Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Last Act

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Last Act

Photographs by Ryan Pfluger

Arnold Schwarzenegger nearly killed me.

I had joined him one morning as he rushed through his daily routine. Schwarzenegger gets up by six. He makes coffee, putters around, feeds Whiskey (his miniature horse) and Lulu (his miniature donkey), shovels their overnight manure into a barrel, drinks his coffee, checks his email, and maybe plays a quick game of chess online. At 7:40, he puts a bike on the back of a Suburban and heads from his Brentwood, California, mansion to the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica. From there he sets out on the three-mile bike ride to Gold’s Gym, where he has been lifting on and off since the late ’60s. The bike ride is his favorite part of the morning. It is also, I learned while following behind him on that foggy day in October, a terrifying expedition.

Schwarzenegger can be selective in his observance of traffic signals. He zipped through intersections with cars screeching behind him. I braked hard and, being neither an action hero nor a stunt double, barely stayed upright. Drivers honked and yelled at the speeding cyclist in the lead until they realized who he was. “Heyyyy, Mister Arnold!” the double-taking driver of a landscaping van shouted out his window.

Schwarzenegger does not wear a helmet and seems to enjoy being recognized, startling commuters with drive-by cameos. He describes his ride as a kind of vigorous nostalgia trip, a time when the former Mr. Universe, Terminator, Barbarian, Governor of California, etc.—one of the strangest and most potent alloys of American celebrity ever forged—can reconnect with something in the neighborhood of a pedestrian existence. “It’s like a Norman Rockwell,” Schwarzenegger told me. “We talk to the bus driver. We do the garbage man, the construction worker. Everyone’s got their beautiful, beautiful jobs and professions.” These days, Schwarzenegger’s own beautiful profession is to essentially be an emeritus version of himself.

We made it intact to Gold’s Gym in Venice, the birthplace of bodybuilding in the ’60s and ’70s, and a cathedral to the sport ever since. Schwarzenegger will always be synonymous with the place, and with the spectacle of specimens at nearby Muscle Beach. The Venice Gold’s is a tourist attraction but also a serious gym—loud with the usual clanking and grunting, and redolent with the pickled scent of sweat.

“Say hi to Heide,” Schwarzenegger told me, pointing to 82-year-old Heide Sutter, who was working out in a skintight tracksuit. “She is a landmark,” he said. “She’s actually the girl who is sitting on my shoulder in the Pumping Iron book. She was topless in the shot.” Perhaps I recognized her? Not immediately, no. I didn’t even realize that Pumping Iron was a book. I knew it only as a movie, the 1977 documentary about the fanatical culture of bodybuilding. “Everybody wants to live forever,” went the opening refrain of the title song. Schwarzenegger, then 28, was the star of the film and a testament to the idea that humans could mold themselves into gods—bulging comic-book gods, but gods nonetheless.

“The most satisfying feeling you can get in the gym is the pump,” he says in the movie. “It’s as satisfying to me as coming is, as in having sex with a woman and coming … So can you believe how much I am in heaven?”

Now the aging leviathan jumped into a series of light repetitions. He likes to emphasize a different body part each day of the week. He was focused today (a Thursday) on his back and chest muscles. He did light bench presses, pectoral work on an incline chest machine, and some lat pull-downs. I did a few reps myself on an adjacent machine, to blend in.

For the most part, the muscled minions at Gold’s left the king alone. “This is one of the few places where Arnold is treated normally,” said Daniel Ketchell, Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, who hovered between us. A few tourists from Germany defied protocol and approached the bench, asking for selfies. “Don’t worry about it,” Schwarzenegger said, blowing them off. “We have a mutual friend,” tried another intruder, and Schwarzenegger scowled, muttering indecipherably, possibly in German.

As someone who spent years perfecting his body, Schwarzenegger has always been attuned to the nuances of decline. Paul Wachter, a friend and business partner, first met him in 1981, when Wachter was about to turn 25. “Arnold said, ‘Once you hit 26, it’s all downhill with the body,’ ” Wachter recalled. “He said, ‘You can still be in shape, but the peak is over at 26.’ ”

Schwarzenegger is now 75. He observed his birthday on July 30 by trying not to notice it. The only memorable thing about the milestone was that he tested positive for COVID that morning. He felt lousy for a few days and recovered.

I wanted to talk with Schwarzenegger because I was curious about what aging felt like for someone with a name, body, and global platform so huge that they hardly seemed subject to time. What does it feel like to be perpetually compared with your long-ago peak? “They play Pumping Iron in a loop in some of the gyms,” Schwarzenegger told me, grinning at the idea of his souped-up old self still presiding over the pretenders. We all get soft and dilapidated, but it cuts much harder when you’ve been “celebrated for years for having the best-developed body,” as he put it. “You get chubby. You get overweight, you get older and older.” Just imagine, he added wistfully, “the change I saw.”

2 black-and-white photos: young Arnold flexes biceps in front of two women in audience; body-builder-huge-muscle Arnold flexes on pedestal in front of large crowd
Left: Schwarzenegger at the Mr. Steiermark competition in Graz, Austria, 1963 or ’64. Right: Performing in “Articulate Muscle: The Male Body in Art” at the Whitney Museum in New York, 1976. (RGR Collection / Alamy; Elliott Erwitt / Magnum)

As I watched him complete his workout, Schwarzenegger was barely clearing 120 pounds on the bench press. After decades of abuse, the man’s shoulders are toast. His knees are shot, his back is sore, and he has undergone multiple heart procedures, including three separate valve-replacement surgeries, the last in 2020. Two of them devolved into 10-plus-hour ordeals that nearly killed him on the table. Still, let it be recorded that on a foggy October morning at Gold’s Gym in Venice, I was lifting heavier weights than Arnold Schwarzenegger was.

After our workout, Schwarzenegger stood a few feet away and looked me over, paying particular attention to my bare legs.

“You have very good calves,” he observed. “Very well defined.” And calves are important, he added: “They are one of the muscles that the old Greeks used to idolize.” Big deltoids are also coveted. In addition to abs and obliques. But he always takes note of a person’s calves. This was easily the highlight of my day, if not my five decades among Earth mortals.

A couple of years ago, Howard Stern asked Schwarzenegger on the air where he thought we all go after we die. “The truth is, we’re six feet under, and we’re going to rot there,” Schwarzenegger said. Some other authority gets to play the Terminator, and on a schedule of their choosing. Schwarzenegger wasn’t afraid of death, he added. “I’m just pissed off about it.”

Emotionally, Schwarzenegger has always been a padlocked gym. But he’s felt a change lately, a more reflective shift. People close to him have noted a degree of openness, a desire to confide, that wasn’t present back when he was young and invincible. Schwarzenegger told me that he recently attended the premiere of the new Avatar film (directed by his old friend James Cameron) and found himself crying in the dark. Someone will tell a story and he’ll choke up out of nowhere. He asks himself: “Why did this have an impact on me today when it would have had none in the 1970s?”

The day before our helter-skelter bike ride, I had caught Schwarzenegger leaning against a doorway of the Chinese Theatre, on Hollywood Boulevard. He was waiting to give a brief speech in honor of Jamie Lee Curtis, who was about to get her hand- and footprints embedded in cement.

“I was trying to think of a big word,” Schwarzenegger told me. “You know, a forever thing, or something like that.” He kept landing on verewigt; German for “immortalized.” “It means ‘forever,’ ” he said. Ketchell encouraged the boss to not overthink it. “Just say ‘immortalized,’ ” Ketchell told him. This is Hollywood—speak in the native platitude.

Curtis walked into the theater and greeted Schwarzenegger. They performed ritual Hollywood shoulder rubs on each other. The two go way back: Schwarzenegger once did a Christmas special with her father, Tony Curtis. They have houses near each other in Sun Valley. In 1994, Schwarzenegger and Curtis co-starred in True Lies, the Cameron action comedy. That was the same year Schwarzenegger’s own massive hands and feet were set at the Chinese Theatre. He mentioned this more than once.

black-and-white photo still from movie set of Arnold with arm around Jamie Lee Curtis sitting in doorway of ambulance
Schwarzenegger with Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies, 1994 (Colaimages / Alamy)

Schwarzenegger introduced me to Curtis, who told me how much she appreciated Arnold’s “showing up” for her. “Showing up” was a big part of the job these days. Then Curtis headed to the stage, while Schwarzenegger stayed behind in the doorway, squinting out into the glare. He looked fidgety, maybe bored. He asked me whether I had seen the spot where his hands and feet were imprinted.

Yes, I’d seen it. I’ll be back, Schwarzenegger had signed in the concrete—his signature line, first uttered in The Terminator, before his character circled back and murdered two dozen police officers. Schwarzenegger has been tossing out “I’ll be back”s ever since. The phrase carries “intimations of the eternal return,” an overheated critic once wrote in The Village Voice. But it lands a little differently now that the aging gargantuan is inching closer to the point of no return.

The reminders are everywhere, the worst one being that Schwarzenegger’s friends keep dying. Jim Lorimer, a sidekick and business partner of more than 50 years, and an early promoter of bodybuilding in America, died in November (Schwarzenegger spoke at his funeral). George Shultz, the Reagan-era secretary of state who became a close mentor, died in early 2021. The hardest loss was the Italian champion Franco Columbu, another Pumping Iron icon, known as the “Sardinian Strongman,” who died of an apparent heart attack in 2019. “I love you Franco,” Schwarzenegger wrote in an Instagram tribute. “You were my best friend.” Schwarzenegger listed a roster of other deaths, each depleting him more. “It’s wild, because these are not just friends,” he told me. “If people have a tremendous impact on your life, that means that a chunk of you is being ripped away.”

On the morning when we went to Gold’s, Schwarzenegger made a small detour afterward to show me the one-bedroom apartment he used to share with Columbu at 227 Strand Street, in Santa Monica. They lived there for about a year in the late ’60s, not long after each had landed in the States, while they were both making a living laying bricks. The dwelling, a blue-and-beige box with institutional windows, betrayed no trace of the behemoths who’d once resided there.

Schwarzenegger stared up at the soulless space. “He was the best,” he said of his friend.

For my ninth birthday, my parents got me a subscription to Sports Illustrated. One of the first issues I received featured photos from the 1974 Mr. Olympia contest, in New York. It was won, naturally, by the man SI called “enough of a legend for his first name to evoke a response wherever a barbell is picked up with purpose.”

Schwarzenegger won Mr. Olympia seven times, and Mr. Universe four. But he is dissatisfied by nature, and from a young age not easily contained. At 21, he set out for America. He felt alienated by the complacency of his boyhood friends: They aspired to a government job with a pension, maybe; church on Sunday; the usual. “I say to myself, Are we really just clowns? And just do the same fucking things as the guy before? … And I’m like, What the fuck? I better get out of here.” Standing on a stage in South Africa after winning Mr. Olympia yet again, Schwarzenegger felt the same old restlessness. “I looked around and said to myself, I’ve got to get out of this.”

black-and-white photo of boy holding pencil at desk
Schwarzenegger at age 11 in art class in Thal, Austria, 1958 (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty)

He charged into showbiz and became similarly huge, making $35 million a film at his peak. “But then I outgrew that,” he said, mentioning Terminator 3, which brought in a burly $433 million at the box office in 2003. “And somehow I feel like I was standing on that stage again in South Africa.”

Next? Politics! He’d always been intrigued by the business; he married a Kennedy, and George H. W. Bush appointed him chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (he claims to have presented 41 with a calf machine). And then, oh look, California was about to recall its pencil-necked governor, Gray Davis. Schwarzenegger jumped in and won his first attempt at elected office, also in 2003. He loved the job, telling me that of all the titles he has racked up, Governor is the one he cherishes the most.

Schwarzenegger was reelected by 17 points in 2006, though his popularity cratered by the time he left office, devoured by the usual bears of budgets, legislatures, and ornery voters. At that point he was not only term-limited by California law; he was also promotion-limited by Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution. He has often said he would definitely run for president if he could, except he was born in Austria.

Instead, upon leaving Sacramento, Schwarzenegger was greeted by scandal. He admitted to fathering a son in the 1990s with Mildred Patricia Baena, a family housekeeper for 20 years. Mildred and Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Shriver, had been in the house pregnant with his children at the same time.

After the story came out, Schwarzenegger retrenched for a while, tried to repair relations with his five kids, including his no-longer-secret teenage son, Joseph Baena. He and Shriver tried marriage counseling. It did not suit him, and it did not save the marriage. “I think I went two or three times,” Schwarzenegger told me. He dismissed the therapist as a “schmuck” who was “definitely on her side.” He admitted that he’d “fucked up” but did not believe the situation required any deeper exploration. “The fucking weenie gets hard and I fucking lose this brain and this happened,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest mistakes that so many successful people make, you know, so what am I going to say?”

What to do next? Susan Kennedy (no relation to Maria), Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff during the Sacramento years, told me that he missed his position as governor. “He had to learn a new role as a senior statesman”—one who was no longer in office. He took on a few film projects and did his various events and causes and summits. His friends saw that he was struggling. “To wake up without a purpose is a dangerous place to be,” Jamie Lee Curtis told me.

Meanwhile, another celebrity tycoon, Donald Trump, jumped into politics and landed in the White House on his first try, leaving Schwarzenegger with the dregs of The Celebrity Apprentice. Arnold’s Apprentice went about as well as Trump’s presidency.

“Hey, Donald, I have a great idea. Why don’t we switch jobs?” Schwarzenegger tweeted in response to the president’s taunting of the show’s ratings, before it was killed in 2017.

During the scary early months of the pandemic, Schwarzenegger began posting homemade PSA videos on social media as a lark. They showed him drowsing around his 14,000-square-foot mansion in Brentwood, smoking cigars and sitting in his hot tub. He led exercise tutorials and taught proper hand-washing techniques. “I wash my hands a minimum of 50 times a day,” he blustered into the camera from the kitchen sink. An ensemble of whimsical pets roamed in and out of the frame—Whiskey, Lulu, an assortment of tiny and massive (Twins style) Yorkies and malamutes.

[Arnold Schwarzenegger: Don’t be a schmuck. Put on a mask.]

Suddenly, Schwarzenegger was enjoying one of those random social-media moments—quarantined and yet everywhere at once. He was a goofball colossus called back into action. People loved the role: Arnold in winter. Conan the Septuagenarian. I watched the clips again and again. Wear a mask! Don’t party with your friends like a dumbass! Exercise! The videos were an escape from my remote-work quicksand. The protagonist looked unsettled but also purposeful. Or maybe I was projecting. I very well could have been projecting.

Then Schwarzenegger watched the ransacking of the U.S. Capitol by Trump’s supporters on January 6, 2021. He was horrified, and felt moved to make a different kind of video. Flanked by American and Californian flags, he talked about coming as “an immigrant to this country.” He compared January 6 to Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” in 1938, which, he said, had been perpetrated by “the Nazi equivalent of the Proud Boys.” According to Schwarzenegger’s team, the video was viewed 80 million times. It was the biggest thing he’d done since he’d left office. “You never plan these things,” he told me.

Photo of Schwarzenegger in suit raising arm, smiling and waving in front of state seal with flags and family applauding
Governor Schwarzenegger celebrating his victory on Election Night in Los Angeles, 2006 (David McNew / Getty)

As he ended the message, Schwarzenegger brandished his famous Conan sword. Because of course he did.

“The more you temper a sword, the stronger it becomes,” he said, suggesting that the same was true of American democracy. “I believe we will come out of this stronger, because we now understand what can be lost.” I remember thinking this was a hopeful take.

Schwarzenegger was born two years after World War II ended and grew up, as he put it, “in the ruins of a country that suffered the loss of its democracy.” His father, Gustav Schwarzenegger, was a police chief in Graz, Austria, and fought for the Nazis. Schwarzenegger has spoken more freely of late about his father’s activities and his own attempts to reconcile with them. History need not repeat—that has been his essential theme. Hatred and prejudice are not inevitable features of humanity. “You don’t have to be stuck in that,” he told me. Humans “have the capacity to change.”

When Schwarzenegger first made it big in Hollywood, he approached the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Holocaust research and human-rights group, seeking to learn about his father’s complicity. Gustav’s record came back relatively clean. He “was definitely a member of the Nazi Party, but he worked in areas like the post office,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and CEO of the center, told me. Researchers there found “no evidence whatsoever about war crimes.” But it may be more complicated than that. According to Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar at American Jewish University, records suggest that Gustav was “in the thick of the battle during the most difficult times,” when some of the “most horrific military and nonmilitary killings” occurred.

Schwarzenegger rarely spoke publicly about his father’s past until Trump became president and emboldened a new generation of white nationalists. “Arnold always told us the goal after he left office was to stay out of politics and focus on policy,” Ketchell told me. “But when the president is calling neo-Nazis good people, it’s hard to just focus on gerrymandering.”

[Arnold Schwarzenegger: The America I love needs to do better]

After the violent march on Charlottesville, Virginia, by torch-bearing white nationalists in 2017, Schwarzenegger went hard at the neo-Nazis in a video. “Let me be just as blunt as possible,” Schwarzenegger said. “Your heroes are losers. You’re supporting a lost cause. And believe me, I knew the original Nazis.” The video drew nearly 60 million views.

Schwarzenegger can be a bit of a brute and a pig and could easily have been canceled half a dozen times over the years. Just days before the special election for governor in 2003, several women came forward to say that Schwarzenegger had groped them, and a few other accusations of sexual misconduct followed. He denied some and didn’t directly address others, but he issued a blanket apology for his behavior. “I have done things that were not right which I thought then was playful,” he said at the time. “But I now recognize that I have offended people. And to those people that I have offended, I want to say to them, I am deeply sorry.”

The stay-at-home Arnold character from the pandemic videos changed how people viewed him, he believes. “The whole fitness thing was mostly guys, the movie thing was mostly guys, the Republican thing was mostly guys,” Schwarzenegger explained. “Then you had the fucking affair, and now of course the guys are on your side, and the girls are saying, ‘Fuck this, fuck this, I’m out of here, this guy was a creep all along … I hope Maria leaves him,’ and all that.” But the videos—those turned things around. “Now, all of a sudden, I have all these broads coming up to me saying, ‘Oh, you won me over with this video.’ ”

[Arnold Schwarzenegger: I have a message for my Russian friends]

After Russia invaded Ukraine, in early 2022, Schwarzenegger made a video urging Vladimir Putin to call off the war and the Russian people to resist their government. He said those who were demonstrating on the streets of Moscow were his “heroes.” And he once again invoked his father, likening Gustav’s experience fighting with the Nazis in Leningrad to that of the Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. His father “was all pumped up by the lies of his government” when he arrived in Leningrad, Schwarzenegger said. He departed a broken man, in body and mind.

After COVID restrictions were relaxed and the world reopened, Schwarzenegger receded again from the daily scenery. He had provided guidance and diversion during those rudderless months, and I had begun to miss him. I wanted to see how he was doing.

He was hard to get to, though. Beginning in May 2022, Schwarzenegger had cloistered himself in Toronto for several months filming a spy-adventure show for Netflix called FUBAR. While there, he was informed that he had won a prize for his work combatting prejudice. The first annual Award for Fighting Hatred was given by the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation (AJCF). Schwarzenegger is a sucker for such prizes and displays the biggies in his home and office alongside his gallery of bodybuilding trophies, sculptures of himself, busts of Lincoln, nine-foot replicas of the Statue of Liberty, and whatnot. He couldn’t receive his AJCF award in person because he was tied up with FUBAR, but vowed to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland as soon as he could.

Filming wrapped in early September, and Schwarzenegger went home to Los Angeles for a few days before heading off to Munich to meet some people at Oktoberfest. From there, the plan was to make a quick day trip to southern Poland before returning to Germany to shoot an ad for BMW.

He would be at Auschwitz a few days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Schwarzenegger’s people encouraged me to be there.

I arrived at the town of Oświęcim, the site of the camp, with a group of donor and publicist types who were connected with AJCF. We were met at the entrance to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum by staff members, Arnold appendages, and a few strays, including a woman in a Good Vibes sweatshirt. No one seemed to know quite how to act. Distinct layers of surreal piled up before us.

Let’s stipulate that celebrity visits to concentration camps can be tricky. Schwarzenegger appeared mindful of this as he rolled up in a black Mercedes. He stepped gingerly into a thicket of greeters, and tried to strike a solemn pose. Originally, the thought was to do a standard arrival shot for photographers. But the keepers of the site are sensitive to gestures that might convey triumphal stagecraft or frivolity. “There are better places to learn how to walk on a balance beam,” management was moved to tweet after visitors kept posting selfies on the railway tracks leading into the camp. Every visit here is something of a balance beam, but especially for the son of a Nazi.

“Not a photo op,” a staff member reminded everyone as Schwarzenegger began his tour. Photographers clacked away regardless. Schwarzenegger wore a blue blazer and green khaki pants, and appeared to have had his hair tinted a blacker shade of orange for the occasion. He flashed a thumbs-up—always the thumbs-up.

“No autographs please!” a random Voice of God from within the entourage called out. “Please be respectful.”

Schwarzenegger was accompanied by his girlfriend, Heather Milligan; his nephew, Patrick Knapp Schwarzenegger; and Knapp Schwarzenegger’s Texan wife, Bliss. They toured the grounds like students. “What happened here?” Schwarzenegger asked his guide, Paweł Sawicki, pointing up at a watchtower. Sawicki delivered a recital of unimaginables: 1.3 million people were exterminated at the 500-acre camp, about 1.1 million of them Jews. Victims were pulled from cattle cars and triaged by SS doctors deciding who among them was fit to work, who would be used as guinea pigs for Nazi scientists, and who would be murdered immediately.

Nearly all of those “spared” upon arrival would eventually die of starvation, exhaustion, hypothermia, or random beatings. They were gonged awake at 4:30 a.m., then fed rations of moldy bread, gray soup, and dirty water. “The word I will use a lot today is dehumanization,” Sawicki said.

Schwarzenegger viewed the gallows where the camp commandant, Rudolf Höss, had been hanged. He asked questions about the complicit enterprises—whether the firm that made the crematoria ovens had known what they would be used for (it had). His retinue was led into Block 4A, to a room that contained eyeglasses, dishes, and prosthetics that had belonged to the victims. Another exhibit featured piles of their hair.

The last thing Schwarzenegger did before he left was step toward a black desk where a guest book awaited his inscription. Visitor registers can present a special hazard for celebrities. Some have committed egregious faux pas. Donald Trump at Yad Vashem, for instance: “It’s a great honor to be here with all my friends,” the then-president wrote breezily at the Israeli Holocaust memorial and museum in 2017. “So amazing and will never forget!” This was judged to lack gravity.

But it was not nearly as bad as Justin Bieber’s blunder at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. “Anne was a great girl,” the pop star wrote in 2013. “Hopefully she would have been a Belieber.” Hopefully Schwarzenegger would attempt nothing like this.

Schwarzenegger has worked hard to place himself on the right side of the genocide. Auschwitz officials were glad to have him visit, because he brought with him media attention and the gift of global awareness. “I have been fighting this cause … for years and years and years,” he said in a brief statement to the Polish press at the end of his tour. “I’ve been working with the Jewish Center of Los Angeles … I celebrated Simon Wiesenthal’s 80th birthday in Beverly Hills. We all have to come collectively together and say ‘Never again.’ ”

Photographers positioned themselves around the register as Schwarzenegger approached. Clearly, the safe play would be to simply sign his name. Please be respectful. Nothing cute, if only as a humanitarian pausing of The Brand. But no.

“I’ll be back,” Schwarzenegger scrawled.

After leaving the complex, Schwarzenegger visited a small synagogue in Oświęcim, an otherwise charming village if not for, you know, the history. There, he met an 83-year-old Jewish woman, Lydia Maksimovicz, who as a toddler had spent 13 months at the camp as a “patient” of the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. She told him about how Mengele had performed experiments on her: drained her blood, and injected her with solutions in an effort to change the color of her irises. Mengele apparently had taken a liking to young Lydia and privileged her life above the other children’s. Now, eight decades later, Arnold Schwarzenegger was engulfing her in a bear hug.

“People like Lydia show us how important it is to never stop telling these stories about what happened 80 years ago,” Schwarzenegger said in brief remarks. “This is a story that has to stay alive.” He vowed to “terminate” hate and prejudice once and for all. “I love being here!” he gushed. “I love fighting prejudice and hatred!” A woman connected with the AJCF tried to hand him a special box of cigars, but was intercepted by an aide. He reiterated that he would be back.

The Auschwitz visit left Schwarzenegger feeling depressed. He stopped off in Vienna afterward to receive a lifetime-achievement award from some Austrian sports outfit, and the friends who saw him there kept wondering if he was okay. He seemed dazed.

“We were sitting on the plane, and we both just shook our heads and were like, ‘Wow, can you imagine?’ ” Knapp Schwarzenegger, his nephew, told me. “It was a somber mood for sure.”

Knapp Schwarzenegger is an entertainment lawyer in Beverly Hills, and was the only child of Schwarzenegger’s only sibling, his older brother, Meinhard, who died in a drunk-driving accident when Patrick was 3. Schwarzenegger brought Patrick to America as a teenager and effectively adopted him; they remain exceptionally close.

Knapp Schwarzenegger said their family history added a fraught dimension to the experience of visiting Auschwitz. They’d been particularly struck by the tour guide’s stories of how the Nazis committed atrocities at the camp and then went home to their families. “That was the hard part,” Knapp Schwarzenegger said, thinking of Gustav, “the loving grandfather,” who died when Knapp Schwarzenegger was 4. “How can ordinary people like that do such a thing? … It hits much closer to home when you’ve had personal experience with that.”

Gustav was haunted by the war, his body racked with shrapnel and his conscience with God only knows what. He “would come home drunk once or twice a week, and he would scream and hit us and scare my mother,” Schwarzenegger said in the January 6 video. Somehow, Schwarzenegger emerged intact. “My grandmother did the best she could,” Knapp Schwarzenegger told me, “but that affects you as a child. For Arnold, it made him stronger and more determined. And for my dad, it crushed him.”

Rabbi Hier, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, speculated that Schwarzenegger’s visit to Auschwitz could have been driven by shame, by a desire “to repent for the embarrassment of having such a father.” But Schwarzenegger does not concede to this narrative—to feeling guilty or embarrassed. His recurring message is more upbeat, if a bit deflecting. “We don’t have to go and follow,” Schwarzenegger told me. “My father was an alcoholic. I am not an alcoholic. My father was beating the kids and his wife, and I’m not doing that. We can break away from that and we can change.”

A few weeks after the trip to Auschwitz, I visited Schwarzenegger at his mansion in Brentwood, located in an extravagant hillside cul-de-sac of celebrity homes. Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen used to have a place down the road (in better days), as did Seal and Heidi Klum (also in better days). Maria used to live here too, in the mansion with Arnold (ditto).

I waited for Schwarzenegger on the patio where he smokes his cigars. He walked in and Whiskey and Lulu greeted him with a maniacal duet of braying. Two dogs wandered over to nuzzle him. An attendant brought him a cigar and a decaf espresso, and some treats for his dog-and-pony show. He took incoming FaceTime calls and kept raising his voice and shoving his face up into his iPad like my mother does.

Milligan, Schwarzenegger’s girlfriend, called to see how his day had gone. They have a comfortable, domestic vibe. She had been Schwarzenegger’s physical therapist, helping him through rehab for a torn rotator cuff about a decade ago. Ketchell, who had accompanied Schwarzenegger to the interview, wanted to make it clear that the pair had not become romantically involved until after Milligan stopped working with Schwarzenegger professionally.

Photo of sculpture of Schwarzenegger's head and shoulders in bronze against dark background
A bust of Schwarzenegger in his office in Santa Monica (Ryan Pfluger for The Atlantic)

Schwarzenegger and I hadn’t had a chance to talk much in Poland, save for a brief kibitz outside one of the gas chambers. I wanted to debrief him. What had it been like to witness the death camp firsthand?

“We know people were killed there and exterminated and blah blah blah.” (He has an unfortunate tic, when speaking about grave topics, of trailing off his sentences and adding filler words like blah blah blah and all that stuff.) It’s one thing, he said, to be told about “all the gassing, the torture, all this misery, and all that kind of stuff. You can read about it, see documentaries about it, see movies—the Schindler’s List, all this stuff.” But actually seeing the eyeglasses, the hair—that added a dimension of reality. “I’m a visual person; it’s one of my things,” Schwarzenegger said. “When I was walking around, I was going back to that era.”

Did he have any regrets about signing “I’ll be back”? Some social-media congregants had criticized the message as “tacky” and “flippant,” among other things. Schwarzenegger said that he had been made aware of the blowback and had meant no offense. “I wanted to write ‘Hasta la vista, baby,’ ” he said. Another signature line, this one from Terminator 2. (Yes, he was serious.) “I meant, you know, ‘Hasta la vista to hate and prejudice.’ ” But then he worried that Hasta la vista might come off as glib and dismissive—as in “Buh-bye, I will never come back here again.” So he opted for the more forward-looking “I’ll be back.”

His hosts had felt the need to tweet a defense: “The inscription was meant to be a promise to return for another more indepth visit.” In other words, Schwarzenegger was speaking literally, and did in fact plan to return. “That is what he said, so we expect Mr. Schwarzenegger will come back,” Paweł Sawicki, his tour guide, who doubles as Auschwitz’s chief press officer, told me.

I wondered if this had always been the plan, or if he had I’ll-be-backed himself into a corner and now had to schlep all the way to Poland again to prove his sincerity.

Definitely, it was the plan. In fact, he said, he was thinking about an annual road-trip-to-Auschwitz kind of thing. “I already told Danny DeVito and some of my acting friends that we’re going to take a trip next year,” he said. “Maybe Sly Stallone. I’m going to find a bunch of guys and we’re going to fly over there, and I want to be a tour guide.”

He contemplated the possibilities: “Imagine bringing businesspeople.” Maybe they could auction off some seats on the plane and give the proceeds to the museum. “We have to figure out something that is a little bit snappy and interesting,” he mused. Afterward, they could go to Munich for Oktoberfest, or something fun like that.

In early 2021, a few days after Schwarzenegger made his January 6 video, then-President-elect Joe Biden FaceTimed to thank him. They spoke for a few minutes, and at one point, Schwarzenegger offered his services to the incoming administration. “I told Biden that anytime he needs anything, he should let me know, absolutely,” he said. He’s heard nothing from the White House since. It’s complicated, he figures. Schwarzenegger, who is still a Republican, is not without baggage. The housekeeper-love-child-divorce episode remains a blotch. Celebrity politicians in general have seen better days: The likes of Trump and Dr. Oz have not exactly enhanced the franchise. In any event, Schwarzenegger gave no impression that he’s waiting by the phone.

But in the conversations I had with him, he betrayed a strong whiff of existential stir-craziness. “I felt like I was meant for something special,” Schwarzenegger told me that first morning after our workout, while we talked about his childhood in Austria. “I was a special human being, meant for something much bigger.”

At his bodybuilding peak, in Pumping Iron, Schwarzenegger spoke with a kind of youthful yearning—or megalomania—of enduring through time: “I was always dreaming about very powerful people. Dictators and things like that. I was just always impressed by people who could be remembered for hundreds of years, or even, like Jesus, be for thousands of years remembered.”

If only he could have run for president. That remains his recurring lament. Entering the Mr. Universe of political campaigns would have been the logical last rung of his life’s quest for something bigger. Schwarzenegger said he thinks he could win. This is hard to imagine—a moderate Republican prevailing through the MAGA maelstrom of the GOP primaries? And he’s not about to become a Democrat, either. (“I don’t want to join a party that is destroying every single fucking city,” he told me. “They’re screwing up left and right.”) Still, if they tweaked the Constitution, he told me, he would love to run, even at 75, which he insists is “just a number” and not that old. It’s not like he’s 80 or something!

In the meantime, what if Biden asked him to be secretary of state? I admit, it was me who raised the possibility. But Schwarzenegger warmed instantly to the idea, listing several reasons he would want the job and be perfect for it. George Shultz was one of his idols, and pretty much lived forever too (he died at 100). Schwarzenegger is a big believer in celebrity as a global force, in the power of being so widely, unstoppably known. Who would be bigger than Arnold Schwarzenegger? Who could possibly compare?

“I mean, look at the guy we have now,” Schwarzenegger told me. Antony Blinken “is, like, a clearly smart guy, but, I mean, on the world stage, he’s a lightweight. He doesn’t carry any weight.” (Blinken, who is leading U.S. efforts to contain Russia and China, could not be reached for comment.)

Schwarzenegger told me he really does want to live forever. Not everyone would, at his age. But not everyone has had his life, either. “If you have the kind of life that I’ve had—that I have—it is so spectacular. I could not ever articulate how spectacular it was.” He was trying to project gratitude, but something else came through—a plaintiveness in that gap between the tenses.

I had a final visit with Schwarzenegger in late December, this time at his Santa Monica office suite. He wore a bright-red atrocity of a Christmas sweater and took a seat next to me at a conference table. Schwarzenegger has always been a creature of obsessive routine, dating to the strict training regimens of his bodybuilding days. But he emphasized to me that he is following no grand plan in this final stage. “The truth is that I am improvising,” he told me. He is trying to pass on what he knows, and just signed a deal to write a self-help book that will codify his advice for life. The working title: Be Useful.

The next morning, I was walking to a Starbucks near Santa Monica Pier, when who should dart by on his bike? “Hey, Arnold,” I called out.

He pulled over and accused me of being a “lazy sonofabitch” for not riding with him. He wore sunglasses emblazoned with I’ll be back, and his white beard glowed in the dawn sun.

We chatted on the street, and Schwarzenegger suggested that I talk to a friend of his named Florian for this story. Florian, who sometimes stays in Austrian monasteries, apparently, has some elaborate theory of Arnold. “He would have an interesting perspective,” Schwarzenegger said. “He’s 6 foot 10, has big hair, and he FaceTimed me last night while he was shaving at 11 p.m. Who the fuck shaves at 11 p.m.?”

Florian does. His full name is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, a German and Austrian filmmaker who won an Oscar for his 2006 thriller, The Lives of Others. Later, I emailed him. He declined to share any grand theories. “These thoughts are very personal,” he explained. “At some point soon, I’ll turn them into a book myself. Hopefully to coincide with the release of a movie I direct with Arnold in the lead.” He made sure to mention that Schwarzenegger was his hero.

In the meantime, the hero was idling on his bike, telling me that he has more things in the works—retrospective things (a Netflix documentary about his life) and new adventures (Return to Auschwitz ! ). He was also planning a trip to Ukraine; in late January, an invitation would arrive from the office of President Volodymyr Zelensky, praising Schwarzenegger’s “honest stance and clear vision of good and evil.”

I imagined Schwarzenegger dropping into Kyiv, unarmed except for the Conan sword. He would drive out the Russians, end the war, and detour to Moscow to take down Putin. At least that’s how the Hollywood action version would end.

“There will be more,” Schwarzenegger promised that morning. I kept expecting him to ride off, but he seemed to want to linger.

This article appears in the April 2023 print edition with the headline “Arnold’s Last Act.”

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