Arnold Schwarzenegger: The Austrian Oak - Part 1

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Arnold Schwarzenegger: The Austrian Oak - Part 1

Arnold Schwarzenegger is perhaps the most famous person with a gap in his teeth in the world . His accomplishments in the fields of business, sports, entertainment, politics, philanthropy, investing and activism are astounding. Schwarzenegger’s legend in the world of competitive bodybuilding is so great that his name has become synonymous with the sport.

This Austrian-born megastar hails from humble origins. This series will provide a synopsis of the life of a man who has been a source of both entertainment and inspiration all over the world.

Early years

Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger was born on July 30, 1947 in Thal, Syria, Austria. His father, Gustav Schwarzenegger, was a World War II veteran and the chief of police in the area where their family lived. Schwarzenegger describes his parents as being very strict. Corporal punishment was the result of any transgressions against parental authority. The Schwarzenegger family were devout Roman Catholics and attended mass every Sunday.

Arnold had one older brother, Meinhard. According to Arnold, his father had a very powerful preference for his older brother. Apparently, Arnold’s father believed that Arnold’s birth was the result of some sort of infidelity committed by his mother. He was never really certain if Arnold was his child or not. These suspicions have been described by people that were close to the family as being completely unfounded. Gustav also seemed to have no interest in Arnold’s thoughts or aspirations. Arnold would describe his father’s parenting toward him as being cold, hard and distant in numerous interviews spanning decades. Schwarzenegger considers the type of punishments that he received as a child to be child abuse. He says that he was “hit with belts” and his "hair was pulled”. Although he pointed out that many other children that were reared in this era experienced the same form of parenting. He thinks that many children that grew up like this had their spirits crushed by their parents. His relationship with his father was strained throughout his formative years and on through to his adulthood. On the other hand, Arnold always had a good relationship with his mother.

Meinhard Schwarzenegger

In Arnold’s very earliest years, Austria was still occupied by the communist Soviet Union regime. Austria was finally allowed independence after giving assurances that they would remain neutral on May 12, 1955. The effects of living under communist rule were evidenced throughout the land. This instilled a deep seated disdain for anything that had the appearance of communism in Arnold’s psyche. His political leanings would lean toward the right for the remainder of his life (although he has since adopted positions that are not popular with the stand bearers of the United States right wing Republican Party). He was attracted to the promise of the type of freedom that he had heard existed in the United States of America. This instilled a persistent yearning for the American way of life in his heart that refused to be dimmed.

Like many families in post-World War 2 Austria, the Schwarzenegger family was always strapped for cash. His father’s policeman’s salary was modest, at best. In a retrospective, Arnold recalled one of the happiest moments of his youth was when his family bought a refrigerator.

Arnold Schwarzenegger as a young boy in grade school

Begins bodybuilding

Schwarzenegger played various sports as a youth. All of these were team sports. During one soccer match in which his team emerged victorious, he recalled thinking that he did not want to share the glory of the win. He wanted the accolades all to himself. This desire for personal glory led him to abandon team sports and move toward finding an individual sport as an outlet for his competitive spirit.

In 1960, at the age of 13, his soccer coach brought Schwarzenegger’s team to a gym that was local to their school district. According to Schwarzenegger, that trip to the gym was the first time that he ever picked up a barbell. However, he did not begin serious weight training until the age of 14. By age 15 he was taking weightlifting so seriously that he signed up for a psychology class so that he could learn how to use his mind to enhance his bodybuilding gains.

This was not the path that his parents wanted him to move toward. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a police officer. His mother wanted Schwarzenegger to get a formal education in one of the professional trade disciplines. Additionally, bodybuilding was looked at as a somewhat bizarre activity during those days.

Young Arnold Schwarzenegger in the early years of his weight training.

There was no chance of deterring Schwarzenegger at this point. Such was his level of determination to build his body up that he even took to breaking into his training gym after hours to ensure that he never missed a training day. He has stated that he would feel terrible if he missed any workouts and had a hard time looking himself in the mirror the next morning if he woke up with the realization that he did not train the day before.

Although nobody around him could relate to his goals and the drive that he exemplified, Arnold was able to have his inspiration supplemented by going to see films that featured the prominent bodybuilders of the day. He would watch famous weightlifters on the big screen such as:

  • Johnny Weissmuller (Austrian born American, famous for playing Tarzan in the 1930s and 1940s.)
  • Steve Reeves (U.S. born professional bodybuilder and actor. Famous for playing Hercules.)
  • Reg Park (Bodybuilder and actor that won Mr. Universe 5 times in a competitive career spanning the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

In 1961 he also met Kurt Marmul, a former Mr. Austria. Being able to see a fellow Austrian who had achieved success in the sport reinforced Schwarzenegger’s convictions and inspired him to work toward the fulfillment of his goals every day.

Young Adulthood

In 1965, as was required of all healthy and able bodied young males during the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger joined the Austrian Army. His obsession with bodybuilding was undaunted. He went AWOL during basic training so that he could compete in the Junior Mr. Europe contest. When his unauthorized departure was uncovered, he was promptly thrown in military prison for one week. However, he began to be known throughout Europe after he emerged victorious in the competition. He got his first taste of fame when he was voted the best built man in all of Europe shortly after his triumph.

Schwarzenegger competing in the Junior Mr. Europe contest in 1965.

He went on to compete in the Mr. Universe competition in 1966. He came in 2 nd in that competition. His leg definition was deemed to be inferior to that of the winner, Chester Yorton. One of the judges of the event was so smitten with young Schwarzenegger that he offered to train him full time.

Schwarzenegger, severely lacking in financial resources at this time, would have to move into the judge’s home with his family and train in earnest as per judge Charles “Wag” Bennett’s instructions. The judge lived in London, England. Being a native Austrian, Schwarzenegger spoke very little English. The move was an incredible challenge for him. Under Bennett’s coaching, Schwarzenegger was able to come back and win the event in 1967.

The move to England had the added benefit of facilitating an environment where Schwarzenegger could learn the English language. This, of course, would come in handy when he moved to the United States.

By this time, he was very famous throughout all of Europe. Since the age of 10, Schwarzenegger yearned to come to the United States and make a life for himself there. He wanted to be rich and recognized from a very early age. He rightfully saw his nascent bodybuilding career as the avenue to lead him to his ultimate goals. He had now won the 1967 NABBA Amateur Mr. Universe competition. He leveraged that win to achieve his dream of crossing the Atlantic Ocean and venturing to the United States.

Meets his best friend

Schwarzenegger met his best friend, Franco Columbu, in 1965. The 2 competed against each other in numerous competitions throughout their careers. Franco Columbu is a very important person in Schwarzenegger’s life and their desire to compete against one another never dimmed their bond. To this day, Columbu and Arnold are the best of friends.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu

Comes to the United States

In September, 1968, Arnold Schwarzenegger moved to the country that he would call home for the remainder of his life (to this point) - the United States of America. He still struggled with the English language. Still, his dynamic persona and unrestrained ambition more than compensated for his lack of ability to speak the language very well.

Schwarzenegger promptly teamed up with his best friend Franco Columbu. They started a bricklaying business that became hugely successful. This was due to their savvy in marketing themselves (their impressive physiques were fantastic marketing tools that they capitalized on in their promotional materials) and the 1971 San Fernando Earthquake. The aftermath of the earthquake generated an immense amount of demand for bricklayers in the San Fernando Valley area. Columbu and Schwarzenegger had plenty of business to keep their pockets filled with cash.

Arnold began to set very specific goals for himself. He would set goals such as the purchase of a new car or the launching of a new business. He would meet the goals and the compounding successes would increase his discipline and confidence in himself. This, in turn, added more fuel to his fire for bodybuilding.

Mr. Olympia

He won his first Mr. Olympia competition in New York in 1970. This would be the first of seven wins of the title that he would earn. After a succession of high profile wins Arnold began to gain worldwide fame for his accomplishments. Arnold was now 23 years old. This made him the youngest Mr. Olympia of all time. A distinction that he holds to this very day.

Arnold Schwarzenegger became the youngest man to win the Mr. Olympia competition in 1870, a record that still stands.

He also appeared in his first feature film in 1970 – Hercules in New York. Schwarzenegger was credited as Arnold Strong in the film’s credits. Not only did the film’s producers change Arnold’s name in the credits, they also overdubbed his lines. They felt that Arnold’s Austrian accent was too thick for a United States audience to accept. The film was widely panned by critics and ignored by audiences. However, it is memorable to many because it is the first time that the future superstar played in a movie.

Poster for 1970's Hercules in New York

Schwarzenegger took acting seriously. He started taking acting classes before he ever set foot in the United States. Representatives in the film industry remained unimpressed.The general consensus among agents that Schwarzenegger approached to represent him in his attempts to break into acting was that the notion that he would ever become a serious actor was ridiculous at best. Schwarzenegger was indeed famous. Still, he was viewed as a foreign bodybuilder with a funny accent. There was so much trepidation about his accent that in 1973; when Schwarzenegger played a mafia hitman in The Long Goodbye; the character was written to be mute and deaf. Ironically, his Austrian accent has been an invaluable asset to his career.

Again undaunted, Schwarzenegger redoubled his efforts in the world of competitive bodybuilding. He ended up winning the competition an astounding 6 additional times, bringing his tally of Mr. Olympia wins to 7.

His Mr. Olympia winning streak continued from the years 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974 and 1975 (he retired from the competition for 5 years before deciding to return and win in 1980).

Pumping Iron

Arnold did not originally intend on participating in the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition. However, a few months prior to the event he was approached by filmmakers George Butler and Robert Fiore. They convinced him to compete so that they could film his training. They considered his participation in their film to be of paramount importance because they perceived (correctly) that Arnold’s persona would delight audiences and bring more gravitas to the release of their film. Arnold agreed to participate in the competition. He only had 3 months to train. It would be a fateful decision for the young champion. Once the film was released his life would be changed forever.

Packaging for the 25th Anniversary Edition of Pumping Iron on DVD

The film was a docudrama that featured the relatively obscure world of competitive bodybuilding. Though the film features many of the most successful bodybuilders of that era, its’ primary focus was on Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno. Their rivalry was played up in the film to provide an added layer of attention to the story. In fact, some of the moments in the film were scripted (although the vast majority of the film was unscripted).

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno square off in the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition.

The competition itself was not scripted. Schwarzenegger would have to earn his win. It was filmed over the course of the final 100 days that led up to the event. The production was marred by a lack of financial resources. It took an additional 2 years after filming wrapped for the production elements to be completed. In 1977, the finished product opened in theaters across the United States.

The film was a box office success. Arnold Schwarzenegger was famous before the film opened. After the film was released, Schwarzenegger became a household name.

Family tragedies

While Schwarzenegger enjoyed massive amounts of success in the United States, his family back in his home country of Austria suffered 2 tragedies.

On May 20 th, 1971, his older brother, Meinhard was killed in a drunk driving accident. Meinhard Schwarzenegger had been drinking and was the cause of the accident. Unfortunately, he was killed instantly. Meinhard was engaged at the time, having already had a 3-year-old son with the woman that he planned to marry. The son’s name is Patrick. Schwarzenegger paid for Patrick’s education. When Patrick reached the age of a young adult, Arnold helped him to emigrate to the United States. For reasons that Arnold has never expanded upon, he did not attend his brother’s funeral.

His father, Gustav Schwarzenegger, died from a stroke in 1972. In the film Pumping Iron, Arnold claimed that he did not attend his father’s funeral due to his training commitments. Years later, he would state that this was not true. He only made the statement to make himself seem more cold and calculated to moviegoers and his competitors. His girlfriend at the time recalled how Arnold related to her that his father had died. She said that he showed absolutely no emotion when he told her. She was unable to read whether or not he was at all upset by his father’s passing. She also indicated that Arnold never spoke about his brother at all. Throughout the years, Arnold has provided several different reasons for why he did not attend his father’s funeral. He has never gone on record to explain why he missed his brother’s funeral.

Schwarzenegger was not close to his father and related in later years that he believed that he suffered child abuse at the hands of his father. It has been speculated that his father’s obvious preference for his older brother may have driven a wedge in relations between he and his brother as well. The reasoning behind Arnold’s decisions not to attend their funeral services will probably never be known.

Arnold becomes a household name

By 1975, Arnold Schwarzenegger had achieved success beyond the wildest imaginings of anybody that he grew up with in his Austrian homeland. Indeed, he achieved success that eclipsed what the vast majority of Americans could have ever hoped for. His accomplishments as a young man would springboard him into ever-greater achievements as time went on. 

(To read Part 2 of this series, click here.)

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