Schwarzenegger's Astonishing Rise From Bodybuilding Great To Action Film Icon

The Austrian Oak turns 73
14:00, 30 Jul 2020

If you were asked which one person defines the ethos of ‘The American Dream’ better than anyone else, chances are the first person to come to your mind wouldn’t be from the US of A at all, and rather a tiny village in the south of Austria.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has been the ultimate proponent of ‘The Dream’ for nearly 40 years now, since making his Hollywood debut in ‘Conan The Barbarian’ on the back of, a then-unprecedented, seven Mr Olympia title wins.

Better known these days for being the greatest action star to grace the silver screen or for his jaunt as the Governor of California, it was slaving away in the gym that defined ‘Arnie’ to a generation and his 22 inch biceps had an influence on nearly everyone, even today, to pick up a pair of dumbbells and curl like your life depended on it.

Described by LA Weekly in 2002, Schwarzenegger "overcame a thick Austrian accent and transcended the unlikely background of bodybuilding to become the biggest movie star in the world in the 1990s." 

Born in Thal, Styria, a small village neighbouring Graz, in 1947 to a local police officer and veteran of the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II, life was disciplined for the young Schwarzenegger and it was this strict approach from his father that would lead him into sport and eventually weightlifting, when he first picked up a barbell in a gym during football practice. 

Schwarzenegger had swapped soccer for squats by the age of 15, despite the protests of both parents, and a career in bodybuilding was underway. 

The Austrian Oak’s hunger to train was so great that he would often break into his local gym on the weekends, when it was closed, just so he wouldn’t miss a workout. 

“It would make me sick to miss a workout... I knew I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror the next morning if I didn’t do it,” he later reflected.

His desire to train went a step further as an 18-year-old inducted into the Austrian Army. During basic training, he went AWOL in a bid to train for the Junior Mr Europe contest in Germany, which he won, but resulted in a week in the prison slammer for his efforts.

His popularity in bodybuilding circles escalated when he was named the “best-built man in Europe” and by the age of 21, he knew his chosen profession would open the gate to much bigger things.

"The Mr Universe title was my ticket to America - the land of opportunity, where I could become a star and get rich,” he admitted.

During the NABBA Mr Universe competition in London in 1966, where he placed second, he met Charles "Wag" Bennett, a judge and fan of the blossoming Austrian giant, who offered to train Arnold at his crowded home above one of his two gyms in London. 

Bennett helped improve the size and definition of Arnie’s legendary tree trunk legs and also helped him grasp the basics of the English language, something that would prove invaluable when he began his takeover of Hollywood in the 1980s. 

"Being with them made me so much more sophisticated,” he explained to the Daily Telegraph in 2017. “When you're the age I was then, you're always looking for approval, for love, for attention and also for guidance. At the time, I wasn't really aware of that. But now, looking back, I see that the Bennett family fulfilled all those needs. Especially my need to be the best in the world. To be recognized and to feel unique and special. They saw that I needed that care and attention and love.”

Training with Bennett led to a chance encounter with his childhood idol, three-time Mr Universe winner Reg Park. The two quickly hit it off and Park soon became Arnie’s mentor as he navigated through the world of bodybuilding. The training clearly had an effect on the protege, who went on to win Mr Universe in 1967, becoming the youngest competitor to do so at 20-years-old. He would go on to win the title a further three times.

In 1968, over a decade after a young Arnie realised his life goal was to pursue ‘The American Dream’, he decided he decided to move Stateside and it was here that his long association with the historic Gold’s Gym on Venice Beach, Los Angeles began. In 1970, at age 23, he captured his first Mr Olympia title in New York, his first of seven over the next decade.

It was his starring role in George Butler and Robert Fiore’s epic docudrama Pumping Iron that would propel Arnie into the limelight. Chronicling the build-up to the 1975 Mr Olympia, it shows Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding veteran fend off the up and coming Lou Ferrigno (another future actor who owes a great deal to bodybuilding) for the title.

What followed, is, as they say, history. Schwarzenegger would go on to become one of the most famous faces in Hollywood history and completely dominated the action movie scene for well over a decade in films including The Terminator series, Commando, Predator, Total Recall and many, many more, each as delightfully quotable as the last. 

There have been a number of low points in his lifetime including steroid use and a well-publicised divorce but for all of his faults, Arnold Schwarzenegger stands the test of time as one of the most inspirational and hard-working people/athletes of all-time. There’ll never be another like him.

This article first appeared in The Sportsman on 30/07/19

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