Since the advent of motion pictures, films based around male action heroes have been consistently at the top in terms of box office results. The stars playing these roles have determined to a great extent the male ideal for adolescents and young men. In the 1930’s Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe, with their athletic swimmer’s bodies and clean all-American good looks set the standard and many young men went in for swimming and life guarding as well as athletic training – hoping to absorb some of the glamour these megastars possessed and enjoy the imagined popularity that would follow. Young men and boys wanted to look better physically and business capitalized on this – for example Charles Atlas sold his famous dynamic tension program on the back of comic books and physical culture gurus like Vic Tanny opened training centers. When the 2 most popular modern action heroes, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone graced the cinema, weight training, and then anabolic steroids, became par for the course for those wanting to stand out because of their physiques.
The popularity of Arnold and Rocky on the screen was responsible for more boys and young men joining gyms or buying weight training equipment than had ever been the case before. Seeing the extreme muscular development displayed by Arnold right form the outset of his career and then later by Stallone when he got his hands on steroids and HGH led vast segments of the population to embrace serious bodybuilding in a dedicated manner. Prior to Arnold’s blockbuster success on the screen serious bodybuilding had remained an esoteric pursuit, usually considered too extreme for the average fellow. So in regards to the acceptance of bodybuilding and the consequent use of steroids we see that the movies have had a major influence and in fact have led the way.
Probably the two biggest action heroes prior to Arnold and Sly were Johnny Weissmuller and John Wayne.
Johnny Weissmuller – this most famous of the Tarzans and the original Hollywood action hero – starred in a dozen movies as Tarzan and then another 13 as the safari hero battling evil in Africa, “Jungle Jim” – wildly popular in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s – this natural athlete captured the hearts of women and made men want to be just like him. He won 5 Olympic gold medals in swimming and was also a champion runner in sprint distances.
Weissmuller was at least as famous in his time as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone are in ours. Because he was a true champion athlete fans found him believable as Tarzan and Jungle Jim – roles which required a great degree of physical prowess. In his favor we note that Weisssmuller attained and maintained his gorgeous physique naturally without the help of steroids. We just saw “The Expendables” and Stallone is taking enough HGH and testosterone to run a cattle ranch. But like many movie stars today Johnny did not have great success in the marriage department – he was married no less than 5 times!
One anecdote shows Weismuller’s real-life courage and charisma -According to David Wallechinsky’s Complete Book of the Olympics, while playing in a celebrity golf tournament in Cuba in 1958, Weissmuller’s golf cart was suddenly captured by rebel soldiers (these were Castro’s men). Weissmuller sized up the situation, got out of the cart and gave his trademark Tarzan yell. The shocked rebels soon began to jump up and down, calling “Tarzan! Welcome to Cuba!” Johnny and his companions were not only not kidnapped, but were given a rebel escort to the golf course. Ahh, the good old days!
John Wayne – John Wayne was known as “The Duke” – a nickname he picked up because as a young man he was always seen with his Airedale terrier named “Duke.” Considered the number one money earner in film history (with Clint Eastwood second) and starring in over 140 films, John Wayne was known as a rugged all-American action hero specializing in westerns and war films. Also known for his conservative anti-communist political views, The Duke found himself in the political minority in 1960’s Hollywood. A middle-class American who attended college on an athletic scholarship, John was forced to quit USC and go to work when an injury ended his athletic career. In true John Wayne fashion, rather than whine about his bad luck, he went to work at Hollywood studios as a prop assistant and soon found himself in front of the camera playing bit parts. He learned all sorts of western techniques – like riding and roping – from stuntmen and before long he was staring in depression era westerns. A friend of great director John Ford, Wayne starred in the critically acclaimed blockbuster of 1939 “Stagecoach” and from that point became a bona fide star. Wayne was married 3 times – always to stunning Latinas.
In modern times Stallone & Schwarzenegger have dominated the box office and their amazing physiques have placed no small part in their success.
Sylvester Stallone is an industry unto himself – with the Rocky and Rambo series, “Sly” as he is known, is responsible for 2 of the largest money making franchises in Hollywood history. First appearing as fairly well-built tough guy/boxer named Rocky Balboa in “Rocky,” Stallone quickly discovered steroids and very soon after started looking like a muscle-bound freak – with veins bulging out of every possible part of his body and with Human Growth Hormone (HGH) making sure he dropped every last bit of fat, Sly has become more freaky looking than even the top professional bodybuilders. Arrested in Australia for possession of steroids and HGH Stallone no longer even has to bother denying that he is a user. A quote from Sly – “testosterone is a part of my life that I would not know how to live without – HGH is not a steroid – its like a vitamin – my Mom takes it.” Of course his Mom takes it… but not the megadose that old freaky shoots daily. While Stallone might think of himself as the all-American hero, to me he looks like a laboratory experiment gone way wrong. We saw The Expendables last week and I have never seen a human being as freaky looking as Sylvester Stallone… and keep in mind that I am a serious bodybuilding fan! Stallone has been married 3 times – once to Bridgitte Neilson who sent him naked pics of herself as an introduction… well nobody said he was a genius!! Stallone, like John Wayne, is a political conservative who supported McCain in the last US Presidential Election.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is probably the most successful action star ever – rising from being crowned Mr. Olympia 7 times to being the highest paid actor in Hollywood to being elected Republican Governor of California twice – he has never taken his salary as Governor. As a bodybuilder Arnold was a huge steroid user and required open-heart surgery to repair valve damage after his bodybuilding career ended. Of course he says that the surgery was required to repair congenital valve problems but we know it was necessitated by the excessive steroid use. As an actor Arnold is not terribly skilled – but then, neither is Stallone – still it seems that his roles, spoken with a terribly unpleasant and often hard to understand German-American accent, are amazingly popular. People walk around all the time saying the line “I’ll be back!” and feeling awfully clever doing so – this of course from the from the hit Movie “The Terminator.”
We can see from the 1930’s when any healthy man could with regular exercise and a well balanced diet attain a reasonable facsimile of the physique of the action hero but by the 1980s and 1990’s many years of dedicated effort including the consumption of large amounts of steroids and HGH were required for a man to even approach the over developed and even freakish physiques of Arnold & Sly.
Article first published as Action Heroes of the Past and Present on Technorati.