The many lives of Arnold Schwarzenegger get neatly divided into three equal parts in “Arnold,” a Netflix documentary-cum-self-led tour through his remarkable success story as bodybuilder, actor and politician, each more improbable than the other. Now acting again (in a series for Netflix, conveniently), Schwarzenegger’s missteps aren’t ignored in the doc, but the emphasis is on how he pursued and achieved his goals, envisioning his stardom before making it a reality.
Spanning the globe from his early home in Thal, Austria to chomping on cigars in his US estates, the docuseries finds time for amusing asides, like Schwarzenegger’s competitive feud in the 1980s with Sylvester Stallone, a rift that became so toxic, Stallone says, they couldn’t be in the same room together.
The two have long since mended those fences, and Stallone speaks fondly of Schwarzenegger now, saying, “We are the last dinosaurs.”
Breezily told by director Lesley Chilcott, “Arnold” starts with Schwarzenegger’s worship of bodybuilder Reg Park, who parlayed that into playing Hercules in sword-and-sandal epics in the 1960s. Schwarzenegger later followed that path, meeting and befriending Park – whose son is among those interviewed – along the way.
Schwarzenegger’s rise included surviving an abusive father, whom he describes as a broken man after World War II, and throwing himself into bodybuilding, winning multiple Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia titles.
Conquering acting came harder, but Schwarzenegger applied the same discipline to that sphere, from his role in “Conan the Barbarian” to “The Terminator,” which – as director James Cameron notes – was initially supposed to feature him as the hero opposite O.J. Simpson.
The real genius move career-wise, though, may have come when Schwarzenegger augmented his action niche by branching into comedies like “Twins,” “Junior” and “Kindergarten Cop,” cementing his status as a box-office draw before his turn into politics, and the related revelations about on-set groping of women for which he eventually apologized.
Schwarzenegger admits he’s uncomfortable discussing his “failures,” as he puts it, among them the fact that he fathered a child with a household employee during his marriage to Maria Shriver. There’s also emotion surrounding his brother, Meinhard, who died in a 1971 car crash, with Schwarzenegger not returning home for his funeral or that of his father.
As for his run for governor in California’s 2003 recall election, Jay Leno remembers being genuinely surprised and perplexed when the actor officially announced his candidacy on “The Tonight Show,” thinking of his broadly popular guest taking the risky leap into politics, “What are you doing?”
Although his ability to weather scandal – and blame the media for covering it – seemingly foreshadowed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Schwarzenegger became a different kind of Republican in California, advocating for action on climate change and, after a rocky start, finding areas of common ground with Democrats.
Referring to his elder-statesman status now, former chief of staff Susan Kennedy says of the place the 75-year-old Schwarzenegger has come to occupy in speaking out about issues like the climate crisis and public health during Covid, “The world needs him.”
Hardly known for a lack of ego, Schwarzenegger nevertheless balks at the description of him as a “self-made” man, citing all the people who helped him at various stages of his career.
However Schwarzenegger got there, “Arnold” reminds us of his often-surprising and mostly charmed life, failures and all. And while one is tempted to say, “He’ll be back,” the truth is that when it comes to fame, Schwarzenegger hasn’t left the stage, in one field or another, since he first muscled onto it.
“Arnold” premieres June 7 on Netflix.