"Pumping Iron" Goes Mainstream

Posted

Long the domain of a small but dedicated group of muscle enthusiasts, bodybuilding burst into the mainstream in the late 1970’s as part of the fitness craze that swept the country. One of the catalysts for its explosion was the 1977 release of “Pumping Iron”, a docudrama that featured an Austrian immigrant and a group of body-sculpting devotees.

In 1975, photographer George Butler and writer Charles Gaines embarked on a risky film project to capture bodybuilding, a niche sport that was largely overlooked, if not ridiculed, by the public.  They were tapping into a subculture that despite having a weird and wacky image, enjoyed a rooted history with its own set of heroes.

Late 19th century strongman Eugen Sandow was the first to add muscle flexing to his display of raw strength. The “father of modern bodybuilding” posed, stretched, and modeled his body to the classical Greek ideal. In 1901, he organized the world’s first major bodybuilding contest at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Charles Atlas sold his muscle fitness program through cartoon ads. One of his most enduring comic strips from the 1940’s was a hapless skinny kid who had sand kicked in his face and his girlfriend stolen by a beach bully. After ordering the Charles Atlas workout guide in the mail, the victim returns to the beach to beat up the bully and reclaim his girl.

Steve Reeves took his handsome, chiseled physique to the big screen with a string of low budget ‘sword and sandal’ movies. The professional bodybuilder played muscular characters such as Hercules and Goliath in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and at the peak of his career was the highest paid actor in Europe.

Butler and Gaines met Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1972 in Baghdad, Iraq, at the Mr. Universe contest. Unlike in the U.S., male bodybuilding in the Middle East enjoyed a wide following and the event was a national extravaganza. Two years later, they released their book "Pumping Iron: The Art & Sport Of Bodybuilding" with Arnold on the cover. 

Raised in a small village in Austria, Schwarzenegger started lifting weights at 15 and as his muscle mass grew, so did his ambitions. In 1967, at the age of 20, he won the Mr. Universe title, the youngest ever to reach the top of the he-man podium. A year later, Schwarzenegger moved to Los Angeles where he began working out at Gold’s gym, the mecca of bodybuilding.

The “Austrian Oak” reigned supreme as Mr. Olympia for five straight years from 1970-’74. When Butler and Gaines set out to work on their documentary, they couldn’t find investors who were excited about the fringe sport. Their solution was to add tension and rivalry and create a docudrama instead, starring two leading weight-lifters competing for the Mr. Olympia title.

Lou Ferrigno was brought in as Schwarzenegger’s antagonist. At 6’5” and 275 lbs., the Brooklyn-born towering figure was runner-up in the previous year’s contest and his presence added to the storyline drama. Other weightlifters featured in the background included Ed Corney, Frank Columbu, Mike Katz, and Serge Nubret.

Showing heart, soul and guts behind the preparations of a bodybuilding contest, the film contrasts Arnold’s outgoing and aggressive personality with Lou’s quiet and reserved side. The defending champion is shown working out at Gold’s gym and outdoors at muscle beach, accompanied by reporters and beautiful women wherever he goes. Meanwhile, the man who is seeking to dethrone him is lifting weights unceremoniously in a dimly-lit private basement with his father as trainer.

But after shooting 100 hours of tape, the project ran out of money and the film went into development limbo for nearly two years. It was finally released after Butler arranged an exhibit at New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art, called “Articulate Muscle: The Body As Art”. Paying $5 at the door, thousands lined up to see Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Zane and Ed Corney pose as ‘living sculptures’ on a rotating stage.

With a budget of $1 million, “Pumping Iron” premiered at New York’s Plaza Theatre on January 18, 1977 to critical acclaim. With his charm and charisma, Schwarzenegger took on a cultural iconic status that paved the way for his Hollywood career. Television came calling for Lou Ferrigno as well, as he went on to assume a title role in the series “The Incredible Hulk”.

A seminal film in the history of the sport, “Pumping Iron” smashed the old stereotype of bodybuilding and helped raise it to mainstream respectability.

Other articles Enjoyed:  I Can't Die, It Would Ruin My Image, The Last Bare knuckle Champion, Hollywood's Favorite Athlete, The Boxer

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment

Shop For Our Books & DVD's

WEEKLY SPORTS PUZZLE

View larger Puzzle archive


THIS WEEK

10 years ago

BASKETBALL February 14, 2010  The NBA holds the 59th edition of its All-Star game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Eastern Conference beats the Western 141-131 with Dwayne Wade (Heat) scoring 28 points and winning the MVP award. Coaching the West was George Karl (Nuggets) and the East Stan Van Gundy (Magic). LeBron James (Cavaliers) topped the All-Star ballots followed by Kobe Bryant (Lakers).

20 years ago

FOOTBALL February 12, 2000 Tom Landry, first Head Coach of the Dallas Cowboys, dies at the age of the 75. Spending 29 seasons with the Cowboys (1960-1988), Landry racked up 20 winning seasons and two Super Bowl titles, VI and XII. The Texas native created many new formations and was voted Coach of the Year twice. In his early days, he played for the NY Giants and won the NFL championship in 1956.

30 years ago

BOXING February 11, 1990  Buster Douglas upsets Mike Tyson at the Tokyo Dome in Japan to win the undisputed world heavyweight boxing title. A 42-1 underdog, Douglas ended up knocking out an undefeated Tyson in the 10th round. The bout was widely seen as a warm-up fight for Tyson before taking on Evander Holyfield, the #1 heavyweight contender at the time. Douglas retired in 1999 with a record of 46-38-6-2.

40 years ago

OLYMPICS February 13, 1980  The Winter Olympic Games open in Lake Placid, New York. Thirty-seven nations send over 1,000 athletes to the quaint upstate village, which had hosted the event before in 1932. East Germany emerges with most medals at 23 (9 gold), followed by the USSR at 22 (10 gold) and the U.S. at 12 (6 gold). Americans secure gold in ice hockey, defeating the Soviets in what became known as ‘Miracle on Ice’.