How Franco and Arnold Changed Hollywood Forever

Name a more iconic duo than Franco and Arnold. Within the sport of bodybuilding, the relationship between Franco Columbu and Arnold Schwarzenegger was of the most enduring and impactful the sport has ever seen. From Pumping Iron to controversial Olympia wins, they did it all!

Okay, that last line was tongue in cheek but, more seriously, Columbu and Schwarzenegger came to bodybuilding at a pivotal moment in American bodybuilding and American life. They helped to popularize the practice of lifting weights and there is a very real argument that without their eye for publicity bodybuilding would be a much poorer sport today. Their influence on bodybuilding, and popularising bodybuilding for the general public, has been well covered elsewhere.

This article focuses on something completely different, their impact in Hollywood. Put simply, Franco and Arnold helped to popularise the muscled action star and, in the case of Franco, proved pivotal in the creation of the ‘action man transformation,’ that has become so prevalent nowadays.

The action man what? Okay I wanted to sound fancy…. Effectively I’m arguing that Franco helped popularise those incessant ‘muscle transformation’ stories which seem to accompany every action movie franchise. It now seems common for every new superhero or action movie to be accompanied by stories of how the leading man or woman gained muscle and leaned out for the role.

So prevalent has this phenomenon become that The Guardian recently published a piece about ‘Marvel bodies’ in reference to the film franchise’s unrelenting desire to have jacked stars. Heck check out the below video and see that it’s not just a Marvel issue.

As an aside, can we get some love for Kumail Nanjiani whose transformation for Eternals is never mentioned on these lists? Funny and jacked? Total package.

I am, somewhat cynically, suspicious whenever an action movie’s marketing revolves primarily around how muscular the lead actor became. There is, at times, an overfocus on the body and not on…the plot, acting, or special effects. Lawrence Olivier once asked Dustin Hoffman, who had spent three days without sleep to get into character, “My dear boy …why don’t you just try acting?” It is a question that also applies to action stars.

Anyway, I am off my soapbox now. Back to Arnold and Franco who helped initiate this trend. To understand how and why this happened, we have to discuss what existed before our duo’s time.

The Early Muscle Stars

COMMANDO, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1985
TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.”” Courtesy: Everett Collection”

The traditional trajectory many people give for muscles in Hollywood revolves around Arnold. In 1977 Pumping Iron came out, forever popularising bodybuilding and gym going among the American public. In 1982 Arnold appeared in Conan the Barbarian and changed physique expectations for male action stars. Some may go deep in the weeds and reference the 1976 film starring Arnold Stay Hungry but this is basically the same narrative.

Obviously, Arnold was not the first muscled movie star. His hero, bodybuilder Reg Park, appeared in films during the 1960s while Steve Reeves did so in the 1950s. David Chapman and John Fair’s wonderful book, Muscles in the Movies details the near century-long fascination that Hollywood and European film has had with muscle. This existed way before Arnold’s time.

There are, however, some caveats we have to make. Chapman and Fair’s research highlights two prototypes in muscle-bound movie stars prior to Arnold and Franco: the athlete turned star and the bodybuilder/physical culturist turned star. Hold onto this distinction as we begin to dig a little deeper.

Some of the most famous muscled stars in the first half of the twentieth century were, themselves, established athletes who were subsequently lured to the silver screen. The most obvious example of this is of course Johnny Weissmuller, the US Olympic swimmer who played Tarzan, or Tarzan-like characters from the 1920s to 1950s. An early prototype female actor was another swimmer, Annette Kellerman, who although appearing in only a handful of films in the 1910 and 1920s was revered for her physique.

There were also the physical culturists or bodybuilders turned action stars. Eugen Sandow, for example, appeared in some of the first Thomas Edison film reels of the 1890s. This is to say nothing of those who had a sincere physical culture interest prior to acting such as 1920s heartthrob Rudolph Valentino or later James Bond star Sean Connery. There is even something to be said for the explosion of interest in bringing the likes of Steve Reeves, Dave Draper and Bill Pearl onto scenes in the 1950-1970s.

Hollywood liked muscle but not too much and often for exceptional roles. What we didn’t see, however, was a cultural expectation of muscle within certain genres. This is where Arnold and Franco come into our story.

Arnold, Franco and the Action Star

Right. Let’s get Arnold out of the way first, primarily because Netflix have beaten me to the punch and produced a three part documentary detailing his worldly influence in everything from bodybuilding to politics.

Arnold appeared in a slew of films from the mid-1970s to early 1990s in which he muscled physique became the norm from which we measure film stars. While Stay Hungry was his breakout role, Pumping Iron was his iconic moment. From Pumping Iron we can draw a direct line to box office smashes such as Conan or The Terminator.

This narrative is well known and has been promoted by Arnold himself at several turns. During the 1980s his acting success changed expectations of the kind of bodies we expected our heroes to have. This came at a time when American society, thanks in part to Pumping Iron, had become enthralled with muscles.

Now let’s move onto the lesser known but arguably more important element to this, Franco Columbu. Unlike Arnold, Franco did not break through onto the silver screen but he did help others achieve the action Star look, most notably Sylvester Stallone.

Recently I published a piece on Barbend about Stallone’s own influence on Hollywood. To do a brief recap, my argument was that while Arnold was the bodybuilder turned actor in the action film genre, Stallone was arguably the first actor turned bodybuilder.

For those doubting my argument look at Stallone’s physique transformation from Rocky (1976) to Rocky IV (1985). We can make a similar observation for his acclaimed Rambo films.

Stallone’s physical appearance became a major talking point in Hollywood and something that was often used to promote his films. Likewise, as famed bodybuilding journalist Peter McGough noted, Stallone’s training montages in Rocky were just as motivational for people as anything from Pumping Iron.

Stallone used a variety of trainers to get into shape, none more influential than Franco Columbu. Stallone initially went to Franco to get treated for an injury – Franco was a trained chiropractor. He soon went to him with different demands, all of which revolved around building muscle and shedding bodyfat.

Franco trained Stallone for several of the Rocky and Rambo films helping him achieve remarkable transformations along the way. Such films propelled Stallone into superstardom and, as any child of the 1980s or 1990s remembers, set off an intense rivalry between Stallone and Arnold.

Stallone and Arnold were not the only two action stars of this time but they were the biggest. Critically for us, both were muscled and, within their movies, their physique and/or strength was often incorporated into the script.

So my argument dear reader, is that this battle between Stallone and Arnold, helped change Hollywood expectations for action stars. We became conditioned to seeing these sorts of physiques and so did studios. That Arnold’s friend Franco had a critical role to play here is too often overlooked.

What have I ignored here?

Every historical argument smoothes out the edges of what actually happened. So what else was influential in changing expectations of action star’s physiques?

Well first recognition needs to go to other influential fitness figures like Vince Gironda, who was quite literally the ‘trainer to the stars’ in Hollywood. He even trained Stallone’s Rocky costar and later Arreeted Development star Carl Weathers. I’m well aware Weathers was also in Predator and multiple other actions films, but I loved his turn as the bumbling and misery acting coach for Tobias. Let’s also give a shout out to Lou Ferrigno’s iconic role as the Incredible Hulk in the television adaption of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

On this point, we have to acknowledge the role of professional wrestling, not least Hulk Hogan, for again promoting larger than life physiques as desirable. Say your prayers, eat your vitamins and train was a mantra for many in the 1980s.

Next up is the ongoing expansion of physical fitness which began in the 1970s and continues to this day. As argued multiple times on this website, lean and muscular physiques became more desirable from the 1970s onwards which would explain the desire to see the most heroic bodies as muscular.

Finally, there is also the ease with which anabolic steroids became available from the 1980s onwards. This isn’t going to turn into a ‘natty or not’ post, but it is well-documented that steroid use increased substantially in the United States during this period. Plenty of other websites have insinuated which actors may have used steroids to bulk up. I’ll go down a different route and say if our perceptions of muscularity have changed thanks to steroid use, that clearly impacts how big our fictitious heroes have to be.

Summing Up

Hollywood films have influenced my own training life in so many ways. I still look at Pumping Iron for motivation and my childhood subconscious was shaped by the Stallone and Arnold rivalry. We exist in a moment of muscular action stars which, although not the sole outcome of Arnold and Franco’s actions was, I believe, clearly shaped by the duo.

As always… Happy lifting!

Tell Me What You Think!

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: