Arnold is unquestionably the most successful bodybuilder-turned-actor of all time. His success is so enviable that the number-one career choice (other than owning a gym) for many upcoming physique competitors is to become an actor.
Although several elite bodybuilders have appeared in movies, the skill sets of bodybuilders are vastly different from the talents usually sought by casting directors. If muscles are needed for a movie role, then actors will hit the gym and do what it takes to have their physiques fill the screen. Examples include Christopher Reeve for Superman, Will Smith for Ali, Hugh Jackman for Wolverine, Chris Evans for Captain America, and Chris Hemsworth for Thor. Jason Momoa, who played the lead role in the 2001 Conan the Barbarian remake, didn’t seem to grasp this concept – the result was that the movie grossed only $21 million in the US despite a production budget of $90 million.
The truth is, professional wrestling is a better training ground than bodybuilding for becoming an action figure. In addition to having great physiques, pro wrestlers have to act out the storylines that are created to build interest in matches. Names of wrestlers-turned-actors include The Rock, Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura, John Cena, André the Giant, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Steve Austin, Bill Goldberg, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Tommy “Tiny” Lister. When it comes to producing mega stars, martial arts can be an extremely lucrative field; those who’ve made it to the big screen and the big bucks are Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal and Jet Li.
Getting back to bodybuilding, there are many physique champions who have appeared in movies in bit parts or nonspeaking roles. Examples include Mr. Olympia Larry Scott and Mr. Universe Dave Draper. Franco Columbu appeared in several movies, particularly movies with Arnold, but that is probably due more to Arnold’s influence than Columbu’s acting ability.
Although bodybuilding may not be the path to movie stardom, there are a few competitive bodybuilders besides Arnold who have done well in Hollywood:
Sean Connery. Connery competed in the 1952 Mr. Universe, a competition won by one of the most successful bodybuilders of all time, Bill Pearl. Connery was the original James Bond 007 in Dr. No – he played Bond in seven financially successful films – and won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor in the 1987 film The Untouchables.
Steve Reeves. Reeves won the 1947 Mr. America and 1950 Mr. Universe and was known for his symmetry on the posing dais. In the 1948 Mr. Universe Reeves tied with John Grimek, but judge Bob Hoffman decided the tie would be broken by a demonstration of gymnastic skills; Grimek had a background in gymnastics, and as a result he was able to retire undefeated. Reeves appeared in nearly two dozen movies; his most famous role was as Hercules in Hercules (1958) and the sequel Hercules Unchained (1959).
Reg Park. Arnold’s idol, Reg Park, won the professional Mr. Universe title in both 1958 and 1965, had legitimate 20-inch arms and was the first bodybuilder to bench press 500 pounds. Between 1961 and 1965 he appeared in five Italian-made Hercules movies.
Lou Ferrigno. Ferrigno won the 1973 and 1974 Mr. Universe. He is best known for playing Bruce Banner’s alter ego in the 1978-1982 television series The Incredible Hulk. Given that creating a digital Hulk was not an option in those pre-CG days, Ferrigno was considered the ideal person to embody the role. He did appear with Arnold in the docudrama Pumping Iron, and he played Hercules in two forgettable movies in the ’80s, but most of his roles have been cameos – actually, a bit of the voice of the Hulk in the recent blockbuster The Avengers belongs to Ferrigno.
Ralf Moeller. Moeller is a German bodybuilder who competed in the 1988 Mr. Olympia; at 6-foot-6 he was one of the tallest bodybuilding competitors of all time. Moeller appeared in several successful movies, such as Gladiator and The Scorpion King. One of the hardest-working bodybuilders in Hollywood, Moeller appeared on either television or the big screen every year from 1988 to 2010, and played Conan in the television series Conan the Adventurer (1997-1998).
Okay, I’ll admit it’s a short list and competitive bodybuilding is not the ideal path to movie stardom. But it’s also true that those few who have succeeded in Hollywood have inspired legions of young men – and movie actors – to hit the gym.