Hollywood superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger knows what he wants—and usually gets it.
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"Yes--if there's a need for it. If I really think that I can provide something. If I've done everything in my profession." He looks away. "That's a lot of 'ifs.'"
At that moment, the chef from the Grand Havana Room appears at our table with two heaping plates of kaiserscharren, a dish that resembles a cross between chopped-up French toast and the Jewish breakfast specialty matzo brie, topped with raspberries. Schwarzenegger explains that it's an old Austrian dish, created by some nineteenth century emperor or other ("King Ludwig, I think") who wanted his subjects to be able to eat the same thing he did, at least once a day (a noble and--dare one say it--decidedly democratic idea).
His continuing appetite for Austrian breakfast fare notwithstanding, Schwarzenegger says he "felt deep down inside of me that I was an American" from age eight or 10 on. School studies, newsreels, American pop culture--all gave him a sense of "the size of [America] and the possibilities." As he grew older, he found himself wondering, "What am I doing in this village here, with the farmers?" He wanted to live in the United States. He was 15 when he began the activity that would make that possible.
His father wanted him to excel at soccer, and the training camp for his youth soccer team was next door to a weightlifting room. He wandered in one day and did a few simple weight-training exercises to strengthen his legs. "When I saw those animals climbing around the chin-up bar and doing 20 chin-ups and then going over to the squat rack and squatting 200 kilos [440 pounds], and then another guy snatching up 315 [pounds] in one movement, it outweighed by far everything that I'd seen on the soccer field."
Schwarzenegger began lifting weights and doing bodybuilding exercises so obsessively that his parents limited his trips to the gym to three times a week. Solution: He converted an unheated room in the house to a small gym and continued to work out, hour after hour after hour, following a strict routine.
"I lived by the training program, the eating program, the competition program," he says. "I was always the master in writing out the programs. I knew that as soon as I put it down, the last thing I ever wanted to do is disappoint myself. I knew that I had to look in the mirror every day and I could not look in the mirror and say, 'You know something: You're a fucking loser; you cannot even do the kind of sets and exercises and eat the kind of food that you wrote down.' I didn't want to face that."
Schwarzenegger's hard work and singlemindedness paid off. He competed all over the world and became the best--and best-known--bodybuilder since Charles Atlas. He was dubbed "The Austrian Oak" (his company is now called Oak Productions), and after winning his second Mr. Universe contest, in London, he came to the United States to compete. He came first to Miami Beach, but when he decided to stay, Joe Weider, the bodybuilding impresario, urged him to live in Southern California, in Venice--Muscle Beach--the mecca of bodybuilding. He made the move and says he instantly felt "this was where I'd always been meant to be. I felt-- 'Ahhh, now I'm at home.' "
Schwarzenegger has always had self-confidence. In his 1977 autobiography, Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, he wrote: "I knew I was a winner. I knew I was destined for great things." Having settled in Los Angeles, he wasn't content to be "just" a world champion bodybuilder; he immediately set out to be a world champion capitalist as well. While Weider paid him $60 a week (in addition to providing him an apartment and car) to write articles for his bodybuilding magazine, Schwarzenegger started a bricklaying and masonry business with his weightlifting friend Columbu, who'd been his training partner in Germany and who doubled as a bricklayer. Columbu had moved to the United States nine months after Schwarzenegger, and they employed several of their fellow gym rats in the business as well. They also began to offer mail-order courses in bodybuilding, astonished by how easy it was to start a business in this country, compared with all the bureaucratic red tape and regulation they would have encountered trying to start a similar enterprise in Austria.
"I said to Franco as we walked out of City Hall [with a business license], 'Can you believe this? They didn't ask anything. We didn't put up any money. We didn't have to have any banking proofs or any [college] degrees, any of these complications.' "
Schwarzenegger was a natural businessman and promoter--he designed the brochures for the mail-order business--and with the profits from his early endeavors, he invested in a six-unit apartment house and an office building. He also went to school at night--to three different schools--studying marketing, economics, political science, history and art. Cumulatively--and quickly--these early business and academic activities marked the true beginning of Schwarzenegger's love affair with America.
"I could see firsthand," he says, "that if you were willing to work hard, you could really make it. This is the place with the greatest opportunities of anywhere in the world."
His boundless ambition and restless energy left him perpetually hungry for new challenges. As a bodybuilder, he had long been a performer--he could often lift 60 more pounds in front of an audience than he could when he was alone in the gym. With Hollywood right down the freeway, his next move was almost predestined.
"I was always fascinated with entertainment, with acting, with performing," Schwarzenegger says. "I think in my blood there's something that makes me want to be a performer. That's the way I was in bodybuilding; the more you showed your personality to the people, the more you expressed [yourself], the more you could entertain the people," the better the audience liked it--"you could tell from the applause. The next natural step for me was to go into acting."
His first movie was Hercules in New York, which was released in the United States only on television (although it did play in theaters in South America). In it, Schwarzenegger's voice was dubbed, and he was billed as "Arnold Strong," his accent at that time being impenetrable and his name having been deemed unpronounceable.
"But deep down inside," he says, "I felt that it was wrong" to change names.
Eight years later, in 1977, when his movie career really began--with the critically acclaimed documentary Pumping Iron, based on the surprise best-seller of the same name--he used his own name and his own voice. The success of Pumping Iron--and, the same year, of Stay Hungry, in which he was billed third, behind Jeff Bridges and Sally Field--persuaded him to give up bodybuilding and concentrate on acting full-time.
Conan the Barbarian, in 1982, was his first true starring role. Critics savaged it--and Schwarzenegger. He was, Newsweek said, "a dull clod with a sharp sword, a human collage of pectorals and latissimi who's got less style and wit than Lassie." The reviews for the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, and for Red Sonja weren't much better.
Ever a believer in self-improvement--especially when the need for it was so obvious--Schwarzenegger took acting, dialogue and accent-removal lessons. He can still recall the problems he had trying to pronounce the "th" sound properly. He practiced saying "three-thousand-three-hundred-thirty-three-and-one-third" so many times that he was "mentally exhausted," he says. But just as he had refused to permanently change his name, so he refused to stick with the accent-removal lessons until all traces of his Austrian heritage were gone. At one point, he said--much as his on-screen character might say-- "OK, that's enough" (or was it, "I'll not be back"?).
Movie people told him that he was making a mistake, that all the big stars--John Wayne, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland--changed their names, and that foreigners had to get rid of their accents to be accepted.
"There was a natural pressure to conform, to do things the way they had been done before," Schwarzenegger says. "But I always felt the only way you make an impact is by doing things that have never been done before. 'OK,' I said, 'if everyone has always changed their name, maybe I should be the first who doesn't change his name. If everyone has a perfect American accent to get to the top, maybe I should be the first who doesn't.' I wanted to make sure that if I go on an elevator, before people ever saw me coming around the corner, they would say already, 'That sounds like Arnold.'
"I felt that my uniqueness would work to my advantage."
We've been talking for almost two hours and the late-morning Southern California midwinter sun is warm on our shoulders. Schwarzenegger sloughs off his jacket, casually stretches his muscular arms and relights the same day-old cigar, for perhaps the fourth time. His manner is so disarming that I've been wondering how best to broach the subject of the dismal quality of many of his movies--especially the early action movies--and the hostile critical reaction that many of those films received.
I needn't have been concerned. He has no delusions that he's Robert De Niro or Dustin Hoffman.
"I knew what I was doing," he says. "I knew these movies were not going to be nominated for Academy Awards. I was trying to get into the movie business. I was doing things that I thought I could handle."
He flashes a self-deprecating grin.