ARNOLD THE GREAT Schwarzenegger sells latest film


New York -- Once upon a time he was a body builder, and under the star-burst shirt he's wearing today, there's still enough muscle to propel a backfield into the divisional playoffs. Then, with his broad smile and beaming charm, he became a movie star, and Arnold Schwarzenegger prospered beyond all expectations.

But now, on this day, Arnold is a salesman.

This could be an Amway convention or a Tupperware session with all the selling that's going on. Actually, it's a Manhattan banquet room and Arnold, big as a haunch of beef and radiating Arnold-charm and Arnold-smiles, is selling his new product "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" with the single-minded energy that once he devoted to lifting large disks of metal in an obscure Austrian gym all those many years ago.

Though an American citizen since 1984, Schwarzenegger is still Austrian after all these years. The accent, more modulated in his film experiences, is somewhat more flavorful in conversation and, perhaps more redolent of the Teutonic culture, his comments are more like statements of policy, rigidly conceived and rigorously delivered as a lecture in grammar in a realschule somewhere in the lost mists of the last century.

"It was not chosen by me," he says of "Terminator 2." "It was chosen by the people. More and more people just asked, 'Are you going to make another 'Terminator?' I did 'Predator' and 'Commando' and 'Total Recall' but I didn't feel the people wanted to see more of them. Always it was the same: 'Terminator.' "

He smiles, showing teeth that look as if they were imported from Stonehenge, then polished at Tiffany's. "I told it to Jim [Cameron, the writer-director who was busy in the intervening years himself with "Aliens" and "The Abyss"], and he said it was the same for him. And so we said 'Let's do it.' But it had to be the same thing. With Linda [Hamilton] and Jim. The same commitment to the story."

Schwarzenegger then sketches in the background: The rights were owned by Hemdale, a British releasing company, and it took some years of haggling and negotiation and finally the deposit of a large chunk of money from one corporation to another before they came into the possession of the energetic Carolco Pictures, which had produced "Total Recall" as well as Arnold's "Red Heat."

When he is asked why the Terminator figure is so resonant, while the other roles, equally as powerful and equally as photogenic, have quietly made their $80 million in box office and quietly passed from view, he pretends to a rationalist's contempt of abstract questions.

"Why? I'm not a psychologist? Are you studying me? Are you writing a paper on me?"

Assured that no one wants to climb down into that repressed Germanic superego, he essays a game little answer that has the sound of something well prepared.

"I feel that it reached the core in people. The fantasy of the indestructible man is very attractive to people. Wouldn't it be neat to pay everybody back? Wouldn't it be neat to be the Terminator for a day? That's why some people rented the movie 100 times and watched certain scenes over and over."

But also, he announced in uncertain terms, "the first movie had so much more than just boom-boom-boom. It had a great message and it was so well-written."

As for the sequel, he graciously deflects favorable comments launched his way to give all credit to the intense and gifted Cameron.

"I wish I could take the credit but I can't. I made no changes at all except to suggest that we cut 30 pages. He would have done it anyway."

Both men felt, according to Schwarzenegger, "It was better to take the character in a new direction. There were a number of ideas -- that I would play both Terminators, for example -- floating around. I was happy that he did make the change in my personality, so that it would be more than just action-oriented."

The change, of course, is for the good: It's no secret that Arnold, the spirit of mechanical mayhem and remorselessness and shotgun-wielding power (he single-handedly kills 17 policemen) in the first movie, is transmogrified into a kinder, gentler creature. He only shoots people in the leg now.

"People looked at me in one way in 1984 and now they look at me differently because of my comedy films. We thought it would be more effective to show an upbeat version. This time, he shows that we have the power to change events." He is vividly conscious of his own stardom and almost doesn't like to confront it directly. He says that some journalist is trying to do the ultimate Arnold story and keeps demanding to know, "Why him?"

"I say to him, 'This is your job to figure out. This is not my job.' "

But, probed, he does consider the magic of his own appeal.

"I don't really know, but obviously there's something to enjoy and believe in. People admire the success story of a foreigner who comes over with no money and 20 years over, look where he is. It's the most common thing" -- meaning, one supposes, not "commonplace" but "common denominator of dreams."

"I hear this from parents all the time. 'Look at Arnold,' they say to their kids, 'look what Arnold has done.' "

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