Pumping Iron at 40: The Classic Bodybuilding Movie

An interview with director George Butler, the man responsible for making bodybuilding a cultural mainstay that has inspired a younger generation of lifters.

Pumping Iron at 40: The Classic Bodybuilding Movie
Getty Images / Keystone / Staff

It’s hard to overstate the impact of director George Butler’s 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, not just on bodybuilding, but on society. For one thing, it introduced the world to pre-Conan Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose incredible success might not have been possible without his breakout performance as himself in P.I.

Then there’s the mainstreaming of gyms that can be traced to the  lm’s release. Beginning in the late 1970s and well into the ’80s, the health club industry saw massive growth, with chains popping up throughout the U.S., then the world, and with them, a surge in gym memberships. Pumping Iron is the reason many of us, myself included, got into working out in the first place, so it’s with great pleasure that I wish George, Arnold, and the rest of the film’s cast and crew a happy 40th anniversary.


The film that almost wasn’t.

With the exception of the brothers Weider, few people have had as much of an influence on the popularization of bodybuilding as George Butler. As the engine that conceived, directed, and then brought the film Pumping Iron to theaters 40 years ago, Butler has given bodybuilding fans the world over a visual touchstone that still serves as everything from historical reference to motivational guide to celluloid bible.

M&F: What was your  first professional experience with bodybuilding?

George Butler: Charles Gaines was assigned by Sports Illustrated to write an article on a bodybuilding contest for the July ’72 issue. He asked me to take the photographs.

What was the contest?

It was the Mr. East Coast, which was held in Holyoke, MA, and was won by a wonderful bodybuilder named Leon Brown.

Were you familiar with bodybuilding at the time, or was it a new experience for you?

I had grown up in Jamaica and the West Indies, and I used to work out in a gym in Jamaica, and bodybuilding was a big sport down there. I saw my first bodybuilding exhibit actually at a political rally in a church in Savanna-la-Mar, Jamaica.

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How did that come about?

A friend of mine was running for parliament in Jamaica, and he had a political rally in the parish church, and part of his rally included a bodybuilding exhibition with a guy named Samson. The power went out in the middle of it, so they lit it with kerosene flares.

After the Sports Illustrated article came the book. I understand that you faced a few obstacles in attempting to get it published. Hadn’t Doubleday given you an advance to do the book?

Right. We did the entire book and turned the manuscript in to Sandy Richardson, who was editor in chief at Doubleday, and he wrote us a letter saying, “I want my money back. No one will ever read this book, and no one will ever be interested in Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

So then you shopped it around in New York?

Yeah. We ended up at Simon & Schuster.

That was in ’74?

Late ’74.

And was it a success?

Yes. It made The New York Times Best Sellers list.

How many editions have there been?

I think about 20 printings.

SEE ALSO: The Golden Era of Bodybuilding

Your book is what inspired me to take up bodybuilding. When I was about 10, I remember thumbing through a copy in a department store and coming to the picture of Arnold with a topless girl on his shoulders, and I thought, “That’s what I want to be.”

Well, bear in mind that the woman on his shoulders was the top woman bodybuilder at the time. I took those photos for a Playboy article, and Arnold was supposed to be the male bodybuilder, and Heidi was supposed to be the female bodybuilder.

So after the book comes the movie. What was it like trying to bring the  film to the screen? Was Charles involved?

Charles decided he didn’t want to be involved in the movie. Pretty much everyone deserted by this point.

Did you have funding at this stage?

Well, funding came in very erratically and with great difficulty. I actually went to 3,000 people one by one to  finance the  film.


Yeah, it’s really true. I’m not exaggerating.

So you then went out and shot some footage?

We shot a test  film, and I screened it in New York for 100 investors, and [actress] Laura Linney’s father [playwright Romulus Linney] got up and said, “George, if you ever make a movie about Arnold Schwarzenegger, you’ll be laughed off 42nd Street.”

That kind of negative attitude still astounds me.

What you’ve got to understand is that back in the early ’70s, bodybuilding was the least glamorous sport in the world. The prevailing view was that it was purely homosexual, that body- builders were totally uncoordinated, that when they grew older their muscles would turn to fat, and that they had no intelligence whatsoever. Charles Gaines said that it was like trying to promote midget wrestling. It was so tawdry...everyone we knew was laughing at us.

How big a crew did you have for the filming?

Well, the way I shoot  films, my crews expand and contract. For instance, when I was shooting at Lou [Ferrigno]’s gym in Brooklyn, it was really just half a dozen people. When we were shooting at Gold’s Gym, we had a bigger operation. It was probably 12 people, which included the cinematographer, gaffer, the assistants, and me, and some electricians, etc. Basically I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve always worked with a small crew. When we were filming in South Africa at the contest, we were running about six cameras, and with South African assistants we probably had 30 people.