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Aging Actor's Sacramento Curtain Call

Schwarzenegger was due for a career change.

October 14, 2003|Sean Mitchell | Sean Mitchell is a freelance contributor to The Times and other publications on films and theater.

And so, there will be a second act for one of Hollywood's most illustrious but aging action heroes, a man who for two decades has muscled his way to the top of the box-office charts with reel after reel of high-decibel, wisecracking, soulless mayhem.

Elvis had to die to reach the next level of fame, but Arnold Schwarzenegger, it seems, can get there by aiming his Hummer up the I-5 and hitting the accelerator. And not a moment too soon. Moviegoers are mostly young, and they have already embraced a new generation of action stars closer to their own age.

"I'm not into politics, I'm into survival," Arnold said in the 1987 film "The Running Man," playing a contestant running for his life in a futuristic capital-punishment game show. (Jesse Ventura also had a part. What did those scriptwriters know and when did they know it?)

Schwarzenegger's politics remain vague, but it has always been clear that his definition of survival would not include playing in celebrity golf tournaments and dropping by Gold's Gym once his skull-crushing leading-man days were over. From bodybuilding champ to immigrant-accented icon, the record shows he has devoted careful attention to the needs of a large ego and enjoyed the special license that goes with fame and power. Politics is a natural progression for him, and it may not require as much plastic surgery.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday October 20, 2003 Home Edition California Part B Page 11 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
"Salesman" -- The first name of Willy Loman, the lead character in the play "Death of a Salesman," was misspelled as Willie in an Oct. 13 commentary.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 29, 2003 Home Edition California Part B Page 15 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie revenue -- An Oct. 14 commentary about Arnold Schwarzenegger incorrectly stated that "Pirates of the Caribbean" earned $300 million in two weeks. The film hit the $300-million mark about 14 weeks after its release.

Hollywood eats its young or discards them, and all stars know this. At 56, with his trigger finger slowing down and his hairline receding, what roles are open to him? The danger of self-parody enters the picture. Maybe Arnold has thought, "Sylvester Stallone: That could be me."

His last film, "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," openly acknowledged the issue of his age, with a story built around the idea that his famous cyborg was a relic. He got respectful reviews from the critics, who have lavished praise on his violent oeuvre, but they had to concede that the film's success owed much to special effects achieved by a young director and the presence of some younger female action stars. The film did OK at the box office, earning about $150 million in the United States on its way to recouping its $175-million cost. (By comparison, Johnny Depp's "Pirates of the Caribbean" earned $300 million in just two weeks over the summer.)

The fact is that the actor who killed or maimed hundreds in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "Total Recall" wears reading glasses now -- when his public isn't looking. Call it ageism in Hollywood or maintaining the necessary suspension of disbelief or the physical prerequisites of the school of jocular sadism in American cinema that Arnold helped create and define, but all good things must end.

What would Arnold do next if he hadn't driven Gray Davis from office? Take on the classics? Arnold as Willie Loman in a remake of "Death of a Salesman"? (OK, set it in Austria.) Arnold as Cyrano? (OK, set it in Austria.)

The idea that Arnold's presumed hasta la vista to filmmaking could have a grave effect on Hollywood is one likely being heard in his fan clubs but not in the executive corridors of the studios. Sure, the annual body counts will be down, but other, younger merciless avengers like Vin Diesel are already taking up the slack. Arnold's body of work, so to speak, will continue to earn tidy sums in DVD rentals and sales -- a boxed set of four films comes out this week; "Terminator 3," due for digital holiday release, is expected to sell about 8 million units domestically.

"You can always come back in our business," said John Davis, producer of "Predator" (Jesse Ventura was in that one too). And maybe there is one film role left for Arnold, in which he could crack the age barrier by simply playing himself. It would be a story about an Austrian immigrant actor who, against all odds, gets elected governor of California, then senator, then against even greater odds, gathers enough votes to pass a constitutional amendment allowing foreign-born citizens to be president of the United States.

"Mr. Universe Goes to Washington." (Ventura can play the vice president.)

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