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The Arnold Era

He's Been Hollywood's Can-Do Guy, and He's Got the Jet, the Clout and the Money to Prove It. But Unconditional Fame Never Lasts. Can Arnold the Icon Cope With a Little Downsizing?

June 16, 1996|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein's last story for the magazine was on influential figures expected to lead the film industry into the 21st century

You have seen him with his rippling muscles bared, hanging upside down from airplanes, killing men with large guns, knocking them to the ground with the thud of his fists or breaking their necks with a twist of his wrist. But there is nothing quite like seeing Hollywood's reigning action hero being chased around a 20th Century Fox sound stage by a creature with antlers and a Santa's helper cap on its head.

Arnold Schwarzenegger running for his life from a reindeer? It could only happen in a movie, in this case, a comedy called "Jingle All the Way," which will be in the theaters in November. Following him as he strides purposefully across the film set--a path always clear before him--it is hard to imagine what could possibly strike fear into the giant muscle that is Arnold's heart.

Brian Levant, the film's director, only wishes that his reindeer had the work ethic of his star, who on location has been known to roust weary filmmakers out of bed at dawn, bellowing, "Get up! We must work out!" On the first take of the chase scene, Arnold sprints down a hallway into a living room and then through the dining room. But his timid pursuer quickly gives up the chase, staring at a Christmas tree by the fireplace, placidly urinating on the rug.

Many takes later, the reindeer pursues Arnold with enough enthusiasm for Levant to get his shot, but Arnold displays no sign of impatience or displeasure. Between takes, he regales the crew with the story of how he punched out a camel for a scene in "Conan the Barbarian," using a journalist visiting the set as a stand-in for the camel. He throws a right hook, narrowly avoiding my jaw--don't worry, he really didn't hit the camel either--then comically mimics an ungainly, camel-like fall.

"That's why it is so funny," he explains in his familiar Austrian accent. "You do something brutal, but then there's something funny behind it, so people laugh and know it's only a movie."

At 48, having spent two decades carefully crafting his image, Arnold has a canny sense of his on-screen self. He knows his fans prefer to see his heroics leavened with a pinch of sardonic humor. That afternoon, he and Levant watch a replay of a shot where Arnold stares down the reindeer, growling, "You picked the wrong day!" It is a signature Arnold line like "I'll be back" or "Hasta la vista, baby." Arnold tells Levant, "Let's get a couple versions of that. It'll be perfect for the trailer."

As the camera team sets up the shot, a crewman approaches Arnold, who is knocking ash from his cigar into a custom-crafted ashtray attached to his director's chair. The crewman is curious--what was Arnold's biggest box-office success?

The actor replies, not missing a beat. "Terminator 2"--$206 million domestic, $508 million worldwide."

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hollywood were the perfect marriage of power and money. In the 1980s, when junk bond kings and corporate raiders were making billion-dollar killings on Wall Street, Hollywood developed a blockbuster fixation of its own, concocting movies that were as big and flashy as any Ivan Boesky deal or Donald Trump hotel. Inspired by the heroics of Rambo and the Terminator, each summer has opened with a new burst of death-defying action and awe-inspiring explosions. Movies were designed to evoke the thrills of a theme-park ride, from "Aliens" and "Die Hard" to "Batman" and "Cliffhanger," culminating with the computer-generated behemoths, "Jurassic Park" and "Twister."

It was a time perfectly suited for someone whose very physique symbolized the medium's larger-than-life aspirations. "Arnold became a movie star at the same time that the movies became special effects, because Arnold was the greatest special effect of them all," says Steven de Souza, an action-film screenwriter who wrote "Commando" and "The Running Man."

"Look at 'Twister.' Arnold could've easily starred in it. The difference is, he'd lasso the tornado and bring it down to the ground--and it would be believable. As a writer, with Arnold you're working on a different scale. You're writing scenes that are so much bigger than life that if you take Arnold out of the movie, it doesn't work. You can't just plug in George Clooney. Without Arnold, you might as well cast Billy Barty."

His story has been told a thousand times over. Of humble Austrian origins, Arnold became the world's most celebrated bodybuilder, then turned to Hollywood as a new world to conquer. And conquer he did, graduating first from jokey strongman parts to brawny sword-'n'-sci-fi slugfests and then to the kind of roles he plays today, which alternate between mythic action heroics and cuddly family comedies.

Throughout his career he has been a relentless achiever, always reaching for the next rung of the ladder to stardom. When Arnold arrived in Hollywood, the town's biggest star was Burt Reynolds. "So that's where he set his sights," says producer John Davis, a longtime friend. "He said, 'I want to be a bigger star than Burt Reynolds.' "

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