Close Encounter With Schwarzenegger — Maybe Too close?

My daughter grew up in California at a time in which the state and the governor seemed to be in a perpetual state of crisis; Gray Davis was recalled and removed within months of the start of his second term. Then, the improbable candidacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger quickly went from dubious prospect to inauguration followed by a solid two terms as Governor of California, leading her to believe that Schwarzenegger completely measured up as highest office holder in the state.

I did some measuring myself, back in 1977 when I met Schwarzenegger and had the opportunity to run a tape measure around his neck, not a feat I’d try again, and a little daunting even in retrospect. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arose as Schwarzenegger appeared at the unofficial premiere of the film that was to set him on the road to stardom. Through an odd set of circumstances, I was involved in the arrangement of that event and complied with the star’s command, “Go ahead. Measure my neck.”

The film was Pumping Iron, a docudrama produced by George Butler, based on the essay, “Pumping Iron” by Charles Gaines. It was the first film to feature Arnold Schwarzenegger, then known as an Austrian bodybuilder who had captured the title of Mr. Universe in 1966, Mr. Olympia in 1969, and whose sculpted physique virtually owned international bodybuilding throughout the 1970’s. He’d had bit parts in two movies, one of which, Stay Hungry, had something of a cult following because of Schwarzenegger’s role. Pumping Iron was released in January of 1977 and was a commercial success, kick starting Schwarzenegger’s career in film and accelerating the development of franchised exercise and fitness gyms.

Buzz about Gaines’ article had grabbed the attention of Dino de Laurentiis who was looking for a project for his daughter. By the time Arnold and I met face to neck, he had been cast as Conan the Barbarian, a role that established him as the premiere piece of beefcake in Hollywood, a position previously held by the relatively ordinary muscular giant, Steve Reeves. Beefcake, by the way, was the term used to describe hunky guys in Hollywood fan magazines; Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe, on the other hand, were pin-up girls, and their photos were known as cheesecake. Beef, cheese …no Vegan terminology in those days.

In any case, it happened that in those years I ran the Berkshire Film Society in Sheffield, Massachusetts, a very small association attempting to bring classic and experimental films to south Berkshire County. Our theater was musty and cramped, our equipment was primitive, and our budget was exhausted. I got a call from the far snappier film society in Salisbury, Connecticut, a near neighbor, asking if I’d like to join in hosting Charles Gaines, Schwarzenegger, and the as-yet-unreleased film, Pumping Iron.

I jumped at the chance for a number of reasons. Two of the most stalwart members of my small cadre lived just outside of Salisbury and had been hoping we might find a way to connect the two groups. The only celebrity in my bunch was Terry Southern, author of Dr. Strangelove and Candy, and a wickedly funny man (I do mean wicked) who shared with me an odd appreciation of the competitive world of bodybuilding. We had both read the Gaines articles, seen Butler’s photos illustrating the essay, and thought the film would be a hoot.

The Salisbury Film Society booked the auditorium of Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, opened the screening to the public, and invited Hotchkiss students to attend as well. My job was to bring in an audience from southwestern Massachusetts, fairly easy to do as I also had an early morning radio show on the only station available in that corner of the state, and, more importantly, there is nothing to do at night in southwestern Massachusetts when the temperature drops below zero.

The auditorium was packed; as a fund-raiser it was a clear triumph. The film was far better than I had expected, a great documentary about the competitive world of bodybuilding as well as a compelling drama featuring the self-assured prankster, Schwarzenegger, and his aspiring rival, hearing impaired and self-doubting Lou Ferrigno, later a slab of beefcake himself as the TV incarnation of the Incredible Hulk.

Ferrigno did not attend the screening, but Schwarzenegger was in rare form. He had been at the top of his career for a decade and was eager to move into whatever niche Hollywood could find for him. He had just found out that the Conan project had been green-lighted, Oliver Stone had been hired to write the script, and James Earl Jones had been cast as Thulma Doom, the fiend who had killed Conan’s parents. It took another two years to get the project off the ground and into production in Spain; by that time, John Milius as director had re-written the Stone script, toughening the action to give Schwartzenegger more room to flex his personality.

That evening, in the question-and-answer part of the program, I asked if Schwarzenegger hoped to win a part in a film in which he wouldn’t have to take off his shirt. I know, what the hell was I thinking? With great restraint and good humor, Schwartzenegger took off his jacket and made a gesture as if he were about to un button his shirt.

The next question came from a student in the audience, asking how his physical features had changed since he had stopped training for competition. There was considerable back and forth about various body features, dialogue that Schwarzenegger seemed to enjoy.

To be clear, he was still huge.

He wore a suit that allowed him to look something like a mortal, but when he took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, the masquerade was over. At the top of his game as a competitor, Schwarzenegger weighed about 245 pounds. He was 6 feet 2 inches tall, and every limb had been developed for perfect symmetry. A champion can’t have huge arms and skinny legs; everything has to be in perfect proportion, and he had been termed the most perfectly developed human for years.

Arnold Schwarzenegger could not have been more cordial in describing his training routine and the resultant physical features; he thought of himself as a sculptor, working in his own medium. His weight that evening was 235 pounds. He had a 32 inch waist, his chest when expanded measured 57 inches. I’m going to stop there to suggest that his chest was about the length of a kid just under five feet tall. His thighs were 28 inches around, both of them, again about the size of a sixteen year old’s waist. He tapered down to a mere 19 inches at the calf (more than a foot and a half), and his bicep when flexed was 20 inches in circumference. The next time you see an AYSO team playing soccer, the ball they kick is only slightly larger than Arnold’s arm.

And so, it came to the neck. Because I had been affronting enough to question the star’s career path, he beckoned me to the front of the auditorium, handed me a tape measure, and said, Go ahead. Measure my neck.”

I was 5 foot 8 1/2 inches tall. I had to ask Arnold to lean a bit so that I coud operate the tape. I don’t know what I expected. 2 feet? 22 inches? At that time, Arnold Schwarzenegger had a neck that measured only slightly more than 18 inches. As in all other things, in perfect proportion with the rest of his physique.

I was completely charmed by Schwarzenegger that night and have since seen him in almost everything he’s made. We all have favorite roles, of course, and mine tend to fall into three categories.

Against all odds, he has a lively and gentle sense of humor, a quality best expressed in some of the lighter roles, such as Jingle All the Way, Junior, Twins, and to some extent Kindergarten Cop. That film generated two of my favorite Schwarzenegger lines, delivered with that signature Austrian accent. “Who is your daddy, and what does he do?” , and his querulous response to the child who fears he has a tumor, ” That is not a too-mah!”

Schwarzenegger became an action superstar fairly quickly, frequently appearing as the leader of an elite military or para-military crew facing overwhelming odds or as a sleuth on his own, facing overwhelming odds. My favorites of these many films include Commando, in which his character’s survival skills are so advanced that he can smell invaders before they appear, and Total Recall, an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick Sci Fi adventure in which a special effects moment makes it seem that his head expands and explodes as he exposed to the atmosphere on Mars. Critics had fun at his expense when Schwarzenegger was cast as a robot in the Terminator series (“Schwarzenegger a robot — now that’s type casting!”), but he made us feel for the machine.

Batman and Robin stands alone in the Schwarzenegger oeuvre. I’m a fan of director Joel Schumacher, and the cast for the film was fantastic. George Clooney was Bruce Wayne/ Batman, and Schwarzenegger played his nemesis, Dr. Victor Fries, a Noble Prize winning molecular biologist whose body was altered as he tried to freeze his terminally ill wife. Fries, damaged physically and psychically, can only live in a suit that keeps him at a sub-zero temperature, thus becoming Mr. Freeze.

It’s a goofy sidestep in the cinematic history of Batman, a bit more like the early tv show than the Dark Knights. Chris O’Donnell is Robin, kind of a bat bro, eager to break out of the bat-shadow. Alicia Silverstone, fresh from Clueless, is Batgirl, not only a crime fighter in the making but niece of the Bat Butler, Alfred, played by the brilliant English character actor, Michael Gough. Schumacher brought another contemporary trope to the film, casting Uma Thurman as an eco-terrorist, resentful that a chemical mishap has caused her blood to turn to aloe, her skin to chlorophyl, and her lips to a toxin that goes unnamed.

Mr. Freeze steals the show, I think, with puns that live eternal in the hearts of Schwarzenegger fans. “Alright, everyone. Chill!”, “I’m afraid my condition has left me cold to your pleas for mercy”, “The Ice Man cometh”, and “Let’s kick some ice!

From time to time I recall my up-close-and personal with the future Mr. Freeze and Governor of California, wishing I had not been so snarky in challenging his acting skills. He’s measured up and built a career, several careers, that would be the envy of any aspiring actor.

And … I’m pretty sure he could still crush me like a grape.

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