I'll be back, but first I'll change a nappy

He was the world's greatest bodybuilder; he became the world's highest-paid actor. He married JFK's niece and has been spoken of as a future president. But there is a softer side to Arnold Schwarzenegger, as Nigel Andrews reveals

In the Seventies, everyone agrees, Arnold Schwarzenegger was keen on women. We learnt of his abilities as a charm artist in British bars and nightclubs. We know he picked up women on Venice Beach, California, so they could watch him work out. We are told he would "flex a tricep" at girls in passing cars. And even on the set of Hercules in New York, Arnold's first movie, fellow actor James Karen remembers that Arnold had "an eye for the ladies".

In later years, Arnold would claim that not only did the ladies have an eye for him - rich ladies, poor ladies, young ladies, older ladies - they on occasion almost raped him. There was the woman at a San Francisco party in the early Seventies who wanted to pour hot chocolate over him and lick it off in public. There was the woman who "ripped her clothes off for me during an autographing session and stood there naked. She said, 'Can you train this body for me?' " (She was removed by security guards.) There was the chambermaid who would accost him in the lift of a hotel on the Cote d'Azur: "She became very excited and grabbed me by my pectoralis major. I had a hell of a job getting it back."

There were also the women who offered him $1,000 to spend a "discreet night" with them. Perhaps it was in terror of this escalating demand for him as a toyboy that Arnold vetoed the publication of a set of nude photographs of him taken in 1976 by Francesco Scavullo. They were intended for Cosmopolitan and showed, says Scavullo, the full Schwarzenegger works.

Obviously so much willed and unwilled sexual attention could turn a man into a "male Raquel Welch" (Arnold's words); and the concept of a male Raquel Welch raises the issue of sexual ambivalence that is never far from the world of male body culture. It is not an issue Arnold himself wished to skirt. Indeed it was hard to shut him up about it in the statements he gave to the media just before and just after the release of Pumping Iron, the bodybuilding docu-feature made by George Butler in 1977, which launched him towards stardom.

"When you train and deal with your body, it doesn't mean you are a homosexual. Straight guys can ... look in a mirror and say, 'I look like shit and want to do something about it.' I try to be very careful when I talk about this. I don't want anybody to get the impression that I'm knocking homosexuality."

"I've spent so much time fighting inaccurate stereotypes about bodybuilding," he told Cosmopolitan. "I can see the harm stereotypes do in other areas - and that includes anti-gay stereotypes."

For a famous sportsman and future grandstanding Republican, Arnold in the Seventies seemed relaxed about moving in recherche circles. He was helped perhaps by George Butler acting as pygmalion and mentor, pushing him into the demi-monde of painters, ballet and performance art.

Arthur Seidelman, who directed Arnold in Hercules in New York, recalls an incident four or five years after he made the film. "I was up at Andy Warhol's loft one day, and I was walking across the floor, and out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw Arnold posing naked for someone. It didn't seem an appropriate moment to stop and say 'Hi!', so I kept walking. But a moment later behind me I heard 'Seidelman!' and there came Arnold bounding after me without a stitch of clothing on, rather upset that I hadn't stopped for a chat."

Though clearly not gay himself, Arnold at this time seemed startlingly bi-functional as a spiritual and ideological animal: a plutocrat and pot- smoker, a conservative and liberal, an athlete and aesthete, an icon of manliness and an outspoken gay sympathiser.

In later years, movie appearances would push him towards an ever more hyperbolised maleness. But in those same movies - as if this early open- spiritedness demands to be shown the more it is repressed - the opposite keeps coming in like a demon. There is something mesmerically androgynous about Arnold in Pumping Iron: a sly, tousle-haired, bedroom-eyed charmer amid the surrounding cast of dumb pudding-heads delivering Stone Age monosyllables. There will be something both funny and apt about Arnold smuggling himself on to Mars in Total Recall disguised as a large woman who looks as if she's about to create hell in a Christmas sales queue; and something both touching and apt in Arnold playing surrogate hausfrau to Danny DeVito's hellraising petty crook in Twins.

Later still, in his bravest bow to sexual ambidextrousness, Junior, Arnold will become pregnant. Like many female divinities of the screen, who caused most havoc and heart-racing when they dressed up as men (Dietrich in Morocco, Garbo in Queen Christina), part of Arnold's charisma as a male superstar lies in his ability to summon up at will - or despite his will - a dormant other-sex self.

To Arnold and Maria: a Schwarzenshriver

During the early summer of 1989, Arnold's wife, Maria, visited him in Mexico, where he was starting work on his new film, Total Recall. She wanted to discuss the couple's autumn social calendar and nagged away at dates for this birthday party and that anniversary celebration ... Ja ja, sighed Arnold, signing on every dotted line.

"Oh, and it would be good if you have some time on December lst," said Maria.

"What's that?" said Arnold.

"That's when you will become a father."

Arnold reeled back against his exercise bike. A father? It seemed a miracle.

Arnold and Maria had laboured long and hard to produce an infant. The world's gossip columnists, suffering from sympathetic non-pregnancy, had been worried. There were rumours, admittedly in the baser press, that Mr and Mrs S had gone to consult the famous sex therapists Masters and Johnson, after fighting for the thousand days of their marriage over the question of infertility.

On 13 December 1989, after a 15-hour labour, Maria gave birth to a 9lb baby girl, with Arnold cutting the cord.

"It's great to be part of the delivery," he declaimed, after removing the white mask and surgical gloves. "You really respect the woman more. The pain and the hours and hours of pure torture brought us even closer together."

Cut to Casa Arnold. The baby has grown up three months and rejoices in the names Katherine Eunice. Arnold has rejected two film offers, each worth $5m, in order to stay in Los Angeles and tend the tot. Meanwhile, Maria will return to her work hosting the television news show Sunday Today.

"I have my soft side and I help with Katherine in any way I can," says Arnold, the New Age father. "I feed her and hold the bottle and have her lie on my chest in the morning and I burp her." He even enjoys changing her nappies and "getting up in the middle of the night to rock her to sleep".

Asked about parenthood on the Oprah Winfrey show, Arnold was wondrous to behold. The eyes shone, the capped teeth bared themselves in a smile and the accent backpedalled to its most gemutlich Austrian. "Dey come into de bed and lie on yer chest, and den dey smile and play with yer heer or scratch yer face. You jusd melt."

Arnold, even with his millions, rejects the idea of round-the-clock help. "I couldn't do what I hear your English aristocrats do," he told a British reporter. "Which is to leave the kids to nannies, see them for half an hour a day and then send them away to school. Maria and I have a nanny, but Katherine's cot is in our bedroom. We want her to grow up knowing who her parents are."

Blithe with fatherhood, Arnold is not concerned about any Conan the Babysitter backwash. "Although it's wonderful to have a child, it hasn't softened me. I can't afford to be like that. When I walk out on the streets I have to be as tough as ever. In Los Angeles they confuse softness with weakness."

Storming towards the Millennium

In August 1993, Arnold began filming True Lies. The estimated cost was $120m, making it costlier than any film before. By the time it had beaten the previous record-holder, Terminator 2, this ultimate male accessorisation orgy - incorporating political incorrectness and lashings of sexism - had gone months over schedule and called on more expensive hardware than any film in history.

Arnold himself had approached the director James Cameron with the idea after seeing the French comedy La Totale. "I have the picture you want to do next," the actor announced, outlining the plot about an international spy whose double life runs to a mutually suspicious relationship with his wife. The high concept that appealed to Arnold was that here was a superhero influencing world events who could not handle, indeed was totally lost in, the smaller arena of his marriage.

After Last Action Hero, True Lies restored Arnold's credibility as a menace to humanity, or its most dangerously businesslike messiah. Though the hints of misogyny in the plot may not have enhanced the film's appeal to liberals, they helped to repudiate the larky, self-deprecating Mr Nice Guy of the earlier film.

True Lies the movie and True Lies the promo campaign are full of the sound of Arnold backpedalling from PC pieties. Was our hero returning to his gung-ho roots? Certainly in November 1993, with two daughters in the family, Katherine and Christina (born in 1991), Arnold made amends to the god of machismo with a son, Patrick. The boy entered the world at 6.30am - bodybuilder's wake-up time - and weighed 9lbs.

To celebrate, Arnold expanded his domestic empire. With three children and a wife, it was clearly impractical to live in a mere seven-bedroom, 6,500 sq ft house in Pacific Palisades. So Arnold bought the house next door from the Dynasty actor John Forsythe. The price was around $3m. The purchaser would maintain both homes, using Casa Forsythe initially as a guest house. In addition, he installed a $100,000 basketball court for his baby son.

The new, improved, territorial Arnold is also reported to have paid $3,150 to a local lobbyist, Kei Uyeda, to help speed through City Hall an application to regain a 300ft by 40ft plot of land adjoining Casa Arnie. The city had taken over the land to extend a road, but under Arnold pressure they agreed to shelve the plan. "You can't fight city hall," goes the American proverb. Arnold told the proverb to drop dead.

It is bracing, in these early years of the pre-millennial decade, to find Arnold counter-attacking whenever he has a setback. After Last Action Hero, a bigger box-office disaster even than Heaven's Gate, he stormed back, more or less, in True Lies. After two daughters he begat a male heir, destiny assisting patriarchal desire. And after the minor humiliation of seeing his Hollywood Boulevard "star" dug up in April 1994, when his and other performers' paving stones were removed during extension work on the Los Angeles underground system, he had the consolation in July that year of plunging his hands and feet into wet cement in another ritual sacred to the Avenue of the Stars. Arnold, wearing size 12 cowboy boots, signed his trademark line "I'll be back" in front of 3,500 fans.

Arnold was so comfortable now with his own achievements and his own masculinity that he could take the ultimate leap of courage. He could play, in Junior, the role we had unspokenly dared him to. A woman; or rather a man who gets pregnant.

'True Myths: the life and times of Arnold Schwarzenegger', by Nigel Andrews, is published by Bloomsbury, price pounds 16.99.

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