Hollywood superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger knows what he wants—and usually gets it.
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"Arnold's cigar dinner is tonight, at his restaurant. I know it's last minute, but if you can come, I can get you a seat at his table."
The caller is James Stankard, Arnold Schwarzenegger's major-domo. Schwarzenegger has been busy with various ventures, including filming Eraser, which figures to be his big summer hit, and this is the first time since I'd put in a bid to see him several weeks earlier that he has some time.
Almost four hours later, I find myself standing in the middle of a milling crowd as Schwarzenegger walks into Schatzi on Main, the restaurant he owns in Santa Monica, California, two blocks from the Pacific Ocean.
He's wearing a gray T-shirt, khaki slacks, a brown leather jacket and that big, familiar, gap-toothed smile. Because he was a world champion bodybuilder--five times "Mr. Universe" and seven times "Mr. Olympia"--long before he was an international box office star, I'd expected his physical presence to fill the room, much as Muhammed Ali once did and Wilt Chamberlain still does. But Schwarzenegger has none of that awesome physical presence. Nor, for that matter, does he--on first sighting--have that magnetic, galvanizing star appeal that automatically stops conversation and turns all eyes toward him. He makes no grand entrance. There is neither hush nor buzz. He's just there. Just Arnold. Just one of maybe 200 guys standing around with a cigar in his hand.
He's 6-foot-2, 212 pounds--about 36 pounds below his competitive bodybuilding weight--but apart from his bulging biceps and thick neck, he almost looks small, or at least not uncommonly large. Maybe that's because one subconsciously expects him to look as dominating in person as he does on-screen, where he seems even bigger and more menacing than he really is.
As Schwarzenegger makes his way across the room, we meet and shake hands--he's not a bone-cruncher--and when we reach his table, he introduces me to several of our seatmates and says, warmly, "You sit here, next to me."
Schwarzenegger's nephew, Patrick Kennedy, newly out of law school, is on the other side of me. Across from him is Stan Winston, a four-time Academy Award winner for makeup and special effects (Alien, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park). Others at our table include Schwarzenegger's agent, Lou Pitt; actor Luke Perry, formerly of television's "Beverly Hills 90210"; and Keith Barish, one of the founding partners (as is Schwarzenegger) of Planet Hollywood, which is about to go public with a $170 million stock offering.
Savvy financial people can tell, Schwarzenegger says, when a celebrity is just lending his name to a venture and when he's "really involved." Schwarzenegger is really involved--in the worldwide Planet Hollywood empire, in the development of a shopping, restaurant and entertainment complex in Denver and in a variety of other enterprises. He's not "just" a movie star, albeit one of the most famous, recognizable people in the world, a self-made cinematic sensation who commands up to $20 million up front--and a significant percentage of the gross box office receipts--on each action movie he makes; he's also a very successful businessman, real estate mogul, restaurateur--and a man who has Republicans salivating at the mere prospect that one day he just might deign to run for high public office. Not bad for a guy who came to this country in 1968 with little more than $20, a gym bag full of sweat clothes and a dream.
Schwarzenegger was born on July 30, 1947, in the tiny Austrian hill town of Thal-by-Graz (pop. 800), where his father was a village cop and the family house had neither telephone nor television. But unlike many who come from humble beginnings and strike it rich in Hollywood, Schwarzenegger has neither forgotten nor forsaken his roots, and seated directly across from him at Schatzi tonight are two of his oldest friends from his bodybuilding days, Franco Columbu and Rolf Moeller. Schwarzenegger even paid tribute to Columbu with an inside joke in Last Action Hero, giving him an on-screen credit--"A Franco Columbu Film"--on the movie-within-a-movie in that big-budget epic.
As the waitresses begin service, I ask Schwarzenegger how often he manages to come to the first-Monday-of-the-month cigar nights here.
"I try to go to every one," he says, his gutteral Austrian
accent determinedly intact, even after three years of what he calls "accent-removal lessons."
"I think I only missed two last year. Because it's on a Monday, even if we're filming somewhere else, I can usually come home for the weekend and stay Monday before I go back."
As the evening wears on, Schwarzenegger is friendly, intelligent, charming, funny and attentive, all without seeming to be either obsequious or disingenuous. He chats unself-consciously with his friends, makes one leisurely walking tour of the room to shmooze with various guests and periodically turns to me with a question or a comment--or an answer to one of my questions, one of the first of which is, "Are there always this many women here? It looks like 25 to 30 percent of the total crowd is female."
"It's increasing all the time," he says. "Usually, when they come the first time, it's just out of curiosity or to be with their men. They don't even take a cigar. Or they take it and don't light it. But two or three months later, you see them smoking--and always with the biggest cigars."
When did Schwarzenegger start smoking cigars?
"I smoked little Virginians when I went to Munich as a bodybuilder," he says, "but I didn't smoke a real cigar until 1977, when I met Maria."
Maria is Maria Shriver, his wife, the NBC News personality and daughter of Sargent Shriver, the former Peace Corps director, and Eunice, a sister of Kennedy brothers John, Robert and Ted. Arnold and Maria met at the Kennedys' pro-celebrity tennis tournament and later, after dinner at the Shriver house, near the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, Sargent Shriver lit a cigar and offered one to Schwarzenegger.
"This is a big advantage in life," Schwarzenegger says with a laugh. "Your wife can't complain about your cigars. You can always say, 'Look, honey, your father wouldn't have introduced me to something that's bad.'"
Does Maria complain often about his cigars?
"Every once in a while it comes up. We recently bought a house in Sun Valley and Maria said, 'You're certainly not going to smoke cigars up here, are you--not in all this wonderful, fresh, clean air?' I said that when we entertained, I'd certainly offer cigars after dinner. No way I'm not going to do that. But if I'm alone, I'll go outside and smoke in the Jacuzzi. Same thing at home. If we have guests, I'm going to pass cigars. But if I'm alone, I'll smoke in the Jacuzzi or while I'm playing pool. I won't smoke upstairs, near the kids' bedroom. Besides, I don't want to stink up my clothes or the bedroom."
With that, Schwarzenegger relights the Punch he's been nursing all evening--using what looks like a three-inch blow torch emitting a laser-like blue flame. He then launches into a hilarious replay of the game of charades he played with his two-year-old son earlier in the day. "I was mimicking him, doing what he sometimes does--jumping up and down and crying and saying 'I hate you, I hate you' and we were all laughing, and he finally figured out what I was doing, and then he started laughing, too."
The story occasions much hilarity at our table. But Schwarzenegger is mostly serious this evening. Politics is much on his mind. His Kennedy connection notwithstanding, he is a very public Republican--he was chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports under President Bush--and tonight, early in the presidential primary season, six weeks before Bob Dole will wrap up the Republican nomination, he wants to talk about the candidates.
"What do you think of Steve Forbes?" he asks me.
"Not much. And you?"
"He's a robot. He says the same thing over and over." He grins. "I've played robots; he is a robot. But I don't know enough about his views yet, except for the flat tax. I'd like to hear more about what he thinks on other issues before I decide who to vote for."
The Republicans have a good chance to capture the White House this year, Schwarzenegger says, but they're "going about it the wrong way. I don't like all this flag-waving and rhetoric. I wish they'd talk about the issues--especially the family. That's the most important problem we have--the breakdown of the family--and no one is doing anything about it."