November 26

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The Lasting Legacy of George Butler


Toward the end of October, film director George Butler passed away at the age of 78. His news flew under the sports news radar — which was as packed as ever during that time frame with all four major American sports in session, keeping Las Vegas establishments busy.

However, in the world of fitness, Butler deserves his credit. A lot of credit, actually. He was the filmmaker behind the “Pumping Iron” documentary that put a spotlight on the world of bodybuilding — a spotlight that was missing at the time, unlike today. In honor of Butler’s passing, here’s a look back at how Butler left his fingerprints all over the fitness community:

George Butler was a photographer before becoming a filmmaker. He made Pumping Iron into both a book and movie, helping popularize weight-lifting with mass audiences.

Planting the Seeds for the Documentary

Before Pumping Iron the documentary, there was Pumping Iron: The Art & Sport of Bodybuilding the book. It was also the birth child of George Butler, who spent two years photographing the sport’s biggest stars at the time — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, Mike Katz, Frank Zane, among others.

But according to Butler, the book almost didn’t happen. It was rejected by publisher Doubleday, who demanded Butler pay back the advancement he had received. In previous interviews prior to his death, Butler claimed the publisher told them no one wanted to read about bodybuilders.

Not to take rejection easily, Butler then pitched it to Simon & Schuster. Surprisingly, they agreed and Pumping Iron became a surprise commercial success. It sold over 700,000 copies, making it the best-selling book by a single photographer at the time. With that success, Butler knew there was another story to tell, but it would require a gamble.

Butler’s Big Bet

Butler began seeing dollar signs for a full-length documentary, the problem was, he didn’t have the dollars himself to do it. So he borrowed $30,000 — which adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars, is more than $150,000. That sum of money was enough to cover a test film only, not the real thing.

For the test, Butler centered around Schwarzenegger, who he knew could carry the film with his magnetic charisma. He filmed 10 minutes worth of footage of Arnold at an obscure competition in Massachusetts and showed it to investors. It’s safe to say no one was buying Butler’s shtick, just like Doubleday. Bodybuilding just wasn’t mainstream back then.

Here again, not to be deterred, Butler staged a posing exhibition in New York City with Schwarzenegger as the centerpiece. He invited the one investor that was mildly interested and once the show is sold-out, that investor saw the same dollar signs Butler had previously seen. Finally, Butler had a budget to make Pumping Iron into a film.

Shooting a Star With Schwarzenegger

Few entertainers have the resume of Schwarzenegger — bodybuilding icon, one-time the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, married (and divorced) into the prestigious Kennedy political family, and of course, became governor of the most populous state in the United States. All this as a lowly immigrant from Austria.

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    It’s a resume that’s almost too hard to believe, except if you’re Butler. Very early on and perhaps the first to do so, Butler knew Arnold had larger-than-life star power. Butler was predicting a place in politics for Schwarzenegger in the late ‘70s, way before he became The Terminator and a movie star. 

    Still, none of Schwarzenegger’s success would’ve transpired without Butler’s storytelling ability in Pumping Iron. Butler brought out his character perfectly with outrageous interviews, behind-the-scenes footage of Arnold trash-talking foes, and even staging a few things (which Schwarzenegger admitted to years later).

    The Pumping Iron movie centered on the feud between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno. It was the perfect plot for Butler to build an entire film around.

    Like the book, the documentary was a smashing success. Almost overnight, bodybuilding and weight-training were now “cool” and not a recipe for muscle-boundness like previously thought.

    Pumping Iron’s Aftermath

    We don’t need to remind you what Schwarzenegger did post-Pumping Iron fame bump, but perhaps we do for others featured in Butler’s masterpiece. Gold’s Gym, which was featured heavily in the film, became a major brand. It would be franchised into hundreds of locations, which remains the case today.

    Fitness, as a whole, became the defining craze of the 1980s for people of all genders and ages. Getting a bod like Schwarzenegger became the goal of thousands upon thousands (maybe millions?) of young weight-lifers — which is still a thing today.

    Would any of this have happened without Butler? Maybe, but certainly not as fast. Butler effectively put a jetpack on lifting weights and for that, we thank him. 

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