Arnold: He's Back

updated 07/14/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

There is buff. And there is in the buff. Arnold Schwarzenegger is both—briefly—in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. It's a bold move for a married father of four on the verge of turning 56, let alone a guy who just may run for governor of California. (How's that for giving voters full disclosure?) But for Schwarzenegger it was just another personal challenge. "He went to the gym every day, five or six hours a day," says T3 director Jonathan Mostow. "He plays a robot. Anything short of perfect wasn't good enough and Arnold knew that, and he delivered."

Now the pressure is on to do the same thing at the box office. Nearly 20 years since uttering "I'll be back" in the first Terminator, Schwarzenegger is out to prove that if upstarts like Vin Diesel and The Rock want the action-hero mantle for themselves, they'll have to fight him for it. "He's definitely a survivor," says producer Mario Kassar. At one point during shooting, the star's toughness was on display when a small explosive accidentally detonated in his hand. "Any other human being would have dropped the thing and screamed in pain," says Mostow. Schwarzenegger kept right on filming. "It was one of those moments," recalls Mostow, "when we said, 'This guy is sort of superhuman.' "

Sort of, but not quite. Unlike his mechanical alter ego, Schwarzenegger has shown signs of wear over the years, including open-heart surgery in 1997 and a serious shoulder injury incurred during the making of T3. His star power has suffered as well, with 1996's Eraser registering as his last big hit. "Right now he is in rally mode," says showbiz stock market analyst Hal Vogel. It's a mode the five-time Mr. Universe embraces. "I was programmed," he told Variety in May, "to be a star."

That signature cockiness has driven Schwarzenegger's self-made rise from schoolboy in Graz, Austria, to bodybuilding champ to Hollywood icon. Pundits are betting that it will serve him well in politics (see box). He is, after all, practically a Kennedy, married to JFK niece and NBC journalist Maria Shriver since 1986. (The bipartisan couple--he's the rock-ribbed Republican--live in a five-bedroom Spanish-mission-style L.A. mansion with kids Katherine, 13, Christina, 11, Patrick, 9, and Christopher, 5.) During a June 24 visit to Howard Stern's radio show he described Shriver as a perfect First Lady. "She works much harder than I do," he said, "so involved with the children and their education. I'm a big admirer of hers."

But Schwarzenegger has his detractors, and his political ambitions have increased the scrutiny of his private life. "I'm not perfect," Schwarzenegger told Newsweek last month, "but I know that out of millions of women, I found the one who understands me and my drive."

Not that he's all drive and no play—especially if it involves the chance to say "Checkmate." "His stunt double and the guys around him are true friends of his," says producer Andy Vajna. "They play chess. He probably played over 1,000 games on T3. He's very good." And he hates to lose. So would Vajna vote for Schwarzenegger if he decides to run? "Of course—are you kidding? Otherwise he'd kill me."

Michelle Tauber
Michael Fleeman, Frank Swertlow, Rachel Biermann, Brenda Rodriguez and Maureen Harrington in Los Angeles and Liz Corcoran in Antibes, France

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