When Arnold Schwarzenegger uttered "I'll be back" in 1984's "The Terminator," the instant-classic line – part threat, part vow from his cyborg assassin character – added up to a declaration of superstardom that the actor made good on, film after film, for a decade-plus.
Now Schwarzenegger’s once-vaunted movie career, waylaid by a seven-year stretch as governor of California and a string of unmemorable recent film appearances, hinges on audiences, young and otherwise, caring whether he lives up to his first and fiercest signature phrase.
Schwarzenegger returns Wednesday in "Terminator Genisys" with hopes for a professional rebirth as he approaches 68, a couple decades past his box office glory years. His test: whether simply coming back will yield a major comeback.
For a man always on the move, Schwarzenegger has been forced to learn patience. His career proved anything but an overnight success: The young body builder's thick Teutonic accent was overdubbed in his 1969 debut, the low-budget “Hercules in New York,” a forgetable film most notable for the nasal twang of his scrawny co-star, character actor Arnold Stang.
It took until 1977 for Schwarzenegger's real voice, potential star power and, above all, determination, to burst through in the bodybuilding documentary “Pumping Iron.” His 1982 turn in “Conan the Barbarian” packed both fanboy and camp appeal. Schwarzenegger was pushing 40 when “The Terminator” made him a box office Midas who would go on to touch in the likes of “Total Recall,” “True Lies” and the underrated “Last Action Hero.”
Still, he constantly varied his shtick, showing a talent for comedy in “Kindergarten Cop” and “Twins,” as well as in stints as a reliably witty “Tonight Show” guest. He married into the liberal Kennedy family and became the Republican governor of the nation’s most populous state.
Even as the Austrian immigrant lived the American story of reinvention, the action hero reputation clung to him. As he returns for the latest “Terminator” installment, his first non-cameo appearance in the series in a dozen years, Schwarzenegger enters a brave new world of celebrity – post politics, post tabloid friendly divorce, post a recent string of less-than-triumphant movie roles, including gigs in Sylvester Stallone's fun and fluffy “Expendables” flicks.
Schwarzenegger’s bid to reclaim his role as a bankable action star comes in a summer brimming with reboots of films from his prime moviemaking years. New installments in the “Mad Max” and “Jurassic Park” franchises are hits, while the “Poltergeist” remake quickly crawled back into the graveyard.
None of those new movies, though, relied on original stars. The return of Schwarzenegger’s “Terminator” character could be a steel stalking horse for Harrison Ford, who will be 73 by the time “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens in December, and perhaps for Tom Cruise, who reportedly is mulling starring in a sequel to “Top Gun,” the top grossing movie of 1986.
Schwarzenegger is smart enough to peg his comeback to a compelling movie series that’s about far more than its most famous star. The “Terminator” grip rests in turning time and expectations on their heads. That’s also the Arnold Schwarzenegger story, whose latest chapter unfolds Wednesday.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.