Pumping Iron director George Butler, who helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger a star and governor, dies

Documentary director George Butler, whose 1977 film “Pumping Iron” sparked a fitness revolution and propelled Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger to Hollywood stardom and ultimately to Sacramento as state governor, has died at him in New Hampshire. He was 78 years old.

Suffering from pneumonia, Butler died on Oct. 21 at his farm in Holderness, New Hampshire, his son Desmond Butler, a reporter for the Washington Post, said.

The son of a British Army officer and a New England socialite who grew up in Somalia and Jamaica, George Butler has directed nearly a dozen films over his four-decade career. .

Her latest project, “Tiger Tiger,” which follows a big cat conservationist through the wilds of India and Bangladesh, is slated for release next year, said Caroline Alexander, writer and film producer and longtime companion. by Butler.

By the 1970s, Butler had covered bodybuilding as a photojournalist. He collaborated on a sports book with author Charles Gaines before raising funds for his first film.

“What he liked about ‘Pumping Iron’ was that it explained his instinct for quirky stories,” Alexander said. “It was a very original subject to undertake, and the fact that he came out so well both commercially and artistically meant he trusted his instincts to move forward.”

At the time, Schwarzenegger had appeared in a few small roles in television and film, but was little known outside of the bodybuilding subculture.

“Pumping Iron” relied heavily on Schwarzenegger’s magnetic presence and ability to play a joke, long before he became the star of the “Terminator” film franchise and governor of California in an election. historical reminder that drew over 130 contestants, including a pornstar and dozens of D-List celebrities.

Butler became a close friend of Schwarzenegger as he was in the process of transforming him into a star. Schwarzenegger would later say that the film, which Butler co-directed with Robert Fiore, included heavy doses of fabricated conflict.

In the film, Schwarzenegger trains at Gold’s Gym in Venice to defend his Mr. Olympia bodybuilding title in South Africa against Lou Ferrigno, an insecure former sheet metal worker living with his parents in Brooklyn, NY As Schwarzenegger, Ferrigno will exhibit later dramatic elements in the film. He told Generation Iron Fitness Network that even though his father, a police lieutenant, goaded Ferrigno into being a tough trainer, he never helped him train before the cameras started rolling.

Ferrigno would fail to knock Schwarzenegger off his perch as a bodybuilding champion. Nonetheless, he used his “Pumping Iron” fame to land a starring role less than a year later in the TV series “The Incredible Hulk”.

As well as opening doors in Hollywood for Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno, the film also popularized bodybuilding. Before “Pumping Iron,” many Americans viewed sports as a narcissistic perversion, said Alan Klein, professor emeritus of anthropology at Northeastern University and author of “Little Big Men.”

After “Pumping Iron” became famous, the owners of Gold’s Gym opened hundreds of franchises and bodybuilding became mainstream, Klein said. The ripple effects would contribute to the fitness craze of the 1980s, a decade when aerobics and running helped define the fashion model.

Schwarzenegger, a day after Butler’s death, congratulated him in a tweet.

“When I think of all of the people who were responsible for growing bodybuilding and intersecting sport with the general public, two of the first people that come to mind are, without a doubt, George Butler and Charles Gaines.” , he wrote.

Butler made the movie “Pumping Iron II: The Women” in 1985 before moving on to other topics. In his 2004 documentary “Going Uppriver”, as he had done with Schwarzenegger, he turned the camera on a close friend: the future US Secretary of State John Kerry.

The film about Kerry’s service in the Vietnam War was released the year Kerry, then US Senator from Massachusetts, ran for President as a Democratic candidate.

It was a rare detour through politics for the filmmaker. He has most often focused on the outdoors and exploration, in works such as “The Endurance”, a 2000 film about Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, and “Roving Mars” by 2006 on the Mars Exploration Rovers.

At one point, a nationwide TV show allowed Butler to explore what it would be like to be dead. Charlie Rose on his PBS show included Butler in a retrospective of notable people who died in 2008, after mistaking Butler for a music director of the same name.

“I was here on Thursday, left on Friday and came back on Saturday,” Butler joked at the time with a reporter from the Tallahassee Democrat.

Butler, whose marriage to Victoria Leiter ended in divorce, is survived by Alexander, his sons Desmond and Tyssen and six grandchildren.

Dobuzinskis is a special correspondent for The Times.