05/05/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
PREGNANT WITH THEIR FOURTH CHILD, Maria Shriver was in no mood for any foolishness from Arnold Schwarzenegger. The superstar was preparing to take one of his first walks last week at USC University Hospital in L.A. after surgery to replace a heart valve on April 16. Schwarzenegger's workout pal Franco Columbo says Shriver ordered her husband, "Three hundred feet," no more. "Five hundred," he shot back. "Four hundred," Shriver said, compromising. "Five hundred," he insisted, with that sunny can-do grin. Shriver couldn't resist. "Look, walk six hundred," she said. And six hundred feet it was.
Schwarzenegger had long known that of all his muscles, the most important one came with a built-in flaw: a faulty aortic valve. The defect—which doctors said was congenital and unrelated to the actor's admitted past steroid use—wasn't bothering Schwarzenegger, who had no symptoms. But as his 50th birthday (July 30) approaches, he decided to terminate the problem with a replacement valve from a human donor (sometimes a pig valve is used). "Choosing to undergo open-heart surgery when I never felt sick was the hardest decision I ever made," Schwarzenegger said in a prepared statement. "I can now look forward to a long, healthy life." Doctors expect him to make a full recovery, although a scar now decorates the famous chest. Schwarzenegger wouldn't comment on how big it is, but Dr. Karl Krieger, a heart surgeon from Cornell University Medical College, says this type of procedure typically leaves only a five-inch mark. As for those fat stogies that he's also known for, Schwarzenegger won't give them up, according to Columbo. "He doesn't inhale the smoke," says the bodybuilding buddy. "We do it only for sport."
As Schwarzenegger left the hospital on April 21, he planned to take a few weeks off before hitting the road to promote his latest role—as the evil Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin, due June 20. Says Columbo: "He probably looked at the surgery as a championship: Let's do it, rehabilitate today, tomorrow we play tennis." "He is," adds James Lorimer, Schwarzenegger's business partner, "an indomitable personality." Batman, be warned.