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‘Conan the Barbarian’ at 35: How Darth Vader Helped Arnold Schwarzenegger Beat the Muscle Man Stereotype

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s films have grossed $1.9 billion in North America. Among his classics are James Cameron’s 1984’s “The Terminator”; 1991’s “The Terminator 2: Judgment Day”; and 1994’s “True Lies,” as well as such hits as 1987’s “Predator” and 2012’s “The Expendables 2.”

His movie catch phrases such as “I’ll be back”; “Hasta la Vista, Baby”; and “Get to the chopper” have become part of the pop culture lexicon.

Schwarzenegger even served as the Governor of California from 2003 to 2011. And has recently has gone mano y mano in a Twitter feud with President Trump. Guess who won?

But would he have been as big a star — let alone as governor — without his breakout role in John Milius’ “Conan the Barbarian”? The violent, erotic R-rated sword-and-fantasy adventure based on the stories of 1930’s pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard opened in 1,400 theaters on May 14, 1982. Though reviews were decidedly mixed — Variety stated of Schwarzenegger’s performance that “the actor has a minimum of dialog and fails to convey much about the character through his actions” — the film muscled its way to the top of the box office charts in its first week.

And a star was born.

“Conan” earned $39.1 million ranking No. 17 for the year, out grossing such classics as “Blade Runner,” “The Road Warrior” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” And thanks to cable and video, “Conan” gained more fans, spawning the sequel “Conan the Destroyer” two years later.

But the Austrian-born seven time Mr. Olympia was certainly not an overnight sensation. In fact, he was just shy of 35 when “Conan” made him the hot property du jour.

Schwarzenegger had debuted in “Hercules in New York,” a film he admitted regretting making. The low-budget 1969 comedy finds Zeus sending his son to the Big Apple. Because his Austrian accent was as thick as his muscles, he was dubbed — though DVD’s of “Hercules” have the Schwarzenegger audio track. He’s even billed as “Arnold Strong, Mr. Universe.” The billing was a play on the name of his co-star comedian Arnold Stang.

After playing a deaf mute hitman in Robert Altman’s 1973 “The Long Goodbye,” audiences first heard his own voice in Bob Rafelson’s underrated 1976 “Stay Hungry,” in which he charmed as body builder who plays the fiddle. He earned a Golden Globe for best newcomer.

He became something of a household name in the acclaimed “Pumping Iron,” a 1977 docudrama which mainly focuses on Schwarzenegger, who at one point in the film, uses two women as his barbells.

“Pumping Iron” was a hit, but the notoriety didn’t help seem to help Schwarzenegger’s acting career. He guest starred on ABC’s ‘The Streets of San Francisco” and “The San Pedro Beach Bums” in 1977 and appeared with Kirk Douglas and Ann-Margret in the forgettable 1979 comedy “The Villain.’ He also played body builder Mickey Hargitay in the CBS 1980 TV movie “The Jayne Mansfield Story” with Loni Anderson.

And then came “Conan the Barbarian.”

Though the role doesn’t allow him to display his wick sense of humor, it fit Schwarzenegger like his character’s well-worn sandals.

The tale of a young barbarian warrior who sets out to avenge the death of his parents has something for everyone-violence, sex, mythology, dark and thrilling action sequences, giant snakes, soaring score by Basil Poledouris and Milius’ bad-to-the-bone direction.

And of course, there is Schwarzenegger’s perfectly sculpted body and charisma.

Schwarzenegger prepared for the role with the same determination which earned him the Mr. Universe title at the age of 20. He began working with famed Hollywood vocal coach to improve his speech. And once he got on the set in Spain with Milius, the two worked on his delivery to the point that some of the actor’s longer speeches in the film were rehearsed over 40 times each.

Still, Conan’s notorious speech: “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and go hear the lamentation of their women!” is far from perfect

Casting Tony Award-winner and voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones, as Thulsa Doom, the leader of the snake cult who brutally murdered Conan’s parents, and Max von Sydow as King Osric, was a stroke of genius because they offered acting and speech tips.

Schwarzenegger went through an 18-month training regime with body builder Franco Columbu which included running and lifting weights, as well as rope climbing, riding and swimming. For three months, he also worked two hours a day with an 11-pound broadsword. Schwarzenegger shed 30 pounds off his 240-pound frame giving him the more athletic look Millius wanted.

Legendary Terry Leonard (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”) was the stunt coordinator on the film; Schwarzenegger and his co-stars Sandahl Bergman and Gerry Lopez ended up doing most of their own stunts.

Several famed body builders-turned-actors such as Steve Reeves (“Hercules”) and Hargitay (“The Love of Hercules”) found it next to impossible to break out of the sword-and-sandal adventures.

But Schwarzenegger beat the odds. He made “Conan the Destroyer” in 1984 and 1985’s “Red Sonja,” but that all changed with the success of “The Terminator.”

The superstar has never forgotten what “Conan the Barbarian” did for him, career describing the movie as “God’s gift to [my] career.”

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