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Schwarzenegger's Script for Career Transformation

September 24, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Arnold Schwarzenegger stood on the ski slopes, searching for a new path. His challenge was not how best to steer down Colorado's Snowmass Mountain, but how to navigate the rest of his movie career.

It was the winter of 1987, and the former bodybuilder had assembled a string of action blockbusters, from "The Terminator" to "Predator." He ruled the young male audience but little else; older people and women tended to stay away from his violent, R-rated pictures.

What Schwarzenegger needed was a change of pace -- something light and amusing, preferably rated PG. And at the bottom of that mountain stood a man who could help him get it.

Schwarzenegger didn't waste any time with preliminaries when he bumped into filmmaker Ivan Reitman on the slopes outside Aspen that day. "He said, 'You're the "Ghostbusters" guy, right?' " Reitman recalls. "He said, 'You know, I could be a Ghostbuster too.' "

Reitman was understandably dubious. After all, the leap from action idol to comic foil is one of Hollywood's toughest challenges, as Sylvester Stallone's bomb "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot" proves. But Schwarzenegger was single-minded in his focus.

Within a year, Reitman had directed Schwarzenegger in "Twins," and Schwarzenegger, along with reaping an unexpectedly huge paycheck, had reinvented himself yet again.

When people in the entertainment industry talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger -- regardless of whether they admire him personally or support his run for governor -- they often marvel at his ambition and unshakable focus.

That perception was largely forged during a seven-year period in which Schwarzenegger and his talent agent enjoyed one of the most spectacular runs in Hollywood history, between the first "Terminator" in 1984 and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" in 1991. Since then, his seemingly infallible touch has faltered, with films such as the 1993 misadventure, "Last Action Hero."

But in those seven years, he was able to progress from a sword-and-sandals joke to the world's biggest draw. In the first "Terminator," he starred as one of Hollywood's most original, and terrifying, villains. By the sequel, he was playing the hero. Schwarzenegger's upfront compensation soared from $750,000 to nothing less than a Gulfstream G-III jet (sticker price: $14 million).

Looking back at Schwarzenegger's management of his career in this span, some signature traits emerge: an appetite for risk-taking and hard work; an ability to look ahead and imagine career leaps others thought preposterous; an aptitude for parlaying perceived shortcomings (inscrutably accented English, unintentionally robotic acting) into an asset; and a knack for discovering and collaborating with talented unknowns who could help him advance his vast ambitions.

Schwarzenegger is of course now attempting another transformation, from aging action star to governor of the country's most populous state. The outcome of that bid is still uncertain. But there is no doubt that his seven-year Hollywood transformation -- the brick-by-brick construction of a superstar, concurrent with the demolition of his B-movie past -- offers, more than a decade later, plentiful insights into Schwarzenegger as governor of his own career.

Talent agencies are supposed to be collegial establishments where agents, assistants and even the mailroom upstarts root for all clients (and, by extension, their representatives) to prosper. But when Lou Pitt, who had worked to launch the careers of Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange, announced in an International Creative Management staff meeting one Friday in the early 1980s that he had signed the star of "Conan the Barbarian" and "Hercules in New York," he was greeted with total, what-were-you-thinking silence.

It didn't take long for Pitt and his new client to prove the ICM naysayers wrong, as the two formed one of the most successful actor-agent relationships ever. Yet they nearly stumbled out of the gate, as Schwarzenegger almost missed out on his breakthrough role.

When James Cameron was first tossing around casting ideas for 1984's "The Terminator," Schwarzenegger was not at the top of his list.

Mike Medavoy, who was running production for "Terminator" financier Orion Pictures, was intrigued but skeptical about casting the actor formerly billed as Arnold Strong in the film's showiest role. "After 'Stay Hungry,' [writer-director Bob Rafelson] told me he thought Arnold was going to be a star," Medavoy says of that 1976 film. "I didn't believe it at that point. I came to believe it later, though."

When first contacted about the film, Schwarzenegger was reluctant to play the film's bad guy, thinking instead he was up for the heroic part of Kyle Reese. But he trusted Cameron's instincts to put him in the title role, even though the future "Titanic" Oscar-winner had recently been fired from "Piranha Part Two: The Spawning."

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