Arnold Schwarzenegger Almost Turned Down The Movie That Made His Whole Career

By Rudie Obias | Published

arnold schwarzenegger feature

Could you imagine what the Terminator movies would be like without Arnold Schwarzenegger as the menacing, unstoppable killer cyborg from the future? The role has become so iconic that it feels completely impossible to think about anyone else in the role.

But it almost happened. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story, describes meeting director James Cameron and, at first, turning down the title role. Thankfully, Schwarzenegger eventually joined James Cameron in revolutionizing cinematic history.

Originally, Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t want to take a step back in his newly found film-acting career. He was just coming off the Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer films, so he didn’t want to take a role as a villain after playing the hero.

But the Austrian-born actor was insistent with Cameron that whoever played the title role of the Terminator would “have to get it right” and become more machine than man. Here’s an excerpt from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography:

I told Cameron: ‘One thing that concerns me is that whoever is playing the terminator, if it’s O.J. Simpson or whoever, it’s very important that he gets trained the right way. Because if this guy is really a machine, he won’t blink when he shoots.

When he loads a new magazine into his gun, he won’t have to look because a machine will be doing it, a computer. When he kills, there will be absolutely no expression on the face, not joy, not victory, not anything. No thinking, no blinking, no thought, just action.

I told him how the actor would have to prepare for that. In the army, we’d learned to field strip and reassemble our weapons by feel. They’d blindfold you and make you take apart a muddy machinegun, clean it and put it back together.

‘That’s the kind of training he should do,’ I said. ‘Not too different from what I was doing in Conan.’ I described how I’d [practiced] for hours and hours learning to wield a broadsword and cut off people’s heads like it was second nature. When coffee came, Cameron said suddenly, ‘Why don’t you play the Terminator?’

‘No, no, I don’t want to go backward,’ I said.

The title role could’ve gone to football player turned actor O.J. Simpson, which would’ve changed the course of both of their careers. Of all the things that could have happened, this one feels like the complete worst. Of course, that’s informed by later events, and maybe at the time wouldn’t have felt out of place, but eesh. What a disaster that would have been.

Simpson ultimately took the more comic roles in movies, whereas Arnold Schwarzenegger became an iconic Hollywood actor. Imagine, O.J. Simpson taking the role of a ruthless, maniacal, and heartless killer! Eek.

For whatever it’s worth, Arnold Schwarzenegger did the right thing, took the job as the T-800 in The Terminator, and became a true cinematic icon. With The Terminator, Schwarzenegger became a household name, and the role paved the way for Schwarzenegger to appear in classic ’80s action films such as Commando, Predator, and The Running Man.

Of course, it didn’t stop with that movie. While The Terminator was undoubtedly a hit, things really turned in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, where Arnold Schwarzenegger got to have the best of both worlds. He returned as the killer machine, only this time sent to protect instead of exterminate. The movie was a blockbuster’s blockbuster, instantly entering the fray as one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all-time.

Arnold Schwarzenegger would go on to bring the character back in Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines (fine for what it was, though ultimately forgettable), then in Terminator: Genysis (oof) ,and finally, a probable send-off in Terminator: Dark Fate with original star Linda Hamilton.

For the franchise’s warts with stories and timelines, what Arnold Schwarzenegger brought to the character was always a positive. This is to say, it’s not his fault the franchise couldn’t totally hold it together over the long term. He embodied everything you would want in a killer robot sent from the future. We should be so lucky to see someone else take the mantle in the same way ever again.

In all, it was an amazing run as the character. One that he thankfully took the first time around.