The Terminator is Back

Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to his most famous role, playing the relentless robot that made him a star
| By David Savona | From Arnold Schwarzenegger, November/December 2019
The Terminator is Back
Photos/Jim Wright

The gates are massive, perhaps 20 feet high, and they slowly swing open, revealing a sea of green grass decorated with statues. They are among the many big items in the oversized world of their owner, Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s sitting comfortably in a leather chair in the cabana behind his house in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. Despite the heat—it’s warmer than typical for September—a fire burns in the stone fireplace in the back wall of the cabana, which is open on its other three sides. He reaches to his right and picks up a torch, relighting the toasted foot of the Montecristo 80 jammed in the corner of his jutting jaw as he begins to explain the appeal of his most famous character.

“The biggest addition to my career was The Terminator,” he says between puffs of the Cuban. On November 1, he returns to the big screen playing the machine that was made to kill, the role that made him Hollywood royalty. Terminator: Dark Fate is the sixth Terminator film. The new movie will reunite Schwarzenegger with actress Linda Hamilton and James Cameron, who created the character and spearheaded the series’ first two films.

But what makes audiences keep coming back? What’s the appeal of a cold-blooded machine, sent back in time from a future where computers have conquered the world? “People like to be that character. They are so angry with what’s going on in their lives, and in the world,” says Schwarzenegger. “They want to fight back but they have no power.”

Schwarzenegger recalls a scene from the first Terminator (released in 1984) to illustrate power. The robot has tracked its target, Sarah Connor, to a police station. The Terminator asks the desk officer where she is.  “The guy says she’s in interrogation, just sit over there. He doesn’t even look up, he’s writing. And then the Terminator just looks around,” says Schwarzenegger, playing out the scene. “He thinks, ‘this is breakable.’ He figures it out. Then he says: ‘I’ll be back.’ ” 

Models from various Terminator movies serve as decoration for Arnold’s Santa Monica office. Note the humidor, at far left.

A few seconds go by in the film, and the calm of the police station is shattered by the Terminator smashing its car through the wall, taking out the officer who ignored him. “The guy gets pinned behind his desk. He’s gone. Dead. And people are saying ‘yeah, that fucking asshole, he should have been paying attention.’ ” Arnold laughs, holding his cigar in his left hand. “Sit on the side? Fucking Terminator doesn’t sit on the side.”

Alexander, one of Schwarzenegger’s assistants, comes out of the house with a small plate of cookies, offering one to his boss to pair with his espresso. “Did you touch it?” Schwarzenegger asks, picking one up, his brow arched over icy blue eyes. “You’re sick. Don’t touch anything from this guy,” he warns, taking a small bite. “He wants us to get his body fat,” he says, slapping his own midsection, which looks flat. “It’s getting harder and harder.”

Schwarzenegger is 72, but looks a decade younger, despite the gray in his new beard. He’s wearing shorts and a dark green T-shirt, and the muscles in his legs still ripple and his signature biceps—no longer the size of icebergs, as when he was the king of the bodybuilding world—still dwarf those of most normal folk. He still trains his body every day. This morning began in his usual fashion: he woke up with the news playing on his bedroom television, which he keeps on all night, scanned the L.A. Times to catch up on the major stories of the day, then pedaled his bike to Gold’s Gym in Venice to hit the weights, pumping the world’s most famous muscles full of blood. He’s earned the cookie.

He’s also earned the cigar. He’s been smoking them for most of his life, puffing his first before he turned 20. He was 31 when he smoked his first handmade cigar, a Cuban Montecristo No. 2, and soon he was enjoying all kinds of cigars, but with an affinity for those made in Havana. He waxes poetic about the barnyard smell that you get when opening a box of good Cubans. “I always smell it,” he says. “There’s a certain smell of manure that a real Cuban cigar has.” He smiles, then makes a deep, inhaling noise as he sniffs. “Ahhhh.”

The Monte he is smoking is pretty big—6 1/2 inches long with a 55 ring gauge—but that’s unusual for him now. “I used to like big cigars, but now I like smaller cigars.” The size he has called his favorite is the Partagás Serie D No. 4, Cuba’s most popular robusto. His humidors are filled with cigars—he says he has more than 100 designs of humidors in all—and on one of the tables in his kitchen sits a pile of various smokes from Honduras, Nicaragua and Cuba, among them Liga Privadas and CAO Flatheads. Some are in boxes, others are singles. 

Schwarzenegger’s house has plenty of cigars, which he doesn’t collect, but smokes. He smokes a cigar a day, every day. He also shares them openly with friends. When people give Arnold gifts, that gift is often a cigar. “I’ve been very fortunate and been gifted a lot of different cigars I love and keep on hand,” he says. He reciprocates by having an open humidor policy in Casa Schwarzenegger.


A 50-year career in film and savvy moves in real estate have put Arnold in this comfortable space, with the Terminator being his most famous role. It’s actually one he almost turned down. While he always wanted to be a leading man, Schwarzenegger was picky. First of all, he could afford it. Before he was making a fortune in movies (he was paid a $30 million salary for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, one of the biggest in movie history) he was profiting from other lines of work.

“I learned very quickly from the experts that people, a lot of times, for financial reasons, have to take on any part,” he says. “As creative as Hollywood is, the other side is they are very stupid. They fall into these traps. What do you do with a muscle guy? Make him the villain. He’s not the guy who saves the day, but the villain. I knew that was the danger. I was asked to play a wrestler, asked to play a football player, and asked to be on ‘Hogan’s Heroes,’ because of the German accent.”

Such roles didn’t appeal to him. “I said, no matter what you do in life, you have to be a businessman. In anything, you have to know how do you turn one dollar into two.” He took business classes, started a mail-order business selling training programs and invested in California real estate. He saved $27,000 and borrowed $10,000 more, buying his first building, which had six units, for $240,000. Two years later, he sold it for $390,000. One building led to the next, and soon he had hundreds of units.
“I was a millionaire way before I ever clicked in the movies. And the reason why I was insistent on becoming financially independent is this way I didn’t have to take roles for financial needs.”

So when he sat down for lunch with Cameron back in the 1980s, he was fresh off of playing the sword-swinging Conan the Barbarian, and looking to build on his hero image. Playing a killer robot didn’t initially appeal to him. He was originally pegged to play Kyle Reese, who tries to save Connor from the merciless machine, but over lunch Cameron shifted gears, offering Schwarzenegger the role of the robot. He sold him on the concept by explaining how the Terminator wasn’t a true villain, just a machine following its mission. 

Critics lauded The Terminator, which has a perfect 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. “No one expected it to get reviews like that, not even TriStar,” says Schwarzenegger. “They were blown away that it was not considered like a B movie.” The film also did well financially, taking in $78 million (nearly $200 million in today’s dollars) on a $6 million budget. The story continued with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which was the biggest film of 1991, raking in $204 million in the U.S. and more than $500 million worldwide. Combined, the first five Terminator films have grossed nearly $2 billion. All but one of them have starred Schwarzenegger. He couldn’t take part in Terminator: Salvation, released in 2009, because he was serving as California’s governor. His likeness made a brief appearance via CGI.

The Terminator tale got clouded after the second film. Cameron, who wrote and directed the first two movies, had sold the rights to the franchise, and wasn’t involved with movies three, four and five. The Terminator bounced around from studio to studio, and the time travel plot device allowed for all manner of changes to the story. But Cameron got the rights back this year, and Terminator: Dark Fate ignores the last three films. “This is a continuation of the story from Terminator 1 and Terminator 2. And we’re pretending the other films were a bad dream,” Cameron told a Hollywood Reporter panel. “It’s grim, it’s gritty, it’s fast, it’s intense.” He’s one of the film’s writers, and serves as executive producer.

The film is directed by Tim Miller, who was also behind the hit Deadpool. Miller raves about Schwarzenegger’s appeal, which works even when he isn’t playing the hero. “No matter what Arnold does, people love him,” says Miller. “If he’s a bad guy, people love him, and if he’s a good guy, people love him.” He calls Schwarzenegger “the epitome of an action hero.”

The film reunites Schwarzenegger with Hamilton, reprising her role as Sarah Connor. She’s a badass, a tiger mom for the apocalypse, as comfortable with a grenade launcher as a teen is with a cell phone. Her character was pursued by the Terminator in the original movie, protected by it in the sequel and seems to have forged an uneasy alliance with it in Dark Fate. “When this is over,” she says in the trailer to Schwarzenegger, “I am going to kill you.” The story picks up 27 years after Terminator 2, in which Connor and the humans seemed to finally win, preventing global nuclear war by destroying the Cyberdine computer system.

Photo/Kerry Brown

The Terminator is described as a “cybernetic organism, living tissue over a metal endoskeleton.” It’s remarkably resilient, but the flesh around it bleeds, and can age, and the computer that drives it is capable of learning and changing. So even though Schwarzenegger plays the same model of machine in each movie, each one has its nuances. “I think that in each of the Terminators, I play a little different role,” he says. “The missions are different, how much I was with human beings changes my behavior.” 

This is also the first film between Schwarzenegger and Cameron in 25 years. The movies they make are memorable, but they don’t always agree. Schwarzenegger wrote about battling with Cameron over the Terminator’s oft-quoted line: “I’ll be back,” in his 2012 book Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story. Schwarzenegger, who was raised speaking German in his native Austria, thought it worked better as “I will be back.” Cameron doesn’t like his words to be changed. “Not even the punctuation,” says Schwarzenegger. “He will fight for every fucking line in the movie.” The line ended up becoming Schwarzenegger’s most famous catch phrase, one he used in at least seven other films. 

Cigars also make frequent appearances in Schwarzenegger movies. He smoked his first cigar in a German beer hall more than 50 years ago, a year before he made history by being named, at 20, the youngest person ever to be crowned Mr. Universe. There were cigars for sale. “Cigarillos, with the straws sticking out,” he says. Schwarzenegger was focused on his fitness—he followed the advice from bodybuilding magazines, that warned about drinking alcohol, sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes. (The occasional beer was fine, due to its low alcohol content.) “I don’t think I have even had a puff of a cigarette,” he says. “But the bodybuilding magazines didn’t mention cigars.”

The cigarillos didn’t become a habit, and he stayed clear of cigars for about a decade, being properly introduced to them when he met Sargent Shriver, the father of Maria Shriver, whom he was dating at the time. (They married in 1986; she filed for divorce in 2011.) “I’m having dinner at their house in Washington [in 1978]. After dinner, he says to me, ‘Have you ever smoked a cigar?’  And I said, ‘yeah, little ones.’ ” They went downstairs, and Shriver pulled out some Montecristo No. 2 torpedos. “He told me the whole story, that this is a Cuban cigar, the best of the best, they don’t sell these in this country. So I smoked with him. And the next day we smoked another one, then the next day we smoked another one.”

On the set of Conan the Barbarian, which was filmed in Spain, Schwarzenegger smoked cigars with director John Milius, who enjoyed cigars so much he had it written into his contract that he would get two boxes every week. Milius and Schwarzenegger would take smoke breaks. “If we were setting up a shot, Milius would say, ‘Bring me the cigars. Let’s have one now. I think we deserve a cigar in the middle of the day.’” Schwarzenegger would repeat that move on other movie sets. “Then all of a sudden, before you know it, every single scene you do in a movie, in between takes, you light up and you end up smoking three cigars a day,” he says. Now he smokes one cigar a day.

Schwarzenegger broke into movies thanks to his muscles, but his sharp sense of humor helped make him stand out. One of his best-known films is the 1988 comedy Twins, in which he plays the unlikely brother of Danny DeVito. (The two are reuniting for a sequel called Triplets, bringing in Eddie Murphy as the third brother. It’s scheduled for a 2020 release.) He was educated in the art of telling a joke by one of the world’s best, legendary comedian Milton Berle. “We were very good friends. He was the guy who taught me about humor.” Berle took Schwarzenegger under his wing, teaching him about timing, and the subtleties of the English language that made it harder for someone who grew up speaking German to tell a good joke in English.

Berle, who also smoked a heroic number of cigars throughout his long life, didn’t spare his friend when roasting him at the Friar’s Club. “Waiting for Arnold to win an Oscar,” said Berle, “is like leaving the porch light on for Jimmy Hoffa.”

Schwarzenegger and Berle would get together over cigars at Café Roma in Beverly Hills, or at one of their homes. “I would learn from him, and the more I learned, the more I was around him, the more I started to understand how humor works, and how to use the English language,” Schwarzenegger says. “Because it needs this extra five percent of understanding of the language, of the subtlety of the language. Either you get it or you don’t. That’s why a lot of people from overseas have a tough time telling an English joke.” Schwarzenegger talks about his friend, German actor and bodybuilder Ralf Moeller. “He cannot tell an English joke,” says Arnold. “Ralfie will say: ‘Look, we are going to burn that bridge before we cross it.’ ”

Schwarzenegger, who was born in Allied-occupied Austria in 1947, overcame his strong accent to be a movie star. He had shown a propensity for setting goals and meeting—or breaking—them from an early age, writing his reps and sets in chalk on the gym wall to note his progress. When he would set a goal, he wouldn’t keep it to himself, but talk about it and write it down, to extend the challenge. “I said I want to be a movie star, I want to be a leading man, even though everyone said it’s impossible. Then you follow through with the commitment,” he says.

Photo/Kerry Brown

One of those goals was entering U.S. politics. “I was committed when I came over here, that I wanted to give something back to America.” In earlier years, he worked with the Special Olympics, and then was chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness under the first President Bush. The longtime republican was elected California governor in 2003 during a special recall election, and was reelected in 2006, serving until he left office in 2011. Some of his views run counter to that of his party—he’s an ardent environmentalist, thinks climate change is among the greatest problems facing the United States.

“There should be not one warehouse in the United States that’s not covered with solar panels. Give subsidies for it.  We in California do that,” he says. “America can be a good example of how you can go and lead on the environment—just like Kennedy led with space exploration,” he says. “We can show the world that you can have a successful economy, the No. 1 economy, and be No. 1 in the environment.”

Schwarzenegger speaks fondly about the state that he has called home since the 1970s. “California is an extraordinary place; it always has been. It’s now the fifth-largest economy in the world. Bigger than England, bigger than France or Italy.” He takes a puff of the Montecristo. “California is in really good shape. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have flaws. Our budget system sucks, our tax system sucks and at any given time, if there is a decline economically, California could be in very deep trouble.” He also feels the homeless situation in the state is a mess. “It’s out of control. Ten years ago they talked about how to get rid of [the] homeless [problem], and since then it’s only increased.”

He famously erected a smoking tent in the capital atrium as governor, to work around the laws prohibiting smoking in the capitol. He said democrat lawmakers would join him in the tent—some after they introduced legislation to have it taken down. When asked if that type of political hypocrisy annoys him, he shrugs it off. “Well, if you are looking at it in a very serious way, then it will bother you. But you figure out that it’s also like show business.”

Even though he’s the very icon of movie star cigar smokers—he’s breaking his own record by appearing on our cover a fourth time—he’s not opposed to certain smoking restrictions. “I myself signed a lot of anti-smoking bills. I always felt that no one else should suffer because of my smoke…If I sit somewhere outside and my smoke drifts to another table, I cannot enjoy my cigar anymore.

“I wasn’t trying to protect me or cigar smokers, I was trying to protect everybody. Let’s love cigar smokers, but let’s also love nonsmokers. Let’s figure out how to coexist. And how do you coexist? You meet in the middle.” 

He watches television news regularly, but switches networks. “In order to get the truth. One is to the left, one is to the right, one is a little bit close to the center, it’s all over the place. If you want to really capture the feeling of what’s going on, I think it’s better to just flip channels every so often. I cannot take all the left-wing bullshit, and when I switch over, I can’t take the right-wing bullshit either.”

He doesn’t enjoy smoking rooms, preferring to smoke outside. “With a passion, I hate smoking rooms,” he says. He’ll smoke in his Santa Monica office, about once a week, with the windows open, but his favorite place to smoke is where he is now, the cabana outside. His friends come over and enjoy his open humidor (and open wine cellar) policy, taking cigars, lighting up and enjoying Napa Valley wine. “The policy is my stuff is always there to be shared. There’s nothing that I have that I would not share. That’s just the way it is,” he says. 

He bought the home in 2002, a spec house, and one of the many things he added was the cabana. He’s comfortable here. “That’s why I built this whole thing here, I want to sit in front of the fireplace, watch my TV, UFC fights or the news at night.”

He takes another puff. A script sits to his side, waiting for a rehearsal. In the morning, he will repeat the ritual: news, bike, gym, cigar. When you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger, life is good.

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