Arnold Schwarzenegger on Mortality, Hard Work, and Why He Would’ve Made a Great President

Actor, fitness guru, and former California Governor sits with Howard to discuss his new book, “Be Useful”

October 5, 2023

As an action mega-star and former bodybuilding champion, Arnold Schwarzenegger has put in his 10,000 hours of posing. But now, well into his 70s and no longer in peak physical condition, the actor, author, fitness expert, and one-time Governor of California admitted looking in the mirror can be a challenge.

“You have to have a sense of humor about it,” Arnold told Howard on Wednesday morning during his Stern Show return. “When you’ve been hailed for years as this supreme body, and you have the definition, and you see the veins coming down your abs and the lower abs … and now you’re standing there, and you don’t see that anymore … I never, ever thought about when I was 30 years old.”

Schwarzenegger, who’s led a state of over 30 million people and starred in several of the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood history, didn’t sit down with Howard to chat about governance or film roles. He stopped by the show hoping to inspire listeners to better themselves, as others have inspired him. In his new book “Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life,” the Austrian-born icon shares the lessons he learned while conquering Hollywood, the world of bodybuilding, and politics. And while his workout philosophy once centered around big muscles, he told Howard his approach has changed to accommodate his age.

“You can only live longer and healthier if you’re lean,” Arnold said, explaining he enjoys a largely vegan diet. “I eat only two meals a day — I have breakfast and I have dinner … because the system just slows down, and it just doesn’t burn off the stuff well anymore.”

Aging and mortality have been at the forefront of his mind since undergoing heart valve surgery shortly before his 50th birthday. “‘You’re now damaged goods,’” he recalled thinking at the time. “This is the first time where I felt kind of like vulnerable, where all of a sudden the doctors say, ‘No, no, you shouldn’t lift that heavy anymore.’”

A later hip surgery had a similar affect. “You kind of feel like, ‘Wait a minute, life is not anymore the same as when [you were] 30 years old, 40 years old, where you could do anything and you never had to think about anything,” Schwarzenegger revealed to Howard. “Now, all of a sudden, you have to start thinking about those things.”

Arnold might be thinking about those things, but he isn’t deterred by them. “I just feel like as those challenges come my way, I take them … it’s the only choice we have,” he explained. “The bottom line is I’m 76 years old, I’m full of energy, I’m full of enthusiasm, [and] I’m as enthusiastic and excited as I was when I was 30 years old.”

Turning Down a Big Payday to Follow His Dream

Schwarzenegger was a renowned bodybuilder who hadn’t yet found much success in Hollywood when he was offered $200,000 to manage and be the face of fitness legend Jack LaLanne’s chain of gyms. The money was great and the offer tempting, but he wasn’t about to sell himself short on his big dream.

“I thought about it, and I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute. My goal is to be a leading man in movies and to be another Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson … I want to make a million dollars a movie,’” he told Howard, explaining that the job might be great for his finances but would prevent him from taking acting classes, going out for auditions, and putting in all the work necessary to become a film star. “So, [I thought], ‘No, I cannot take this job no matter how much money it is.’”

“I had a very clear vision of where I wanted to go in my acting career,” he added. “I said, ‘I really appreciate you having faith in me. I will help you with promoting the gymnasium chain. I’ll do anything I can, but I have to pursue my acting career.’”

First Action-Comedy Hero

These days in Hollywood there is plenty of overlap between action hero and comedy star, but in the late ‘80s, when Arnold followed up explosive action flicks like “The Terminator,” “Commando,” and “Predator” with the blockbuster action-comedies “Twins” and “Kindergarten Cop,” that kind of range was unheard of. During his conversation with Howard on Wednesday, Arnold revealed he didn’t sculpt his impressively chiseled funny bone all by himself. He had help from legendary comedian Milton Berle.

“I learned a lot from Milton Berle, and I love that he was really interested in helping me,” Arnold said, explaining he specifically sought out Uncle Miltie’s advice because he from Germany. “That’s why I went to him. He’s aware of the difficulties of Germans [and] Austrians adopting American humor.”

Arnold asked Berle for help with joke writing and delivering funny speeches, and while the “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” star was gracious in dispensing advice, he didn’t shy away from candid criticism. “He would go sit in the front row when I gave a speech somewhere, and he’d come up to me afterward and say … ‘Don’t blow the line right away. The timing is important,’” Arnold recalled with a laugh.

Why He’d Make a Great President

Unless a new constitutional amendment is passed allowing citizens born abroad to become President of the United States, Arnold won’t be getting sworn into the Oval Office anytime soon. But the former California Governor assured Howard that being barred from America’s highest political office was never a point of frustration.

“It really wasn’t because I felt like everything I’ve accomplished in my life—[the] bodybuilding career, the movie career, becoming Governor, setting up my Schwarzenegger Institute, all this stuff, the millions of dollars I made and everything—it’s all because of America,” he said. “So, why would I complain about the one thing I can’t do?”

Even so, Arnold remained confident he could’ve done the job well. “I think that I would’ve made a great president. I think that I have the energy and the will to bring people together,” he said.

Howard took things a step further. “I think you would’ve won,” he told his guest.

“You think about it and you’re absolutely right because so many people come up to me and go, ‘Oh, I wish you could be our president,’” Arnold agreed before explaining he’s still deeply committed to bringing people together, saving the environment, and protecting democracy. “There are so many people out there in America who need help, so I think we should all concentrate on that … and not just think about ourselves.”

On Hard Work, Shortcuts, and a Generation of Wimps

Arnold hopes his book “Be Useful” will itself be useful to those seeking to improve their lives. “To me, it’s all about hard work,” he told Howard. “That’s why I say in my book [to] work your ass off. There’s no shortcut.”

The world-class bodybuilder and fitness guru went on to explain the similarities between strengthening one’s body and one’s mind. “You can only strengthen your character and become a really strong person inside if you have resistance—if you fail, if you get up again, and if you work hard,” he said. “The more you struggle, the further you’re going to go, and the stronger you’re going to get. That’s the way the world works.”

To that end, he’s worried about how the country will fare if people don’t start rising to the challenge. “Anyone who tries to baby themselves … it’s over. You’re never going to get there … You have to be able to struggle,” he said, suggesting pain, misery, and discomfort precede growth.

“What built this country? Is it people that slept in? Is it people that were wimping out? No, these were ballsy women and men who went out there at five in the morning … and they worked their butts off. That’s what made this country great, so now let’s continue this way. Don’t start creating a generation of wimps and weak people,” he concluded. “It’s nice to be considerate … but let’s not over-baby the kids.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new book “Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life” arrives Oct. 10.

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