Written by Ron Harris
18 January 2016


The Story Behind Arnold Schwarzenegger & Pumping Iron

Exclusive Interview with George Butler


We’ve all seen the movie “Pumping Iron.” Most of us have seen it more times than we can even remember now, and it was far more than a documentary. “Pumping Iron” was a cultural phenomenon. Released in 1977, it introduced the world to the sport of bodybuilding and its top athletes of that era: Arnold, Lou Ferrigno, Franco Columbu, Ed Corney, Mike Katz, Ken Waller, Robby Robinson, Danny Padilla, and Serge Nubret, as they prepared for the two biggest competitions, the IFBB Mr. Universe and the Mr. Olympia. It also launched the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, giving him exposure that paved the way for his incredible career in motion pictures that’s now spanned four decades. “Pumping Iron” not only put bodybuilding and Arnold on the map, it influenced and continues to influence generations of young men to sculpt their bodies with weights just like that amazing group of champions in that now almost mythical setting of Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach in a simpler time did. I had the chance to talk to the man who directed the movie, George Butler. He talked about how he met Arnold, the struggles he faced to get the film made, and the lasting impact it’s had.

RH: George, first I would like to thank you on behalf of myself and everyone else who was influenced by the film “Pumping Iron.” I saw it late one night on PBS when I was about 11 years old, and the images I saw of Arnold were definitely the catalyst for sparking my own lifelong interest in bodybuilding. And I can’t tell you how many bodybuilders I have interviewed over the last 20 years told me it was your film that made them want to become bodybuilders.

GB: You’re very welcome. You know, about 20 years ago in Pumping Iron Gym in New York City (note: Butler licensed the name), a guy asked me if I was George Butler. He was a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, and he told me he had seen the movie 5,000 times. I was flabbergasted. I wonder how many times he’s seen it now? What I find really interesting is how far-reaching the film has been. I’m starting work on a film about the rowing crew at Harvard University, and they watch “Pumping Iron” together for motivation for their training.


RH: Let’s go back to the beginning. In 1972 you were on assignment for LIFE magazine to shoot the Mr. Universe competition in Baghdad. What or whom did you see there that led you to believe the relatively obscure sport of bodybuilding might be of interest to the world?

GB: I grew up in Jamaica, and from the ages of 16-18 I was a competitive rower. There was a place in Montego Bay called Lloyd George Young’s Temple of Fitness. I did some weightlifting there, and there were a few bodybuilders in that gym. So I was somewhat acclimated to the sport. Years later my good friend Charles Gaines, who had written the novel Stay Hungry that eventually became a 1976 film with Jeff Bridges, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sally Field, got that assignment. At that contest in Iraq, we saw the potential for a book about the art and sport of bodybuilding. It was something special that the world was almost completely unaware of, and the visual impact of the physiques was such that we knew we had something.

 RH: You met Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was 25 years old, and had only been at the top of his sport for a couple of years. What were your first impressions of him then, and what qualities struck you as having the potential for star power?

GB: In September of that same year, 1972, I was on another assignment from The Village Voice to do a story on the IFBB Mr. America contest. Charles was also going to write an article for Oui magazine. We went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and there were a couple hundred people in the audience. The place had been an old silent movie theater, and when the bodybuilders posed, the background music was whatever the old codger on the organ was playing for them. Very different from even a couple years later, when Arnold was famous for posing to the theme from “Exodus.” Arnold happened to be doing the guest-posing exhibition. When he came out for that, the crowd just erupted with clapping and cheering like I’d never seen before. There was something about him that people were drawn to, you can call it charisma for lack of a better word. I always had an eye for potential. I first met my good friend John Kerry in 1964, and back then I knew he would run for President one day. When I met Arnold, I knew he was destined for greatness.


RH: I also heard that you predicted Arnold’s career as both a major film star and a politician on The Charlie Rose Show, long before even Arnold himself had shown any interest in politics. What made you feel that he would enter that realm eventually?

GB: Arnold always had a lot of interest in politics, and followed it very closely. As early as 1976 I told people he would eventually gravitate to politics after he reached his goals in film. I don’t think it was a coincidence at all that he married into the Kennedy family. There was actually an article in Preview magazine in 1989 or 1990 about the movie “Twins” where I was quoted as saying Arnold would become the Governor of California someday. People laughed, but nobody who knew Arnold laughed. If he wanted to do that, they knew he would.

 RH: When did you know that “Pumping Iron” would make a compelling documentary film, and was it primarily due to the charisma of Arnold that you felt would carry it?

GB: The success of the book was what made us feel a film could do well. Interestingly enough, the book was rejected by Sandy Richardson at Doubleday, who told us nobody would want to read a book about these people. He had given us an advance on the book and demanded we pay that back. So we took it over to Simon and Schuster, and an editor named Dan Green picked it up. The book wound up selling over 700,000 copies, making it the best-selling book by a single photographer in history at that time— it may still be, I’m not sure.

I knew by the time the book came out in 1974 that Arnold could carry a film. So I borrowed $30,000 (the equivalent of $150,000 today(, an enormous sum in those days, and went to shoot a 10-minute test film at a bodybuilding competition at an amusement park in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Arnold was the guest-performer again, and we showed him going into the crowd and posing. After the posing, he went onstage and we had a very beautiful Italian woman interview him. I went back to New York and edited that to show to 100 potential investors. Dead silence during the screening. When it was over, the famous playwright Romulus Linney, whose daughter is the actress Laura Linney, stood up. He said, “I think I speak for all of us when I say that if you make a movie about this Arnold person, we will laugh you off 42nd Street.” People thought we were out of our minds.


RH: How difficult was it for you to get “Pumping Iron” made?

GB: There was another possible investor who worked for Morgan Stanley. He said, “I kinda like this Arnold guy, but how do I know people would pay to see him?” I decided to put on a bodybuilding posing exhibition at the Whitney Museum with Arnold and several others that a curator there named Palmer Wald agreed to host. We invited all the prominent art critics, because we felt bodybuilding was a genuine art form. We set up 500 chairs, even though the museum thought that was wishful thinking. Then it started to snow heavily, and it seemed like we would hardly have anyone show up. Soon I was called to look out the window, where there was a line so far down the block you couldn’t see the end. In the end, 2,500 people squeezed in somehow. The cash register was overflowing, so people started throwing their $10 bills into a pile on the floor behind it. When the investor saw that pile of cash, he knew this was worth backing. Several others felt the same way, and we soon had enough to start production. We were always scraping for funds all the way through to the very end. When we wrapped production after the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest in South Africa, we couldn’t even afford to ship our equipment back to New York.


RH: Much of “Pumping Iron” was filmed at the original Gold’s Gym on Main Street in Venice Beach. Bodybuilders today revere that time and place as akin to our Camelot. At the time, did you have any sense of how unique a situation it was to have most of the best bodybuilders in the world in this relatively small gym a couple blocks away from the Pacific Ocean?

GB: I did have the sense that we were like surfers catching the perfect wave. We were in the right place at just the right time. The sport was much smaller, and it was actually possible to capture all the best athletes in it at the time. They also had unique personalities that played well on screen. I can’t see a similar project being done today.


RH: Today there is some awareness of what bodybuilding is about, but I imagine it was almost completely foreign to you when you attended your first contest. What were the stereotypes surrounding bodybuilding and bodybuilders in the early 1970s?

GB: The biggest stereotype was that all bodybuilders were gay, and anyone who would go to a contest or read a bodybuilding magazine was gay too. Also, everyone truly believed that the muscles a bodybuilder had would turn to pure fat once he stopped training. Bodybuilders were also not considered very intelligent.

 RH: How did the other bodybuilders in the film react to it when it came out?

GB: We had shot the film throughout nearly all of 1975, and I spent most of 1976 editing it before it was released in 1977. I was anxious to show it to the bodybuilders in the film, so I flew out to California and rented a screening room for the whole Gold’s Gym crew to watch it together. I had screened it in New York recently for critics, and they had been roaring with laughter at Arnold’s jokes. With the bodybuilders watching, there was deathly silence. When it was over and the lights came back on, Ken Waller came up to me absolutely livid. He said, “You really fucked it up, George. That was the worst piece of crap I’ve ever seen!” The others seemed to agree with him.


RH: Really? Why did they feel that way?

GB: They didn’t quite appreciate the fact that I was portraying them as real human beings with emotions. In the magazines, they were painted as these larger-than-life heroic figures. I think they felt the film was shattering the illusion and making them look bad. A couple weeks later a glowing review of the film came out in TIME magazine, and the photo they ran of Arnold was actually the first color photo they ever had. By then, the bodybuilders understood that the movie didn’t make them look bad, it actually humanized them and made them more interesting than just two-dimensional characters who lifted weights and flexed their muscles.

 RH: The movie got rave reviews and the DVD still sells well today. Did you ever think “Pumping Iron” would do so well and live on the way it has?

GB: Honestly, I had no idea it would become the phenomenon that it did. Ironically, the IFBB and the Arnold Classic have given out numerous types of awards over the years, and not once have myself or Charles Gaines’ names come out as possible recipients. Oddly, that doesn’t bother me. The film was embraced by so many people, and the legacy of the book and the movie lives on.


RH: Have you ever felt as if your film gave bodybuilding the opportunity to appeal to the mainstream?

GB: It seemed to me that they preferred to keep the sport small. I don’t know if bodybuilding would have ever become a true mainstream sport, but I thought it could have reached a much wider audience. The fact that so many people around the world read the book and saw the movie proved that an interest was there. I’m happy with the film I made. It’s been called a classic numerous times, and it appears on every list of the top 10 sports films ever made that I’ve seen. “Pumping Iron” definitely reached a lot of people and continues too decades later.

 RH: Arnold Schwarzenegger continues to be a powerful force of inspiration for bodybuilders, many of whom were born years after he retired from competition. He’s still gracing the covers of our magazines, and many still feel Arnold’s physique represented the ideal even though today’s bodybuilders are so much bigger and leaner. Why do you think Arnold remains as influential as ever after all these years?

GB: He was the top dog in bodybuilding. Arnold gave the sport character. He was funny, entertaining, and really made bodybuilding seem fun. He went on to become the number one motion picture star of the ‘90s, and Governor of the most powerful state in the USA. And through it all, he’s never lost touch with his bodybuilding roots. Arnold still promotes his contest and festival every March in Columbus.


RH: George, do you have any classic Arnold stories we could end this with?

GB: There is one that illustrates what I’ve been saying for years— Arnold learned all about politics back at Gold’s Gym in the 1970s. You probably know the story about how Arnold secretly trained to win the Mr. Olympia in 1980 after he had retired at the 1975 Mr. Olympia, which we showed in the film. People noticed he was training hard again and shaping up, but he insisted it was for his upcoming role in “Conan the Barbarian.” When he got on the plane to Sydney, Arnold told everyone he was not competing, but going to do TV commentary. Lo and behold, at the eleventh hour he approached Oscar State of the IFBB and announced his intention to compete.

When California was going to hold its recall election in 2003, the most likely Democratic candidate would have been Senator Diane Feinstein, who was extremely powerful and influential. There was talk about Arnold running as a Republican, and Feinstein would have surely insisted on entering the race had he done that. But Arnold said several times he was not interested, and that he wouldn’t run for Governor even if he were nominated. So Feinstein dropped out and chose to run for Senate re-election instead. Shortly after she dropped out of the race, Arnold went on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno and announced his candidacy. He told Diane that he may have said he didn’t want to be Governor, but he didn’t mean it. With her out of the race, he won and served two terms.

RH: And that’s why he’s the man. Thank you, George.