Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took office in 2003, will leave Sacramento… (Taylor Callery )
In the recently released trailer for "The Expendables," the action movie directed by Sylvester Stallone about a group of aging mercenaries on a rebel mission in South America, big-screen graybeards such Stallone, Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke (along with the more youthful Jason Statham and Randy Couture) are plotting a coup when an unexpected face suddenly materializes.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, apparently taking a break from the budgetary troubles that have dogged him during his governorship, appears on screen with Willis and Stallone, utters a crisply satirical line ("Give this job to my friend here -- he loves playing in the jungle," he says about the "Rambo" star) and, as quickly as he appeared, turns and walks away.
As the governor prepares to beat a retreat from Sacramento at the end of the year, the scene dangles a tantalizing possibility. Forget low approval ratings, tax hikes and an education crisis -- fans and entertainment-business insiders are asking more pressing questions. Is the appearance in the Aug. 13 release "The Expendables" -- a testosterone-drenched shoot-em-up summer movie, if testosterone-drenched shoot-em-up summer movies were cast in action-film retirement homes -- an acting swan song before Schwarzenegger stalks off to a new political adventure (a post in the Obama administration, perhaps)? Or is it a trial balloon for another foray into Hollywood?
Since landing in the governor's office nearly 6 1/2 years ago, Schwarzenegger has taken on a task that can seem as mercenary as any in "The Expendables." In fact, after all the political powder kegs, legislative trench warfare and spray-and-pray news coverage, he may have wished they'd given this job to his friend. (Or his enemy.)
But Schwarzenegger is unlikely to let his work in the Capitol serve as our lasting impression of him. "When politicians leave office, they almost always try to re-ingratiate themselves with the public they've inevitably disappointed," says pundit and Time magazine columnist Joe Klein, a frequent chronicler of the politics-celebrity nexus.
In Schwarzenegger's case, that could mean a humanitarian role à la the one inhabited by former President Bill Clinton. Or it could mean an actual movie role.
Schwarzenegger, after all, has shown a remarkable capacity for reinvention over his more than three decades in the public eye. The Austrian immigrant made the unusual transition from bodybuilder to B-movie star before ascending to the A-list, then recast himself as a comedic actor, before finally making the leap from dominating the multiplex to running the biggest state in the union. Along the way, he's incorporated parts of his earlier self; as governor, he's put his show business experience to use by relying on catchy sound bites right out of a studio marketer's playbook.
Since America loves a comeback, what would be a better move, for a man famous for promising he'll be back, than a return to the big screen, especially as he's been edged further out of a Tea Party-minded Republican mainstream? As Klein puts it: "Acting would be a way for Schwarzenegger to restore himself in the eyes of the public."
For years, celebrities who crossed from entertainment into politics ( Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono) didn't boomerang back to their former profession. And politicians who leave elected office to dabble in television celebrity are often just holding their place until they can return to the public sector (the Sarah Palin way, if she indeed returns).
More recently, however, entertainers who made the jump to politics leaped back when their political run ended. Jesse Ventura (Schwarzenegger's costar in "Predator," "The Running Man" and "Batman & Robin") left the Minnesota governor's mansion to become a radio personality and indie-film actor. After an ill-fated presidential run in 2008, former Sen. Fred Thompson returned to TV and movies and launched a radio career.
A radio career may be a stretch for Schwarzenegger, who has been mum on his post-gubernatorial life. (He declined to be interviewed for this piece and declines to talk about the subject generally -- possibly because, as some in his inner circle say, he doesn't know his plans.) But those who've gone from politics back to acting say it can be rewarding.
"Leaving politics and getting back into the business is kind of liberating," Thompson says. "You're used to dealing with a lot of people on your staff, and then you get to a situation where you're on your own and it's your own deal. And at the end of the day you can go home and forget about work until the next day."
With that in mind, we scoured some of the brightest minds inside and outside the entertainment business and beyond to determine the options for an Arnold reentry into Hollywood, how it could be executed and how it would be received. We offer six possibilities:
A starring role in a big action movie