For much of his life, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been a figure of fun. People mock him for his muscles, his accent, his acting, his ambition. I've never understood why. This is a man who has risen to the top of three separate professions, each time against impressive odds. You've got to admire that. Anyway, I do. So I was fascinated to read his recent autobiography, Total Recall
I've heard it isn't selling as well as hoped. I'm not surprised, since we've sort of had our fill of him. He's certainly not the movie star he was, he wasn't popular as governor when he left office and, of course, he was involved in a scandal regarding marital infidelity. The book may be a victim of bad timing, but I've got to give it to him, he approached it with the same energy he approaches all his projects. At over 600 pages, the title makes sense--he goes through every aspect of his life, giving fans what they want.
He was born in Austria in 1947. It was a tough time for the country (thankfully), since a few years back they thought they were heading for glory and ended up in humiliating defeat. They were also stuck in-between the free West and the communists. Arnold looked to America as the land of opportunity, the country where he knew he'd end up. But how? His family wasn't rich, what could get him there?
He had a tremendous work ethic, and an interest in growing muscles. While still in his teens he started winning body building contests in the German-speaking world. He soon got to London and eventually Los Angeles, garnering numerous titles for his sculpted body. I admit the "sport" does seem rather silly, but Arnold, who had a sense of promotion, helped it grow until it got international attention.
Meanwhile, he was also busy creating other businesses, as body building was no way to make a living. He started a mail order business for his books and supplements, had a bricklaying business with fellow bodybuilder Franco Columbu, and started buying Southern California real estate, flipping one building after another.
He also set his sights on movies. He even got to star in a horrible film called Hercules In New York
in 1969. It went nowhere (though it resurfaced years later to embarrass him) and his real start came when director Bob Rafelson cast him as a bodybuilder with soul in the 1976 cult film Stay Hungry
. Arnold, who had taken acting lessons, got good notices. Soon after, he showed his charisma in the documentary Pumping Iron
. But Hollywood was still wary. Arnold slimmed down a bit, but he was still freakishly huge--could he be a movie star, or just a curiosity?
Arnold refused smaller parts, figuring he'd be a star or nothing. He got the perfect role in John Milius's Conan The Barbarian
. It was a big-budget film that did well, though a softer sequel ended the series. But by then he had taken the role in the film that would define him--The Terminator
. He was up for the hero (O.J. Simpson was supposed to be the Terminator) but after meeting with writer-director James Cameron, they realized the part for him was the villain.
It was low-budget, but well-reviewed and successful It's also probably the best thing he did. Arnold was now established as an action star, and rose to the top with films like Predator
and Total Recall
. He branched out into comedy, making titles such as Twins
and Kindergarten Cop
. He had his biggest hit with Terminator 2
and gave perhaps his best performance in another James Cameron film, True Lies
, which combined action and comedy.
Meanwhile, he'd met Maria Shriver of the Kennedy clan. They hit it off and Arnold, a Republican due to his support of the entrepreneurial spirit, started hanging out with America's most famous Democrats. They marred in 1986. Arnold dipped his toes in politics, serving as the George H. W. Bush's exercise czar, promoting physical fitness across the nation. He considered going fully into politics, though Maria objected--she'd been through the whole political game with her father Sargent Shriver. However, when California Governor Gray Davis was recalled, Arnold decided to run, and in 2003 easily defeated a slate of other names.
Movies have three acts and after bodybuilding and movies, this was Arnold's third. However, instead of triumph, there was mostly failure. He tried to bring reform to the state but was met with opposition from entrenched interests at every turn. When he left office he was highly unpopular. Schwarzenegger is quite open in the book about all his problems.
But being a failed governor wasn't the low point. After he left office, he admitted to fathering a child out of wedlock with his housekeeper. (He didn't even know at first it was his child, but eventually everyone could see the resemblance.) He and his wife separated, and that's where we're at today.
Arnold has returned to films, but it's hard to be an action star in your 60s. Even the last few films he made before he became governor showed a serious slowdown in box office. As to his politics, his failure is sad. He may not be the perfect politician, but he was a Republican willing to compromise with Democrats, which made him unpopular with both parties.
Arnold offers some lessons at the end of his book, but I think the best lesson is his own life. It's hard to think of a better example of what hard work can get you.