Alan Richman
October 14, 1985 12:00 PM

He has killed in so many ways. From the bone-crushing Conan to the computer-guided Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger practiced only the most creative means of mayhem.

But what’s an action hero to do next?

During the filming of Commando, which opened in nearly 1,600 theaters last Friday, Arnold thought about this, because he thinks all the time, pumping those brain cells, and he was afraid that the special operations strike-force colonel he plays would seem a rather ordinary avenger. Sure, a commando can cut off a guy’s arm with an axe or a hoe or any convenient gardening tool, and you’ve got the blood clotting, the stump glistening and the censors gagging. But would that be enough for today’s audiences?

Arnold thought not.

Then he had this funny idea. At least it was funny to him, but you have to understand that Arnold’s sense of humor should have been checked out a lot more thoroughly before he was allowed to reside permanently in the United States. The scene with the arm hacking comes after he amphibiously assaults an ex-dictator’s island hideaway and single-handedly cuts down about eight dozen soldiers, not one of whom ever earned a marksman’s badge. Arnold is hiding weaponless in a tool shed, and suddenly he comes out chopping, taking off an arm in a single swipe. The guy starts screaming, which is about what you’d expect him to do, and Arnold figures a way to make the scene something you wouldn’t expect: “Why not hit him over the head with his own arm and say, ‘Shut up!’ What an evil thing to do.”

Arnold is beaming as he recounts this, a 38-year-old, 220-pound mass of cinematic carnage described as “the warmest sunflower of a man” by co-star Rae Dawn Chong. He has a wide-toothed, childlike smile and a glowing, guileless face, and when you hear the idea from him, you start thinking it wouldn’t be so bad for the commando, the good guy, to hit a soldier over the head with his own severed arm. All of Arnold’s friends liked the idea, but then all of Arnold’s friends have a sense of humor much like his. So Arnold takes the idea to Mark Lester, the director, and tells Lester how he wants to improve the scene.

Arnold is laughing now, telling this story, laughing so hard his body is shaking, which is something to see given that body, and Arnold says Lester turned white. “I know he was thinking, ‘That’s the sickest guy in the whole world.’ ”

Anyway, in Commando, nobody gets hit over the head with his own arm, although not much else is missing. When it comes to bloodshed, the special operations strike-force colonel makes Rambo look like a humanitarian. He even makes little jokes while he’s killing, a role very much to Arnold’s taste. Back in his competition days, he used to fool around onstage, trading one-liners with his friends during bodybuilding contests.

“When you meet him,” says Commando producer Joel Silver, “you imagine he’s going to be a quiet, stoic, big construction of a guy, and he’s like one of the Three Stooges.” Alyssa Milano, 12, who plays Arnold’s daughter in the film, was delighted with her discovery: “He’s so funny. He’s like a kid almost.” Of course, Arnold never played his favorite trick on her. That’s where someone sits down to coffee, and Arnold warns him that the milk is sour. When he leans down to sniff, Arnold pushes his face in the milk.

Imagine working with such a man.

Wait. Imagine living with such a man.

The woman who is preparing for that—no, make that looking forward to that—is Maria Shriver, 29, whom Arnold met at the Robert F. Kennedy Pro-Celebrity Tennis Tournament in 1977. They became engaged in August and plan to marry in April, thus ending intense conjecture in the press over just how much time she spends at her own Santa Monica apartment and how much at Arnold’s house a few blocks away. They are not a likely couple: She is an inner-circle Democrat and niece of JFK who now co-anchors the CBS Morning News, and he is a Reaganite who made his reputation with an oiled body. For that matter, the Kennedys probably think all Reaganites oil their bodies.

Arnold says the reason for the success of their eight-year relationship, a friendship that evolved into an engagement, is that Maria has him figured out. “I have this temper,” he says, “more like I’m impatient, when I want to get something done right away and if it isn’t, I go crazy. On the set, I make a big, big effort to control my temper, but other times, at home, I don’t make an effort. I’ll get in the car screaming about something, and she’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, look good, be brutal, look like the Terminator,’ and I’ll start laughing. Or I’ll be in a quiet mood, sitting there, she’ll say something to me, I’ll give a smart answer, and she’ll pat my shoulder like I’m a child and say, ‘Good boy, thinking about his career. Going to be a big star.’ She always makes me laugh.”

By now you might be wondering what Maria likes about Arnold.

“His sense of humor,” she says.

“You mean the sour-milk-in-the-face trick doesn’t appall you?”


“Not even in your own face?”

“Of course not.”

“So what else do you like about him?”

“His intelligence.”

“You haven’t mentioned the body. What about the body?”

“I don’t ever think about that.”

“You don’t ever think about the greatest body of all time?”

“I just don’t think about it.”

Then she starts giggling, as though thinking about Arnold as the most perfect specimen of mankind is too outrageous to consider. Not that he doesn’t have his moments.

This summer, while they were vacationing in Austria, Arnold took Maria rowing on a lake in Thal, the village where he grew up. He had a ring with him, the ring he had been carrying for months, waiting for the perfect moment, the sublime place. Right there, on the lake where he swam as a boy, he asked her to marry him.

What did Maria say?

She said the only thing a woman familiar with Arnold could say.

“Are you serious?” she said.

He took out the ring.

“You are serious,” she said.

Then she said yes.

“Twenty years from now,” Maria says, “I see us happy. I see us surrounded by a bunch of kids. I see us laughing.”

In the short term she has a good deal too. Marriage to Arnold means the companionship of one of the most competent dishwashers in America. They are very private about their life together, but it is known that Arnold cleans up after meals. “Maria always says to her girlfriends, to show off when they say how bad their husbands are, that I always wash the dishes right away,” Arnold says. “Little do her girlfriends know that if I don’t do them, they’ll be sitting there unwashed for a month.”

What seems in concept a totally charming marriage—Mark Lester thinks it could be the basis for a TV sitcom—now becomes a challenging one. Since Maria has taken the CBS job in New York, they are 3,000 miles and three time zones apart, and their work schedules are perversely different: When she is getting up at 3 a.m. in Manhattan, Arnold is going to sleep at midnight in Santa Monica. Maria is characteristically determined to make it work.

“There are sacrifices to be made,” she says. “Nobody would opt for this schedule, but I wouldn’t have taken the job if Arnold hadn’t been supportive. He pushed me to do it.” They plan to be together at least once every five days, whether that means Arnold flying to New York or Maria flying to wherever Arnold is filming. She says that if it ever comes down to Arnold or the job, the decision won’t be difficult. “I come from a big, close-knit family, and I’m a big believer that jobs come and go, they’re a dime a dozen. No matter what the profession, if you don’t do it, somebody else will. You only have one family, one shot at that, and it’s a full-time job to do it right.”

Reminded that she once was quoted as saying she wanted five children, Maria looks startled, then says, “Don’t tell Arnold that.”

While she brings resolve to the marriage, Arnold adds a certainty that nothing can go wrong. He already thinks of his life as charmed, maybe even a notch higher on the scale of supernatural career support, and he simply can’t conceptualize failure. “It’s a perfect situation,” he says. “When I get up at 7 a.m., she’s finished the show in New York and we can talk then. When I go to bed at midnight, I’ll wake her up so she can go to work.” He is Catholic, and he sometimes wonders if a higher being has looked after him, although he thinks it unlikely that God would be interested in bodybuilding. “How can you say He was interested in me getting a pump?” he wonders.

When he arrived in the U.S. in 1968, he planned to make his fortune by opening a gym and marketing vitamins through bodybuilding magazines. He was already an accomplished bodybuilder, but he was not yet Mr. Olympia, the professional champion of champions, a title he would win seven times, the last time after a five-year retirement. He was 21 when he arrived with a body like a piece of Renaissance sculpture and a desire to succeed in a capitalist society.

The first thing he found here was that stores didn’t sell clothing in his size. So he took that body to fat men’s stores, where the colors were blacks and browns and purples and, he says, “I looked all the time like a farmer getting ready to get on his tractor.” The next thing he found was that he was lonely for his friend Franco Columbu, who trained with him in Europe. Arnold kept calling until Franco packed up his posing trunks and came to America too. Friends hardly ever refuse Arnold, not because he bullies them but because he seems to know more about what’s good for them than they do. Franco developed into probably the second greatest bodybuilder of the era and is now, at 44, a chiropractor practicing in Los Angeles.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1984, a year after Arnold, and he says proudly that the two of them are “the most American of all Americans.” Arnold listens to Willie Nelson, rides a Harley-Davidson and cherishes a ’57 Cadillac convertible. After his citizenship ceremony, he posed for pictures in an Uncle Sam outfit, the happiest young Republican you ever did see.

The American way of life was good to the roommates, although occasionally puzzling. They went into the bricklaying business, building walls by day and their bodies by night, and one day a customer requested a serious wall that would keep out intruders. Arnold suggested broken glass across the top, the way it’s done in Europe. After the wall went up, the man called back and said they’d have to remove the glass. In Europe, if someone is cut climbing into a yard where he doesn’t belong, the police will likely arrest him. In America, he hires a lawyer and sues the owner of the yard. Arnold still has trouble understanding this.

Everything else about America he soon got down pat.

He has his own small company, Oak Productions, which sells T-shirts, posters and weight-training belts and also produces bodybuilding competitions. Financially, he was “set for life” before he signed for Commando, mainly from real estate investments. “I don’t think about money,” he says. “The only time I do is when I make it because then I have to think about where to invest it.” What is important to him now is what he calls the “building of a foundation” of a film career that admittedly did not get off to a great start.

His first film, made in 1969, was titled Hercules Goes Bananas and later renamed Hercules in New York. He was billed as Arnold Strong, the only time he allowed a producer to tinker with his name. He became known through Pumping Iron, a fictionalized account of his winning a Mr. Olympia title, and he became a box-office attraction with Conan the Barbarian. Arnold didn’t have a lot to say in Conan, which was just as well, because he enunciated like an Austrian sent to Brooklyn for voice training.

In Commando he added a new dimension to his acting skills, an ability to project his natural sweetness onto the screen. He could already sneer nearly as well as Eastwood and he has learned to speak English better than Stallone, the actor he hopes to equal as an action lead. Arnold will never be a great screen lover; he is too easily embarrassed for that. Women who work with him long ago learned the secret of deflating him whenever he blusters or sulks: Hug him and he falls apart, as close to speechless as he ever gets.

On a movie set, what is most noticeable about Arnold is his alertness. He sees everything, forgets nothing, improves constantly. Joel Silver marvels at his “fertile mind,” the mind of a man who plans to produce his own movies within a few years. Just his presence on a set alters the atmosphere. Rae Dawn Chong says, “Being around Arnold is like being around a king. There are no fights, hassles, tensions or insecurities because you know Arnold takes care of everyone around him.”

By the time the filming of Commando ended, all the stunt men were smoking cigars because Arnold smoked cigars, and most of the actors were beginning weight training because Arnold said it would be good for them to start weight training. Dan Hedaya, who plays the dictator, took note of Arnold’s composure and said, “I think I’ll start lifting weights if that’s what it gets you.”

Arnold is sitting motionless by the pool in the backyard of his upper-class Santa Monica home. The house is made of stucco, has a Jewish mezuzah beside the front door (left by the previous owner) and is on such modest grounds that Arnold is continually annoyed by the noise of the neighbor’s kids playing basketball next door. He has a cigar in his mouth, a grenade-shaped lighter to ignite it and two magazines by his side, one a news magazine and one a magazine for mercenary soldiers. These are a fair reflection of his interests, since a typical evening with Arnold will encompass such conversational topics as Soviet premiers, European law, economic models—he has a business degree from the University of Wisconsin—the Iranian revolution, dog psychiatrists and female breasts.

He looks good there by the pool. The gray in his hair is gone, dyed out. For his movie roles, the hair has been moussed more and more to the vertical—no limp, bodybuilder’s wave for a commando. The body has thinned out a bit, down from an awesome 240 to a merely magnificent 220. He doesn’t make much of his body, unlike everyone else who comes in contact with it. He is neither narcissistic like many very pretty men, nor intimidating like many very large men. The body is just there, a tool of his trade.

Ava Cadell, an actress with a small part in Commando, says, “Most men with nice bodies are very conceited, all they want to talk about is their own bodies. He seemed to be very different.” (He constantly talked to her about her body, which is very much like Arnold.) He is careful with his body but surprisingly unemotional about it. “At first,” he says, “when I was competing, I liked my body because it was such a novelty. After I won world championships, my mind went in different directions. What can I do with it? My body is like breakfast, lunch and dinner. I don’t think about it. I just have it.”

He still goes to World Gym in Santa Monica regularly, every day for an hour if he has the time, which he often does not. The gym he trained in when he started bodybuilding at 15 was located under a cement stadium in Graz. It had no heat, no mirrors, only benches and weights, the metal speckled with rust. Now his gym has carpeting on the floor and photographs of him on the walls, including one of him flexed in his astonishing three-quarters-back pose, body twisted yet in perfect line. He works the room before beginning his own training, a field marshal reviewing the troops, always encouraging, nodding approval of abdominal or pectoral muscles presented for his perusal.

He never has become impressed with himself, although the opportunities are boundless, considering that adulation, stardom and wealth seem to tag along behind him, as eager as Conan, his Labrador pup. Part of the reason must be Maria, who is always willing to remind him that he is not the most ideal of men. Sometimes he starts wondering why she even puts up with him, but he is optimistic about this, too. He says, “She either likes me the way I am, or she realizes I’m a hopeless case.”

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