The Terminator was released with not much promotion on October 26, 1984. James Cameron, its little-known writer and director, had recently been living in his car, fresh from getting caught breaking into the editing room of his only other directorial effort, Piranha II: The Spawning.
With a production budget of just $6.4 million, it eventually earned over $78.3 million, making it one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. As we approach its 40th anniversary, here are some things you might not have known about the influential sci-fi thriller.
1. The idea for The Terminator started with a fever dream.
James Cameron had a tumultuous experience making his directorial debut in 1981’s Piranha II: The Spawning, but as he once put it, sometimes “nightmares are a business asset.” While in Rome for the horror movie’s release, Cameron had a fever dream of a “metal death figure coming out of a fire.”
2. But Harlan Ellison later successfully won an out-of-court settlement over the concept.
According to Ellison, The Terminator was a “ripoff” of an episode of The Outer Limits he had written in 1964 titled “Soldier,” itself an adaptation of his 1957 short story “Soldier From Tomorrow.” Orion Pictures and the outspoken author settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money. Cameron later referred to Ellison as a “parasite who can kiss my ass.”
3. James Cameron sold the script of The Terminator for $1.
There would never have been any lawsuits if James Cameron didn’t take a lot of risks to get the movie made in the first place. As the legend goes, Cameron’s agent hated the idea of the film, so Cameron, who was living in his car at the time, fired him.
An even more courageous move was Cameron’s insistence that he direct The Terminator, despite having only Piranha II: The Spawning on his resume. Instead of simply selling the script to the highest bidder, Cameron sold it to producer Gale Anne Hurd for a dollar, with the stipulation that he be allowed to direct his vision.
It was a gamble that paid off in more ways than one: Cameron and Hurd would marry in 1985 (though the pair divorced in 1989, and he subsequently remarried three more times, including to director Kathryn Bigelow and Terminator’s leading lady, Linda Hamilton).
4. Lance Henriksen was the first actor to dress as a Terminator.
Before James Cameron arrived at a pitch meeting with Hemdale Film Corporation producers, actor Lance Henriksen made an impression by kicking open the door and acting as the title character while wearing a leather jacket with gold foil affixed to his teeth. The performance was so believable that the secretary dropped her typewriter onto her lap. Henriksen ended up playing Detective Hal Vukovich for his trouble.
5. The studio wanted Kyle Reese to have a cyborg dog sidekick.
Because of the paltry $6.4 million budget, Cameron was mostly left alone by his financiers, Hemdale and Orion Pictures. Mostly. Hemdale’s John Daly wanted Cameron to cut out the striking final images of the movie in the factory, which earned him a “F*** you! The film isn’t over yet” in response.
Cameron was a little more receptive to Orion’s two suggestions, and supposedly less colorful in his responses. The first was to “strengthen the relationship” between Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), which was a note that Cameron took. The other was for Reese to have a cyborg canine companion; that one (perhaps sadly) did not happen.
6. The studio reportedly wanted O.J. Simpson to play the T-800.
It’s been bouncing around the internet for so long that you probably think it’s an urban legend, but Orion co-founder Mike Medavoy admitted in 2014 that he had strongly suggested O.J. Simpson for the part of the title role. Cameron dismissed the thought because Simpson came off as too nice of a guy.
7. Arnold Schwarzenegger was initially going to play Kyle Reese.
When James Cameron went to have lunch with Schwarzenegger to discuss this, Cameron had a change of heart and asked if the actor would consider playing the titular villain instead, after Schwarzenegger kept telling him how he thought the T-800 should act.
Even though he had a lot of opinions on the character, Schwarzenegger didn’t like the idea of playing the bad guy, having just found success playing the heroic Conan in Conan the Barbarian, but eventually agreed. The awkwardness returned at the end of the meal, when Cameron realized that he had forgotten his wallet.
8. Sting was offered $350,000 to play Kyle Reese.
At the time, Sting was playing bass and writing songs for The Police, and was committed to star in David Lynch’s Dune. Another musician, Bruce Springsteen, was considered, even though he had no movie acting experience; Matt Dillon, Kurt Russell, Tommy Lee Jones, Mickey Rourke, Michael O’Keefe, Scott Glenn, Treat Williams, Christopher Reeve, and Mel Gibson were also on the radar.
Bruce Willis was another young actor who didn’t get the part. (But in a fun twist, Jai Courtney, the actor who played Willis’s son in A Good Day to Die Hard, starred as Kyle Reese in the 2015 Terminator reboot, Terminator: Genisys.)
The role of Kyle Reese ultimately went to Michael Biehn, despite disappointing producers by using a Southern accent in his initial audition. Once his agent explained to the producers that the accent came from practicing for a part in a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof stage production (which he didn’t even get), Biehn got another shot. “I went back in and read for Jim again, and the rest is kind of history,” Biehn said in a 2011 interview with Den of Geek.
9. The principal actors had doubts about the movie.
According to fellow bodybuilder Rick Wayne, who visited Schwarzenegger on the set of 1984’s Conan the Destroyer, the Austrian-born powerhouse was less than impressed with his upcoming film. He reportedly referred to The Terminator as “some sh*t movie” he was doing.
Linda Hamilton wasn’t too keen on the film, either, in part because Schwarzenegger was so green as an actor. “I was a snotty New York actress, you know,” she later said, but eventually changed her tune upon seeing him in action. When Biehn told his actor friends he was doing a movie with Schwarzenegger, they sarcastically told him, “Well, good luck with that.”
10. Biehn thought the film had “one of the most difficult stunts” he ever witnessed.
Biehn’s done a lot of running, jumping, and fighting onscreen, but when it came to the stunts in The Terminator, there was one in particular he didn’t do—and the actor claims it was one of the toughest he ever witnessed.
For the scene where Reese drops down from a flash in the sky and lands in a downtown L.A. alleyway, Biehn claims they had a stuntman who was about 7 feet off the ground, laying on some 4-by-4s. “When Jim called action,” Biehn said, “[the stuntman] just jumped off sideways—and he was completely nude, of course—and landed straight like, onto the cement. And that cement was the cement, it wasn’t like, padded cement.”
Biehn noted that if you watch the scene, you’ll notice that the cement doesn’t move at all, but the stuntman’s body “kind of crunches in” over it. “I’ve been in the business for 40 years,” the Aliens star added. “And that is one of the most difficult stunts I’ve ever seen in my life.”
11. Schwarzenegger tried to change “I’ll be back.”
Thinking he had trouble pronouncing “I’ll” properly, Schwarzenegger asked Cameron if he could say, “I will be back” instead, with the reasoning being that the T-800 would not speak in contractions.
Cameron snapped, “Don’t tell me how to write. I don’t tell you how to act.” He then assured his star that they would shoot 10 takes and pick the one that sounded best. In Shawn Huston’s novelization of the film script, the line is “I’ll come back.”
12. Schwarzenegger speaks only 58 words in the film.
Technically, the T-800 says more than Arnold’s 17 sentences, but one is an overdubbed voice of a cop, and the other is in Sarah Connor’s mother’s voice, when the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 is trying to trick her.
13. Linda Hamilton broke her ankle before shooting.
To work around this, all of the scenes where Sarah Connor runs from the T-800 (like the famous Tech Noir scene above) were shot at the tail end of the shooting schedule.
In one draft of the screenplay, Cameron wrote that Connor had an old figure skating injury that required surgical pins in her tibia. When the T-800 kills the first two Sarah Connors, he cut their legs open to look for the surgical mark. This was taken out of the final cut.
14. You can access the T-800’s point of view if you still have an Apple II.
If you own an Apple II, and you enter ] call -151 * p at the basic prompt, you get the Terminator’s view.
15. In Poland, the film was released as “The Electronic Murderer.”
The Polish word for “terminator” loosely translates to “apprentice,” which doesn’t really capture the essence of what James Cameron and company were going for. When the movie became popular in Poland, the subsequent films stuck with the original titles.
16. The low budget caused a lot of physical pain for the crew.
When T-800’s hand is getting pummeled by a lead pipe by Kyle Reese, it was Tom Woodruff Jr., who worked special effects, allowing his hand to get the beating of a lifetime.
Naturally, he lost feeling in his fingers. As a reward, James Cameron sent him a Christmas card that read, “Merry Christmas. Hope the feeling comes back to your fingers someday.”
17. Actor David Hyde Pierce has repeatedly denied that he’s in the movie.
You can file this one under weird stuff you probably didn't know. Reportedly, David Hyde Pierce (of Frasier fame) had his first role as the co-driver of the tanker truck hijacked by the T-800. However, the actor has gone out of his way to point out that it was a different actor with the name David Pierce, and his IMDb page doesn’t list it any more as a past appearance.
18. The teaser trailer was narrated by the voice of Optimus Prime.
Peter Cullen was the original voice of Optimus Prime, and reprised his role for the 2010s Transformers movies. Cullen has range—he also was the voice of Eeyore from 1988-2010.
A version of this article was originally published in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.