Originally released in 1977, the bodybuilding docudrama Pumping Iron is more than 40 years old—and has lost none of its original appeal. Bodybuilding is still a fringe sporting activity, and the film still serves to help humanize the athletes and clarify their pursuit of physical perfection. They’re both the sculptor and the marble, carving works of art from their own gigantic frames.
While the film will always be best known for helping to introduce Arnold Schwarzenegger to movie audiences, there’s a lot more to Pumping Iron. Check out 12 facts about the film’s origins, credibility controversies, and the unlikely political icon who helped promote its release.
1. THE MOVIE ORIGINALLY CO-STARRED A WIMP.
When photographer George Butler was dispatched by both Life magazine and The Village Voice to cover the burgeoning bodybuilding scene in the early 1970s, he was fascinated with its abundance of charismatic participants. Feeling one of the sport’s star attractions, Arnold Schwarzenegger, could carry a full-length film, Butler decided to pursue a feature-length project with collaborator Robert Fiore that he began shooting in 1975. The problem was that Butler was focused on the mass monsters of the Mr. Olympia scene; to balance it out and offer audiences a more relatable subject, he enlisted slightly-built actor Bud Cort (Harold and Maude) and shot a lot of footage of him working out and marveling at the well-developed bodies all around him. The footage wound up being cut from the finished film.
2. NO ONE BELIEVED ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER COULD CARRY THE MOVIE.
While Butler was trying to raise funds, he shot a 10-minute test sequence of Schwarzenegger making a guest posing appearance in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Screening the footage for investors in New York, Butler was dismayed to see that they seemed more horrified than intrigued by the sight of the massive Austrian flexing his deltoids. After the footage ended, playwright Romulus Linney stood, turned to Butler, and said, “I think I speak for all of us when I say that if you make a movie about this Arnold person, we will laugh you off 42nd Street.” (Butler turned to another approach, piecemealing his budget together by petitioning more than 3000 separate financiers until he got the money he needed.)
3. SCHWARZENEGGER’S NAME ALMOST KILLED THE MOVIE BEFORE IT GOT STARTED.
And not because it was hard to pronounce. According to Butler, cash was so tight during production that he once visited a film development lab hoping to get some work done on credit. When the employee asked him what he was doing, Butler told him it was about bodybuilding. Suddenly, the man turned icy and asked if it had anything to do with Schwarzenegger. When Butler told him he was the star, the lab turned him away. The reason? The actor’s first movie, 1970’s Hercules in New York, had burned his business. “I won't give you any credit,” he said. “I had a movie in here … Hercules in New York and they never paid a bill and they owe me thirty grand."
4. IT INSPIRED ANOTHER CLASSIC 1970S MOVIE.
For contrast, Butler decided to focus on Schwarzenegger’s rival for the 1975 Mr. Olympia title, a soft-spoken Brooklyn native named Lou Ferrigno. Unlike Schwarzenegger’s bombastic confidence, Ferrigno was depicted as being browbeaten by his domineering father. According to Butler, screenwriter Nik Cohn saw the scenes of the Ferrignos arguing over the dinner table and used it as inspiration for a project of his own: His story, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," was turned into 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, the disco melodrama that made a star out of John Travolta.
5. LOU FERRIGNO PREDICTED HIS OWN FUTURE.
The nature of raw footage means that hundreds of hours of film were left on the cutting room floor, but according to Butler, one sequence in particular has never left his memory. Talking to Ferrigno about his future hopes, the actor told the director that “all I want to be is the Hulk.” He got his wish just two years later, starring for five seasons on CBS’s The Incredible Hulk.
6. SOME SCENES WERE STAGED.
According to Schwarzenegger, some of the events depicted in Pumping Iron were orchestrated to the point where he no longer felt comfortable calling it a documentary. “It’s a docudrama,” he said. Citing investor concerns over endless training footage and not enough interpersonal drama, the actor said that he played up his arrogance for cameras. “We wanted to sell the idea of how cold I am, how I have no emotions,” he explained. In one famous scene, Schwarzenegger said he declined to go to his father’s funeral because it would interrupt his training cycle. In reality, the actor said that he “stole” the story from another bodybuilder because he knew it would create attention. “It never happened. My father never died before any competition.”
7. FERRIGNO WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE VILLAIN OF THE MOVIE.
According to Schwarzenegger, producers originally felt that Ferrigno would wind up becoming the adversary of the film, a six-foot-five giant who would topple the Austrian from his dominant position in the sport. But as time went on, Ferrigno revealed himself to be more vulnerable and less capable of pulling off the upset, leaving Schwarzenegger to play up his role as an instigator. “We actually made him the victim and made me the guy who pulls the tricks on him and wipes out guys year after year,” Schwarzenegger said.
8. YES, ARNOLD WAS ON STEROIDS.
Speaking decades after the fact, Schwarzenegger acknowledged that one of the most common questions regarding both Pumping Iron and his bodybuilding career was whether he was taking now-vilified performance-enhancing substances like anabolic steroids. “The answer is yes,” he said. “It was just in the beginning stage. Bodybuilders in those days just experimented with it, but it wasn’t illegal. We talked about it openly.”
9. JACKIE KENNEDY HELPED THE MOVIE BECOME A HIT.
A week before Pumping Iron premiered in January of 1977, the film’s press agent was able to stage a press luncheon in New York featuring an impressive list of the city’s notables like Andy Warhol and George Plimpton. But the most significant guest was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who appeared as a favor to a mutual friend of hers and Schwarzenegger’s. Her presence at an event meant to promote a bodybuilding movie was so unique that it received a considerable amount of press attention. “She certainly gave Pumping Iron a big publicity boost,” Schwarzenegger would later write. Onassis even attended the film’s premiere with her son, John F. Kennedy Jr.
10. BODYBUILDERS HATED IT—AT FIRST.
Having been given no breaks before, during, or after filming, Butler figured he’d find a receptive audience by filling a test screening full of the bodybuilders he had profiled in the movie. When the lights went up, Butler noticed that none of them was making a sound. “You really f*cked it up, George!” one of them screamed. “That was the worst piece of crap I’ve ever seen!” Fortunately, critics and mainstream audiences disagreed: Pumping Iron prompted an explosion of popularity in bodybuilding and helped usher in the fitness craze of the 1980s.
11. THE SEQUEL BOMBED.
Nearly 10 years after beginning work on the original film, Butler decided to film a follow-up. Pumping Iron II: The Women was a 1985 release that focused on the growing female segment of the bodybuilding scene. While it was warmly received by and other outlets, audiences seemed disinterested in an Arnold-free feature—and it has since been largely forgotten.
12. THERE WAS A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE DOCUMENTARY.
For the film’s 25th anniversary in 2002, a documentary titled Raw Iron was released. Intended as a meta-reflection on the original, it combined deleted scenes—like the abandoned Cort footage—with contemporaneous interviews featuring the principal bodybuilders and Butler. In it, Schwarzenegger makes a curious, ironic confession: He was initially hesitant to appear in the film because he was ready to give up bodybuilding and pursue acting full-time.