Anyone who’s ever lifted a weight likely knows about Pumping Iron. The milestone 1977 docudrama, directed by George Butler, introduced bodybuilding to the mainstream and catapulted competitors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno into the pop-culture zeitgeist.
For newcomers, the movie centers on the lead-up to the 1975 Mr. Olympia show and all the behind-the-scenes drama that goes along with it. Since its debut more than 45 years ago, the movie has been dissected by everyone from film historians and bodybuilding legends to YouTubers who weren’t even born when the movie premiered.
But if you’re still hungry for all things Pumping Iron, we’ve got nine facts that should provide even more insight into this iconic piece of moviemaking:
9 Facts About Pumping Iron
- A Magazine Article Played a Part in Pumping Iron’s Creation
- The Pumping Iron Book Was Not About Arnold
- The Movie Allegedly Inspired Parts of Saturday Night Fever
- One of the Movie’s Most Memorable Bodybuilders Wasn’t Credited
- Schwarzenegger Didn’t Skip His Dad’s Funeral to Train
- Pumping Iron Was Not Schwarzenegger’s First Big-Screen Appearance as a Bodybuilder
- No One Stole Mike Katz’s T-Shirt
- Lou Ferrigno “Predicted” His Role as the Hulk During Pumping Iron
- People Thought the Movie Would Tank Because of Schwarzenegger
Most might imagine that Pumping Iron exists solely because of Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the first kernel of inspiration for the movie actually sprung up at a small bodybuilding show in Holyoke, Mass. (1)
In 1972, the town hosted a bodybuilding contest, and Sports Illustrated hired Butler to take photographs of the event for a feature article written by Charles Gaines. Though Butler was familiar with bodybuilding, this contest marked his first professional experience with the sport.
Butler and Gaines were fascinated by the small human dramas around them. They saw a larger story about a fringe culture they wanted to represent. Thus, the idea for Pumping Iron — first the book and then the movie — started to form.
Many fans of the film might not know that Pumping Iron started out as a book written by Gaines with photographs by Butler. (2) And it doesn’t focus solely on Schwarzenegger — heck, the “Austrian Oak” didn’t even make the cover.
The cover of the first edition actually went to the late Ed Corney, a bodybuilder with his own niche, in-sport popularity. (Later editions of the book featured bodybuilder Tom Platz on the cover before eventually using the familiar image of Schwarzenegger.)
The book debuted in 1974, and wound up as a New York Times Bestseller. (3) The whole thing reads like an amalgamation of journalistic pieces and strikes a much more contemplative tone than the movie’s humorous, slightly-campy approach. While the book earned great reviews, it didn’t capture an audience and remains out of print as of January 2023.
Both Pumping Iron and Saturday Night Fever hit theaters in 1977 and quickly became pop-culture sensations. While they appear to be on opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum, Butler claimed that Pumping Iron’s supporting cast member, Lou Ferrigno, inspired the characterization of John Travolta’s fictional family life in Fever. (1)
According to Butler, Fever writer Nik Cohn felt that the family’s bickering dynamic and Ferrigno’s aspirational attitude perfectly captured the essence of a “big dreamer stuck in a small life” needed for his story.
“It’s all John Travolta’s family,” Butler said. “With his sister and brother and the Catholic Church and everything else. It was modeled on [the Ferrignos] in Pumping Iron.” (1)
Principal photography for Fever began in March of 1977, months after Pumping Iron’s premiere. (4) Cohn himself was clearly a fan of Butler’s work and of bodybuilding in general. He wrote extensively about Pumping Iron for New York magazine upon the movie’s release, and later wrote the book Women of Iron: The World of Female Bodybuilders. (5)(6)
In a movie full of memorable scenes, Schwarzenegger giving pre-contest advice to a young competitor stands out from the pack. The scene takes place right in the middle of Gold’s Gym as the blonde newbie bodybuilder receives criticism from the Austrian Oak.
The young man’s name is Wes Brown, but you’d never know that, as he didn’t even get a credit in the film. In the years since, however, his story has become representative of a minor cliché in bodybuilding circles: The small-town guy with the great body running off to California to become “the next Arnold.”
In an interview with trainer Tom Purvis, Brown mentioned that he was from South Carolina. (7) 19-year-old Brown showed remarkable development for a kid with limited equipment and time. He was obsessed with bodybuilding, and his results were notable for a young man with limited exposure to anything other than what he could glean from strength magazines.
At the end of his spring semester in 1975, Brown decided to fly out to Venice, CA, to chase his dreams. With a few bucks in his pocket, Brown made his way to the original location of the legendary Gold’s Gym, and within a few days, literally bumbled onto the set of Pumping Iron.
Back then, bodybuilding gyms were fringe establishments that sheltered a tight-knit community for lifting heavy weights. When you entered a new gym, there were always “introductions to the gang.” As Brown got acquainted with the denizens of the gym, he mentioned to the other bodybuilders how much he dreamed of being just like the aesthetic Schwarzenegger.
Butler supposedly overheard the conversation and loved the wide-eyed energy of the country boy. The director quickly manufactured the moments we see in the film where Brown swept under Schwarzenegger’s wing.
Both Schwarzenegger and Butler have long since gone on the record revealing many moments in Pumping Iron were completely fictionalized in order to tell a more compelling story. It’s why the movie is labeled a docudrama rather than a documentary.
One such story involved Schwarzenegger skipping his father’s funeral because he didn’t want to miss out on any of his training. (8) This scene helped create a caricature for Schwarzenegger in the movie, portraying him as an obsessive, single-minded machine. (Almost like a Terminator, you could say.)
In a later interview, Schwarzenegger himself admitted that he stole the story from a fellow competitor he previously met in France, who truly did not attend his father’s funeral to prioritize his training. Regardless, Schwarzenegger’s father died in 1972, three years before the filming of Pumping Iron. (That said, Butler later maintained the story was true.) (1)
The year before Pumping Iron premiered, a light romance film starring Sally Field and a young Jeff Bridges called Stay Hungry hit theaters. (Based on the book by — you guessed it — Charles Gaines.) The plot of the film revolves around a love triangle between a real estate investor, the young desk receptionist at a local gym that the investor had purchased, and a rising bodybuilding hopeful who worked out at the gym. Any guess on who plays the bodybuilder?
That’s right, in 1976, Schwarzenegger played a bodybuilder in his first — not counting 1969’s Hercules in New York, more on that in a bit — mainstream movie. Of course, the contest in the movie is all fiction, but it presents the sport in a fairly authentic way for the time. Audiences saw scenes of the Oak training, preparing backstage, and posing at the show, which may have seemed foreign in a pre-Pumping Iron world.
Though not a runaway financial hit, Schwarzenegger’s performance earned him a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year, signaling bigger things ahead. (9)
Another standout moment in Pumping Iron is the subplot of bodybuilder Ken Waller stealing rival Mike Katz’s T-shirt in order to psyche him out on the day of the competition. Butler and Schwarzenegger have long since admitted that the incident was completely fabricated, too. (1)(8)
Yes, Mike Katz did really lose his shirt temporarily, and yes, he did make an offhand (and completely joking) comment that Waller probably stole it — but that was it. However, when Butler watched Katz anxiously look for his shirt, an idea popped into his head: What if Waller really did steal the shirt as an act of pre-show sabotage?
Butler then shot the scene where Waller supposedly hatched his plot and weaved the whole thing together to create an engrossing side story.
Countless hours of footage filmed for Pumping Iron had to be cut to meet the movie’s 90-minute run time. But that doesn’t mean the moments that were cut were duds. In fact, a few gems ultimately fell victim to the editing process during post-production.
One such piece came when Lou Ferrigno apparently expressed that his goal was to “become the Incredible Hulk.” Many bodybuilders use the character as an analogy for their ultimate physique goal. However, Ferrigno would become his own pop-culture sensation as he played the Hulk on TV for five years between 1977 and 1982.
According to Butler, cameras caught Ferrigno talking about his goal, but the footage never saw the light of day. (1) Getting this little outtake would be incredibly precious to fans of Ferrigno and the film Pumping Iron. But Butler only mentioned the footage in passing; it doesn’t seem easily accessible to fans.
Now, the timeline is tight: The filming of Pumping Iron lasted mainly through 1975, and The Incredible Hulk television series debuted in 1977, overlapping Iron’s release. Who’s to say what motivated Ferrigno’s comment? Was he pitching himself? Did he already have a prospective audition? Was it purely a coincidence? In Butler’s eyes, Ferrigno made a comment on film that predicted his future success.
When Butler wanted to get Pumping Iron funded in the early ‘70s, Schwarzenegger was far from a big-screen star. Until that point, his most high-profile movie was 1969’s Hercules in New York, a notorious indie flop that seemed to signal the end of Schwarzenegger’s nascent movie career. New York bombed so hard that one potential financier denied Butler’s credit request simply because of Schwarzenegger’s involvement. (1)
As Butler continued to drum up financial support for the project, he paid for Schwarzenegger to fly across the country to the town of Holyoke, Mass. for an impromptu guest-posing routine at an amusement park full of onlookers. (10) The end result turned into 10 minutes of test footage to show potential investors.
Butler then went to New York with his footage, showing it to influential investors in an attempt to win funding. According to Butler, he was met with dead silence. There was plenty of skepticism about Schwarzenegger, with some characterizing him as unmarketable, uninteresting, and even boring.
In fact, Butler noted Hollywood magnate Romulus Linney (actor Laura Linney’s well-networked father) as saying, “George, if you ever make a movie about Arnold Schwarzenegger, you’ll be laughed off 42nd Street.”
A Pumped-Up Legacy
Pumping Iron began as a humble two-man project, born out of shared curiosity about a niche subculture. In the end, despite a shoestring budget and piles of skepticism, the docudrama helped introduce bodybuilding to mainstream popular culture and was a key factor in Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s and ’90s.
Though it made a huge impact at release, Pumping Iron has only swelled in popularity and remains the most acclaimed movie about bodybuilding many decades later.
- Perine, Shawn. “Pumping Iron at 25: The Film That Almost Wasn’t.” IronAge.Us. 2002
- The Barbell Team. “Pumping Iron: The Book.” TheBarbell.com, August 19, 2022
- “Best Sellers.” The New York Times, April 20, 1975
- AFI Catalog, Saturday Night Fever.
- Cohn, Nik. “Pumping Chic: The Launching of a New York Folk Hero.” New York Magazine, January 24, 1977
- Abe Books. Women of Iron: The World of Female Bodybuilders
- Purvis, Tom. “Interview With Wes Brown.” YouTube. August 13, 2021
- Schwarzenegger, Arnold. “Pumping Iron Extra.” YouTube
- “Arnold Schwarzenegger.” GoldenGlobes.com
- Roach, Randy. Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors. Author House. October 2011.
Featured Image: Over Comes on YouTube