Arnold Schwarzenegger: From champion bodybuilder to Hollywood icon

As the Austrian Oak arrives on Netflix with his new series Fubar, we look back at his career highs and lows

Arnold Schwarzenegger: From Hercules in New York to Fubar. (Getty/Studiocanal)
Arnold Schwarzenegger: From Hercules in New York to Fubar. (Getty/Studiocanal)

Few Hollywood stars have had as prolific a career as Arnold Schwarzenegger. The action star has been in countless films, worked in politics, and more recently ‘accepted’ the role of Chief Action Officer at Netflix (though this was more of a media stunt than a real job).

For decades he has entertained the masses and become synonymous with the silver screen, so much so that his iconic phrases like “I’ll be back” will live on long after he is gone.

Schwarzenegger’s career has seen many highs and lows, some of which he is expected to address in the new Netflix documentary Arnold which will be released in June.

Before that, though, let’s delve into the Austrian actor’s illustrious career.

Bodybuilding beginnings

Prod DB © Rollie Robinson - White Mountain Films / DR POMPES PUMPING IRON  de George Butler et Robert Fiore 1977 USA Arnold Schwarzenegger bodybuilder
Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron (White Mountain Films)

Schwarzenegger famously started out as a bodybuilder, he began competing in the 1960s and appeared in competitions across Europe before making the move Stateside. There he became a staple of the bodybuilding scene, winning countless competitions including Mr. Olympia on several occasions.

Read more: Joseph Baena emulates his dad Arnold Schwarzenegger in new iron-pumping gym pics

The actor’s time as a bodybuilder also saw him appear in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, where he amusingly likened the fitness sport to sex.

In the years since, Schwarzenegger has spoken openly about his use of performance-enhancing drugs during his bodybuilding career, and has warned against others doing the same now.

He told Men’s Health in May 2023: “Bodybuilding always, always was considered a safe sport. But now it’s not. Now people are dying — they’re dying because of overdoses of drugs and they don’t know what the f**k they’re doing.”

The birth of the action star

CONAN THE BARBARIAN, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1982
Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian (Alamy)

Schwarzenegger made his acting debut in the 1970s, but his real breakthrough role came in 1982 with his star-turning role in Conan the Barbarian. The brutish hero seemed tailor-made for the actor, and proved his ability in a lead role. It is a film that has stood the test of time, though its sequel Conan the Destroyer does not.

Of course, the actor’s biggest career high is undoubtedly The Terminator in which he played the titular killing machine who travelled back in time to eliminate Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) so her future son can’t save humanity from Skynet. It is the film that Schwarzenegger will forever be remembered for, and for good reason.

Read more: Linda Hamilton knew 'Terminator: Dark Fate' opening would 'upset a lot of people'

The actor continued to make films with varying success after that, during which time he developed an amusing off-screen rivalry with Sylvester Stallone.

<p>He’ll be back…eventually. But in 1984, Will Byers and his pals would have just seen ‘The Terminator’ start appearing in cinemas across the country. The hot new sci-fi flick starred a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, and spawned the even-more-awesome ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’. But in ‘Stranger Things’ it’s simply spotted on a theatre marquee in the background.<br /> (Credit: Orion Pictures) </p>
Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (Credit: Orion Pictures)

He made films like Commando and Predator before attempting to delve into different genres. It is here that his career begins to take a hit, with comedies like Twins — which he starred in opposite Danny DeVito — not always working in his favour.

Read more: 'Commando' at 35: Director Mark Lester reveals why an interracial love scene was cut

1990 film Total Recall did prove a good choice for the actor but he followed it with the ill-received Kindergarten Cop, but the thrilling Terminator 2: Judgment Day proved a worthy follow-up to James Cameron’s original.

Arguably the biggest low points in Schwarzenegger’s acting career came with the release of Jingle All the Way and Batman and Robin in 1996 and 1997, respectively.

Delving into politics

FILE - In this Nov. 17, 2003 file photo, Arnold Schwarzenegger takes the oath of office for governor of California on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. Schwarzenegger's wife Maria Shriver stands to his side while California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George administers the oath. Schwarzenegger will be leaving office in January 2011 with a mixed record, winning praise for his precedent-setting environmental activism and criticism for his failure to tame the fiscal mess as promised when voters elected Schwarzenegger to replace Gov. Gray Davis in the historic 2003 recall election. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Arnold Schwarzenegger takes the oath of office for governor of California in 2003 (AP Photo)

Schwarzenegger swapped the Hollywood stage for a political one, and in 2003 he was elected as the Governor of California.

The actor remained in office until 2011, and during this time he took a break from acting to focus on his role as governor. Though he began with high approval ratings, he ended his time as governor with a low of 23%.

Returning to the action

(left - right) Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jason Statham, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Scott Adkins at a photocall for new film The Expendables 2, at Simpsons-in-the-Strand, in central London.
Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jason Statham, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Scott Adkins at a photocall The Expendables 2. (Alamy/PA)

After finishing out his term as governor, Schwarzenegger began to delve back into acting and worked towards rebuilding his career as an action star.

Read more: Joel Schumacher shares Batman & Robin regrets

He has appeared in films like The Last Stand, Escape Plan, and The Expendables franchise, the latter two saw him appear on screen with long-time rival Stallone.

Schwarzenegger also returned to his iconic role of the Terminator on two more occasions, in Terminator: Genisys and Terminator: Dark Fate, neither of which were as critically-acclaimed as the original films, or did serious business at the box office.

Arnold Schwarzenegger will play the T-800 again in Tim Miller's 'Terminator: Dark Fate'. (Credit: 20th Century Fox)
Arnold Schwarzenegger in Tim Miller's 'Terminator: Dark Fate'. (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Though Terminator: Genisys became the second-highest grossing film in the franchise, Dark Fate was a veritable flop.

Read more: Actors who quit movie franchises only to return

His most recent project is Netflix’s action comedy series Fubar, in which Schwarzenegger plays a CIA operative who is drawn back into the field over a family secret.

Fubar is available to watch on Netflix now.