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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years ago, Butler has given bodybuilding fans the world over a visual touchstone that still serves as everything from historical reference to motivational guide to celluloid bible.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.
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?
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.
It’s amazing not only how far bodybuilding has risen since then but how far it seems to have fallen at that time. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, guys like Charles Atlas and Steve Reeves didn’t portray that image.
Yeah, but there were limited pockets of bodybuilding. If you look at Charles Atlas, he wasn’t really much of a bodybuilder, and Steve Reeves made it in the movies and was very handsome. Look at it this way: Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived in America in 1968, and when we met him in 1972, the Mr. Olympia contest was held in a tiny little auditorium in Brooklyn and the prize money was something like $1,000 and only Arnold and Franco were making it as professional bodybuilders. Everyone else had another job. Leon Brown worked at a Laundromat in Staten Island.
I know that Steve Michalik was a graphic artist.
Steve had to have a full-time day job, and he was Mr. America. It was a joke it was so bad.
It feels like a larger production, though, especially the competition scenes in which you go from backstage to the audience’s perspective to onstage. What kind of a budget did you have?
I raised $400,000 to make the movie.
Amazing that you could film for so long on such a small budget. You shot for about three or four months, I figure.
And so when Pumping Iron was released, was it straight to the art houses, or did it have a wide release?
Actually it began at the Plaza Theatre, which was a regular movie theater in New York, and it broke every box office record there was at the theater.
Were the reviews generally positive? Are there any memorable stories related to the film’s release?
Oh, yeah. Well, it got fabulous reviews, and through a friend I got Jacqueline Onassis to come to a lunch for Arnold and that sent people through the roof. And I put Arnold before that in the Whitney Museum and in a ballet studio, and I got Jamie Wyeth to paint him.
Now, I remember the movie from PBS. It was before VCRs, so I used to run to the TV with my audio tape recorder and tape the audio for later listening. When did PBS start airing it? Probably, I would say, in late ’77. So pretty soon after the release.
Well, it was released in January ’77. So probably in October/November, it went on PBS. Even that was exasperating. The distributor, which was a company called Cinema 5, which was like the Miramax
of its day, sold Pumping Iron to PBS for 30 grand. About a week later, ABC came to me, and Tony Thomopoulos, the president, asked me if he could buy it. I said, “Well, how much?” and he said, “$1,000,000.”
And by that time it was too late?
Now among the bodybuilding set, there is a lot of speculation concerning a few of the scenes in Pumping Iron. I’ve talked to others who have wondered if some of the film is documentary or maybe a little bit of the guys acting for the camera. One case in particular that everyone talks about is the “missing T-shirt/crusher scene” and the on-screen friction between Ken Waller and Mike Katz. How much
of that was real?
The only tricky thing involved there is that Waller evidently stole Katz’s T-shirt because we got on film Katz saying, “Where’s my T-shirt? I bet Waller took it.” And so we filmed the before after.
With him tossing the football around with Robby and Roger talking about how he was going to do it?
What about Arnold? He told so many great stories that are still debated, like whether he really missed his father’s funeral (as he states in the film).
That’s true. He did not go to his father’s funeral.
And when he made his analogy of a pump feeling like an orgasm, did he clear that with you first or was it just extemporaneous?
No, that was extemporaneous.
Were there any things that didn’t make it to the screen that were great, funny, or remarkable?
[Laughing] Thousands of things.
Any that you can share?
Yeah. I’ve got Louie saying on film, “All I want to be is the Hulk,” and this was several years before he became the Hulk.
Amazing. Now you’ve got four main protagonists in the film, and each one was pretty different from the others. I’d like to get your thoughts on each. What was your impression of Mike Katz?
I adored him. He was authentic, and he always wore his heart on his sleeve, so you could tell on his face what was going on in his mind. The most amazing thing I know about Mike Katz is that he was a high school teacher. We filmed him at his high school, and I watched him playing touch football, and he began on the zero yard line, and he ran 100 yards down the field. There were a lot of good high school athletes there, and no one could touch him. I mean he went so fast, and he was so agile. You’ve got to remember, this was a guy who played track, hockey, and football. Three sports, All-American in college. You know, he was a New York Jets lineman, and I’m pretty sure he could have played professional hockey or could have thrown the discus or something like that. I mean, he’s an astonishing athlete and a great human being.
I’ve had the opportunity to speak with him and found him to be a thoughtful and considerate person.
He’s a fine human being.
What was it like shooting the scenes with Lou Ferrigno and his dad?
Well, when you make a film like Pumping Iron, you’ve got to put a good story together, and I had a keen insight into Louie’s relationship with his father. I knew that he was the perfect bodybuilder to set up as the guy who could, or might, knock off Arnold. And the contrast was perfect. Louie worked out in a small, dark gym in Brooklyn that was actually R&J Health Studio, which was owned by a man named Julie Levine. And Gold’s Gym in California was the exact opposite. Louie would work out in these tiny little rooms with one person around him and his father, and Arnold would work out in a gym in California that had its doors open, was wide open, right on the beach. And it was light and airy, and Louie’s was dark. Louie was dark and brooding. Arnold was blond and big and beachy and stuff like that. But both men are sons of policemen. I found that very interesting, and I’m sure Arnold subconsciously registered that. So the film set up this wonderful contest between these two men, and of course Louie was 6’5″ and he’s a giant, really. But here’s something interesting not many people know. Nik Cohn wrote a movie called Saturday Night Fever. He wrote the screenplay for it, and the whole Italian family, John Travolta’s family, is modeled on Louie and his family.
You’re kidding! Actually, I can see it. Like the scene in which Louie’s family is sitting around the kitchen table…
Yes! It’s all John Travolta’s family. With his sister and brother and the Catholic Church and everything else. It was modeled on them in Pumping Iron.
That’s too funny! Moving on to Franco. He seemed like a lot of fun to be around.
I was always very fond of Franco. It was my idea to go to Sardinia and film there. That’s when we were really doing seat-of-the-pants filmmaking because three of us went to Sardinia: myself, Bob Fiore, and his girlfriend, who was Marshall McLuhan’s daughter. I did sound and lighting, and Bob did lighting and camera work, and we were able to do key scenes for the movie in Sardinia with literally a two-man crew. And it worked. And we got stopped by the police in the mountains. It was very exciting stuff because Franco’s mother and father were real shepherds, and I’m not even convinced any other Americans had been to his village before us. It was way, way up in the mountains in Sardinia, and it was so remote, and it was so high up that there was still ice in June on the lakes. At one point Franco chopped a hole in the ice and caught some trout, which he served us for lunch. On another occasion Franco’s family put me in the only available bedroom, which was his sisters’ room. Five of his sisters were going to sleep in the room with me, so this was quite wonderful. Then I realized Franco’s father was sitting right outside the window at the foot of my bed, watching me all night long.
How long were you in Sardinia?
Probably a week.
That’s fun footage. The movie is so international, and it’s amazing how you did it on such a small budget with such a small crew and yet it’s this globe-hopping excursion.
Well, we filmed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Montreal. We filmed at the Whitney Museum in New York. We filmed in Connecticut. We filmed in Massachusetts. We filmed in Paris, and we filmed in South Africa.
Now I’d be hard-pressed to figure out exactly which scenes were shot where.
Well, where Franco blows up the hot-water bottle is in Massachusetts. Mike Katz was filmed in Connecticut. The movie actually opens in San Francisco.
Is that the ballet scene?
The ballet scene was New York City. That was another location I forgot to mention. It was shot in Joanne Woodward’s dance studio in Manhattan.
Another interesting tidbit. Turning now to Arnold. We all know that he is this self-made man. What was your impression of him? Did he just seem like a guy who was born to be successful?
Yeah, well, the reason I made the film was because I thought he was very charismatic and interesting and smart. But initially, when I met him, he had been in America four years and virtually nothing had happened. You know, he wasn’t in other movies. We were the first people outside of bodybuilding to interview him.
Yeah, he did Hercules in New York and then kind of laid dormant for awhile.
Hercules Goes Bananas.
With Arnold Stang.
[Laughing] Yeah. And even his voice had to be redubbed in that movie.
That’s probably the best aspect of it: the overdubbed voice.
And I’ll tell you another little sidebar. When I was trying to get Pumping Iron going, I was very short on money. So I went to this lab in New York, and I had just come back from shooting the initial part of the film. I asked them if they’d give me some credit, which is the kind of thing they normally do when you get going on a movie. This was a place called DuArt Film Lab, and the owner of it was someone named Irwin Young. So I went in with my hat in my hand and asked him if he would give me $15,000 worth of credit. He said, “Tell me what you’re doing,” and I said, “Well I’m making a movie about bodybuilding.” Then he said, “Does it have anything to do with Arnold Schwarzenegger?” and I said, “Yes.” So he said, “Forget it. I won’t give you any credit. I had a movie in here called Hercules in New York, and they never paid a bill, and they owe me
That’s a riot! What a coincidence.
[Laughing] It was an unfortunate one.