09/02/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT
LIVING IN THE BASEMENT OF HIS PARENTS' Cleveland home back in 1980, Robert Patrick, a 6', 215-lb. college dropout, wondered what to do with his future. One of the sources he turned to while trying to change his diet and his life was Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, a book coauthored by an iron-pumper named Schwarzenegger.
Cut forward 10 years. Patrick, 32, is 60 lbs. lighter and, ironically, body-slamming the very same Schwarzenegger throughout what has become the summer's top-grossing movie. As Terminator 2's lean, mean, infinitely mutable death machine, T-1000, Patrick says, "Throwing him around was a genuine thrill." The actor, who is outgoing and relaxed when he's not busy jabbing spikes through people's foreheads for a living, adds, "Inside I was laughing. I had to pinch myself." He admits to a few slipups, however, including a scene where he accidentally crunched Arnie's fingers under his boot. "He didn't flinch though," reports Patrick. "He was like, 'Rob-uht, dat vas my finguh.' "
Although Patrick utters only 20-odd lines in T2, he has become the year's most compelling cybervillain, thanks in part to his chilly, blue-eyed gaze. (He perfected it, he says, by studying the movement of eagles on a TV nature show.) But the gaze is deceptive. The gentle Patrick grew up the oldest of five children born to Marietta, Ga., banker Robert Patrick and his wife, Nadine, a housewife. He spent a nomadic childhood in Marietta, Boston, Kettering (Ohio), Detroit and finally Cleveland before attending Bowling Green State University with an eye toward a pro-football career. But not even playing varsity ball and sitting in on drama classes could keep him from dropping out in 1980 after one year. "I really didn't like myself at all," he says. "Something was eating at me. It was like, 'What do I want to do?' "
What he most immediately wanted, it turns out, was to get in shape. Back home in Cleveland, he read Arnold, started running and cut down to two meals a day, eliminating fats, sugar and beer. While painting houses and waiting on tables, he pondered a future as an actor. But "I needed a swift kick in the ass," he now says.
The kick was delivered in 1984, when a boat that he, his brother S. Lewis and four friends were sailing capsized during a storm on Lake Erie. The only one to grab a life jacket, Patrick swam three hours to shore for help, while the others clung to the boat. "While I was swimming," he recalls, "I was saying to myself, 'I'll quit wasting my life!' " He found help and led rescuers back to the capsized craft; everyone was saved.
Three months later a very focused Patrick headed for Hollywood, intent on making an impression. At an audition for his first bad-guy role—a psycho in Warlords from Hell, a 1984 biker film—he recalls, "I tore up the place. I literally ripped the shirt off the other actor and threw him to the floor. I really wanted the role." He got it and went on to win other parts as tough guys in such movies as Die Hard 2 and Behind Enemy Lines, in which his wife-to-be, Barbara Hooper, also had a role. The two, who met when Patrick first came to Hollywood, started living together in 1985.
When they married last Thanksgiving, the actor found the emotional juxtaposition startling. He'd been filming T2 for two months and had "shut down my emotions for all that time," he says. Yet on the big morning, as friends and relatives gathered, "I woke up, and our apartment was filled with all these wonderful people. It was overwhelming. I became this really emotional guy." Adds Barbara, 30, who recently appeared in the movie The Sisterhood: "We both just wept the whole time."
These days the pair still share the same modest Hollywood apartment and lifestyle they had before T2. What's new is the fame and the fans. "Recently in Chicago," he says, "even the 'suits' were coming up to me going, 'Hey man! You're him!' "
Although he's now ready to "play some guys with virtue," Patrick has no good-guy roles lined up yet. Still, he finds that being a T-1000 has made him a better—and more patient—person. "For a time," he says, "I was the baddest thing walking the earth. Then I was zapped. Now it's hard for me to get pissed off. I want to be happy. I want to laugh."
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles