Before he stormed Hollywood, a young Arnold Schwarzenegger made his name as a bodybuilder in his native Austria and then in Southern California's vibrant Muscle Beach scene of the 1970s.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is known by many names — The Terminator, Conan the Barbarian, the Kindergarten Cop, and the former governor of California, to name a few. But before rising to fame as a Hollywood actor and politician, a young Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding career made him known as the Austrian Oak, a seven-time Mr. Olympia winner who could deadlift 710 pounds and bench 500.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding career paved the way for him to live out his childhood dream of acting in movies — had it not been for his massive strength, the world may have never known his massive charm.
Relive the history of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding career and how he rose from humble beginnings to become one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars.
Young Arnold Schwarzenegger's Difficult Childhood In Austria
Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger was born on July 30, 1947, in the village of Thal, Austria, to Gustav and Aurelia Jadrny Schwarzenegger. By the time Arnold was born, Gustav was working as the local police chief, but just a few years earlier, he had been a member of the Nazi army.
In an interview with CBS' Lesley Stahl for 60 Minutes, Schwarzenegger talked at length about how difficult his childhood had been. The house he grew up in had no electricity, plumbing, or running water.
The family took sponge baths using water from a nearby well, and all used the same basin to wash themselves. Arnold, being the youngest, went last.
"By the time I got to wash myself, the water was black," he said.
Schwarzenegger described his father as a bitter, rough man. Growing up, he was unaware of his father's former Nazi ties, but the two had a troubled relationship regardless.
"There was never one single sentence said in the house about the war period," Schwarzenegger said. "So the promise of Hitler, that Hitler gave them, that we're going to create the Third Reich, and we're going to build this fantastic place for you, and we will, you know, basically rule the world. All of that was gone and what was left was losers."
Gustav often took his anger out on Arnold, beating him with a belt or abusing him in other "very creative" ways. As a child, he was slim, scrawny — a sharp contrast to his brother Meinhard.
But his father's harshness led him to become stronger. He began to lift weights, sometimes spending as much as five hours a day building his strength. In time, he was covering his walls with photographs of muscular men, reminding himself of what he strove to be.
However, his parents feared that their son might be gay, which only caused his father to lash out even more. Gustav would often pit his sons against each other — and the damage it caused their relationship was so great that Schwarzenegger attended neither his father's nor his brother's funeral.
With little support from his family, Schwarzenegger turned to the movies for inspiration and escape. His fascination with films led him to become equally fascinated with America, and he made it a goal to move to the United States, become a movie star, and live as a wealthy businessman.
Becoming Mr. Olympia And Moving To America
By the time he was 20, Arnold Schwarzenegger's bodybuilding obsession had begun to pay off. He became the youngest person ever to win the Mr. Universe title.
The fame propelled him to become something of an icon in the sporting world. Finally, he set his sights on America. With the help of Canadian bodybuilder Joe Weider, Schwarzenegger made the journey to America in 1968 — and a year later, he was joined by another bodybuilding legend, Franco Columbu, with whom he would become close friends.
In 1970, Schwarzenegger embarked on his first foray into acting, taking the lead role in a B-movie called Hercules in New York. While the film was a critical and commercial flop, it excelled in highlighting Schwarzenegger's natural charisma and leading man potential.
This charisma was highlighted even more in 1977's Pumping Iron, a bodybuilding documentary featuring a documentary a litany of strong men. It was clear, though, that the camera was drawn toward Schwarzenegger, a 6-foot-2-inch, 240-pound 27-year-old with the physique of a Greek mythological hero.
By the time Pumping Iron premiered, Arnold Schwarzenegger's bodybuilding prowess had won him the Mr. Universe contest three times (1968, 1969, and 1970) and the Mr. Olympia contest six years in a row (1970 - 1975). You'd have been hard-pressed to find anyone bigger than Schwarzenegger at the time — literally or figuratively. He had seemingly nowhere to go but up, and up he went.
How Bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger Became A Hollywood Star
Arnold Schwarzenegger's bodybuilding career was unmatched in history by 1976. Still, aside from Hercules In New York and a few other minor roles, he hadn't yet truly graced the silver screen. That changed when he appeared in Stay Hungry alongside Jeff Bridges and Sally Field. Schwarzenegger was awarded a Golden Globe for Best Newcomer for his performance.
After proving his acting chops (his physique spoke for itself), production companies were eyeing Schwarzenegger as a bonafide leading man. His first major leading role came in 1982 with Conan the Barbarian.
Soon, Schwarzenegger starred in The Terminator, which launched him to Hollywood fame in earnest. By the end of the '80s, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a household name, known more for his acting than his bodybuilding. In 1986, he famously married Maria Shriver — a member of the Kennedy family — and in 2003, Schwarzenegger showed a new kind of determination when he ran for California's governor as a Republican and won a seat in a special election.
Schwarzenegger then won re-election in 2006, though his second term was far rockier than the first. In 2011, Schwarzenegger left office and additionally announced that he and Shriver were ending their marriage after Schwarzenegger admitted to fathering a child with a member of the family's household staff.
Since then, he has returned to acting, and — other than a health scare in 2018 when a catheter valve replacement surgery failed, and he had to undergo open-heart surgery — the 75-year-old shows no signs of slowing down.