the director Arthur Allan Seidelman. "Steve Reeves [a muscleman star of the 1950s] never got that big, and Steve Reeves could talk English." Schwarzenegger shrewdly took as his role model Clint Eastwood, another action-movie hero whose qualities--a strong jaw, a steely glare and a gift for pithy deadpan catchphrases--Arnold had in abundance.

But his real gift was in handling his career, which he managed with as much cold-eyed detachment as any other property in his portfolio. Schwarzenegger, Seidelman observes, somewhat unnecessarily, "never looked on acting as an art form. He became a brand that redefined itself over and over." He broke through as a star in 1982, in the skulls-and-bearskins epic "Conan the Barbarian," and as a superstar two years later with the first of three "Terminator" movies. And from that point on he mostly just cultivated his franchise, occasionally deploying his accent for comic effect in harmless PG fare like "Twins" (1988). He chose his own scripts, cut his own deals with producers, occasionally passing up a big fee in exchange for back-end points--and then working his buns of steel off to make the movie a success. Few stars of his magnitude are willing to travel the world selling a movie the way Schwarzenegger does, or to spend days in business meetings, personally approving every hat and lunchbox that goes on the market in connection with one of his movies.

And he guarded his personal image as well, not an easy thing to do when you're Arnold Schwarzenegger and, as one sympathetic Hollywood observer put it, "you go back to your hotel room and you put your key in the door and three girls you've never seen before pop out of the linen closet." A magazine story in 2001--denounced by Schwarzenegger as a tissue of lies--depicted him as a serial groper of attractive women who cross his path, and he does possess, as one friend delicately puts it, "a ribald sense of humor 20 years out of date." If there are any more serious transgressions out there, presumably they will emerge in the next two months, but it won't change the fact that he's stayed married to his first wife--a record of marital success the last Hollywood actor to be elected governor of California could not have claimed to match.

Yet in the last few years Schwarzenegger's touch seems to have faltered, or perhaps age has finally caught up with him. "Terminator 3" followed a string of mediocre-or-worse projects, and whether he wins or loses at the polls, it will almost certainly be his last $30 million paycheck. Actually he got a little less than the widely reported $30 million up front, after voluntarily surrendering a fraction of his salary, along with the other principals', in exchange for the producers' agreement to keep the production in Los Angeles. But his share of the back end and merchandise deal will probably be worth tens of millions more--although not as much as they might have been if the movie had been a smash hit, rather than a merely respectable one. (It took in $144 million at the domestic box office, $50 million less than "Terminator 2"--in 1991.) So it made sense for him to look for another world to conquer.

In fact, his long-range plan to succeed in every sphere of human endeavor has always included politics. He was a Republican before he was a citizen, having watched a 1968 presidential debate for which a friend provided the translation. "[Hubert] Humphrey stood for the government [that] will solve all your problems," Schwarzenegger recalled. "[Richard] Nix-on said no, free to choose, let the people decide. So I said to my friend, which party is Nixon? He said, Republican. OK, I said, I'm a Republican."

A charming story, at least to Republicans--although perhaps a little too pat; the 1968 election was mostly fought over foreign policy, crime and race. But Schwarzenegger stayed true to his party, even after his marriage into Democratic royalty. In 1988 he campaigned extensively for George H.W. Bush, and was rewarded the following year with an appointment as chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness. He took what had been a ceremonial position and over the next four years traveled to all 50 states, at his own expense, preaching the virtues of exercise to American schoolchildren. After Bush's defeat in 1992, Schwarzenegger filled a similar role for California Gov. Pete Wilson. It was Wilson who first detected electoral possibilities in Schwarzenegger, an hour and a half into a fund-raising reception one evening in 1993. "I leaned over to see how he was doing," Wilson told NEWSWEEK. "By that point, most people are gritting their teeth. But Arnold seemed actually to be enjoying it. Afterwards, it occurred to me, hey, maybe this is what he wants to do."

It occurred to a lot of other people, too, after Arnold masterminded and helped pay for the successful campaign for Prop 49 last year. He has many of the qualities needed to run for office--most importantly, access to money, including his own. He has a generally positive if slightly edgy public image, and he has a record of public service as a tireless advocate of the Special Olympics and the Inner City Games. And he has the requisite drive and deviousness, which were amply on display in the way he orchestrated the announcement of his candidacy on "The Tonight Show" last week. Not only did he keep the public and reporters guessing up until the moment the words were out of his mouth, but he also seems to have misled his friend and political mentor, former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan. An authoritative source told NEWSWEEK that Riordan and Schwarzenegger agreed in late July that Riordan, not Schwarzenegger, would run. Schwarzenegger would endorse Riordan--as he had in last year's Republican primary, which Riordan lost to Bill Simon. Arnold's advisers deny there was such a deal, but Riordan believed he had a clear field as late as the weekend before last, when Schwarze-negger and his family visited the Riordans at their Malibu estate. So Riordan, along with his aides, was shocked when he learned from CNN that Schwarzenegger was in the race. After Schwarzenegger left his backstage press conference, he put in a call to Riordan.

"I just want to make sure you knew I was running," said Schwarzenegger.

"I heard," Riordan replied tersely. But any resentment he may have felt had dissipated by the next day, when he pledged his support for Schwarzenegger's campaign.

He was far from the first to be seduced by Schwarzenegger's charm, to fall under the spell of his warm grin and his faintly comical accent, and to end up singed by the heat of his ambition. And he surely won't be the last.


While Arnold Schwarzenegger has told several versions of an anecdote about a 1968 Hubert Humphrey-Richard Nixon debate over the years, there was, in fact, no Humphrey-Nixon debate in 1968 ("Building Arnold"). NEWSWEEK regrets the error.