Casting Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator is one of the greatest decisions made in cinema history. The bodybuilder and future Governor of California took the the role and transformed it into something instantly iconic with his cold gaze and hulking physique.
However, despite seeming to lobby for the Terminator role, Arnold Schwarzenegger actually tried to turn down the chance to become the robotic time-traveling assassin, before eventually conceding and accepting the part. It’s safe to say that the history of one of the best science fiction movies was almost remarkably different, and going back and rewatching the Terminator movies in order wouldn’t be nearly as fun without Arnie.
Speaking in an interview with Graham Bensinger, Schwarzenneger explained that he accidentally secured his role during a lunch with James Cameron, in which he demonstrated a perfect understanding of the antagonist by comparing him to Yul Brynner’s role in Westworld. “Everything was kind of off because he was not like a human being, there was something wrong here, but you couldn’t identify exactly what it was.”
He continued, “He cannot go and look down and have the magazine be put into the gun… This has to be done like a machine, therefore he has to be trained blindfolded.”
Cameron completely agreed, and impressed by Schwarzenegger, offered him the role on the spot, instead of playing Kyle Reese. Cameron said, “There’s no one who will understand the Terminator better than you, so therefore, I think we’re all in agreement that you should play the Terminator.”
However, despite having effectively pitched himself to play the role, Schwarzenegger then turned it down. His major concern was that, because the character had so few lines, it would be a backward step for his career. But Cameron wouldn’t be dissuaded, telling the actor: “Trust me, I will shoot the character so that you’re not only the number one villain they’ve ever seen, but the number one hero.”
After a short period of deliberation, Arnie finally conceded. “Eventually one day I woke up and said to myself, you know, he’s right. It would be the most memorable character if it’s played right.” That assessment of the situation ended up being spot on. With The Terminator and its sequel (widely regarded as two of the best action movies of all time, and the best movies of any genre), Schwarzenegger’s role alongside Linda Hamilton became ingrained in pop culture and remains so.
It could, however, be argued that the role was so iconic that it eclipsed Schwarzenegger’s career, and has become his defining moment as an actor, even up to this day. Even if that were to be the case, though, Schwarzenegger can’t have any complaints. He embodied the Terminator, and as Cameron promised, became one of the best movie villains, and heroes, in all of cinema.