The Life of a Legend: Extract from Arnold Schwarzenegger

  30 Apr '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Arnold Schwarzenegger – a bodybuilder-turned-real-estate mogul who turned an undefeated streak at the Mr Olympia contest into an astonishing film career and eight years as the governor of California – is, for many people, the embodiment of the American Dream. Fiaz Rafiq’s new book, coming next week, includes interviews with Schwarzenegger’s close friends, bodybuilding peers and Hollywood co-stars. The below extract is an interview with George Butler, who helped propel Schwarzenegger into film stardom.

Extract from Arnold Schwarzenegger by Fiaz Rafiq

Many acknowledge George Butler, born in the United Kingdom, to be responsible for starting Arnold’s film career when he produced the classic Pumping Iron. A photographer and filmmaker, Butler became a close friend of Arnold’s and got to know him personally, producing a series of life-sized portraits of the Mr. Olympia winner. A lifelong conservationist, he has worked on many of the most critically acclaimed documentaries ever made.

Q: George, you were the mastermind behind Pumping Iron, how did this all start?
George Butler: I had an assignment from Sports Illustrated magazine to do an article on a bodybuilding contest in Massachusetts. I went there with Charles Gaines, who went on to write the book Pumping Iron. I took the photos for the book. We noticed that the crowd was going crazy over the bodybuilders, and we decided to do a book. One thing led to another I guess. The last overseas assignment that magazine gave us was to go to Baghdad to cover the Mr. Universe contest. Once we finished the book and when we turned it in to the publisher, they rejected the book and said no one ever will be interested in Arnold Schwarzenegger. They were wrong.

Q: What kind of personality did Arnold project when you were filming him in Pumping Iron?
George Butler: He was very quick, very eager to learn and very good at what he did – very ambitious. He worked very closely with us at that time when we did the film. He was an ideal collaborator.

Q: In your opinion, what was some of the more interesting footage you shot?
George Butler: It was all interesting. He holds the screen very well. We shot about a hundred hours of film. Arnold was very cooperative. So we got a lot of good footage all over the world. We shot in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and South Africa. Arnold was very helpful. There’s a scene where Arnold went to the zoo in South Africa, where they were keeping some rhinos. I was very nervous because Arnold was very transfixed with this big rhino, but that scene did not make it into the movie. Let me give you another example. I filmed some footage with Arnold and Mike Katz. Mike Katz was part of the movie Pumping Iron, and they were doing Roman chair sit-ups. I remember Mike Katz saying, “This is the most boring exercise I’ve ever done,” and Arnold laughed at him and said, “It’s perfect for me, Mike. I sit on the Roman chair and do those sit-ups, and I take the extra time to think how I’m going to make my next movie.”

Q: Of course, Lou Ferrigno was the other prominent bodybuilder who appeared in the film. What influenced your decision to have him play one of the main roles?
George Butler: Well, I was very insistent to have Lou be in the movie because at 6ft 4in, 270 lbs, he was a giant and he looked like he could beat Arnold. The rivalry between Lou and Arnold was visible. There was Serge Nubret, who was a French bodybuilder who lived in Paris. There was Mike Katz, who was a professional football player. There was Ed Corney, who was a professional surfer. There were a lot of interesting people in the movie, including Franco Columbu, who is a chiropractor. We all got along and had a good time and shot very good scenes for the movie.

Q: Can we talk about how you got the film financed, what obstacles lay ahead?
George Butler: Everyone thought it was a crazy idea for a movie. Everyone said, “George, you’re wasting your life making a movie about Arnold Schwarzenegger.” I stuck to my guns and we made a very good movie, and that’s where I overcame most of the obstacles. It was very difficult to finance, but eventually we got it done. Most people thought that bodybuilding was a ridiculous sport – that was the enemy. So the more exposure the movie had the more cities we went to and the more interested the people became. Eventually, I think the movie caused a hundred thousand gyms to open up around the world and bodybuilding became a bigger sport than jogging, but it all took time.

The budget for Pumping Iron was $400,000. Jerome Gary, who was one of the producers, contributed $25,000, and a further $110,000 was invested by Butler’s wife. This was a very modest budget for a film that took three or four months to film. Short on money, Butler asked for $15,000 in credit from a lab in New York after coming back from filming the initial parts of the docu/drama, which was then standard practice during production. After Butler divulged to the lab that the credit was for a bodybuilding film, the curious owner asked whether this unusual venture of Butler’s had anything to do with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Butler, of course, said yes, and was promptly denied the credit – only to learn that years earlier, the lab had done work for Hercules in New York, but the company never got paid, losing out on $30,000. When Pumping Iron was released, it was embraced beyond the confines of the bodybuilding fraternity. One reviewer in a prominent newspaper wrote, “Mr. Schwarzenegger is the central figure in Pumping Iron, an interesting, rather slick and excessively long documentary about the small but intensely competitive world of bodybuilding. The first thing the outsider realizes watching the film, is that the object of all that weightlifting is neither strength nor prowess, but appearance. Mr. Schwarzenegger calls himself a sculptor of his own body.”

Q: It’s generally considered that Arnold’s exposure to a much wider audience through Pumping Iron, which was no doubt a seminal film, led to open doors in Hollywood. Would you say you were responsible, to a degree, for this?
George Butler: You must remember Arnold made three movies before he made Pumping Iron. One was called Hercules in New York, which failed in the United States. It was a total flop. It was a ridiculous movie that got no distribution. Arnold should not have done it. Then there was a second movie called Stay Hungry for United Artists. Bob Rafelson was the director. Jeff Bridges and Sally Field were in the movie. And it, too, was a failure at the box office. And it took Pumping Iron to come along and elevate Arnold to a much higher plane and the national interest in Arnold. He went on a wonderful publicity campaign in New York, and it all worked out very well.

More than fifteen years later, at the height of his fame, Arnold was on Late Night With David Letterman promoting Terminator II when Letterman showed a clip of Arnold’s first movie, Hercules in New York. “I cannot believe it!” Arnold laughed as the audience joined in. “I have to tell you, every single time I come to this show there’s some kind of a surprise. I said to myself, What could it be today? There you have it, a movie I tried to hide for centuries,” laughed Arnold. At the time, the young Austrian had literally just got off the boat basically in his quest to conquer America. He could hardly speak English fluently. The production company dubbed his voice. “I didn’t even know what I was saying, it was dubbed,” Arnold continued. “And it was one of those dream stories, in a way, you say to yourself, This is true, there’s such a thing when you come to America someone comes up to you and says, ‘Do you want to star in a movie?’ That’s what this was.” He said he was ecstatic and had made $3,000 doing the film. Arnold had come a long way from his initial exposure into the film industry, and was now polished and the highest-paid star in Hollywood.

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