James Cameron had a dream that inspired him to create the 1984 blockbuster Terminator. (Learn about that dream here.) Perhaps for that reason, he was willing to let his inner senses guide other decisions regarding the movie.
His instincts appear to be justified, based on the success of Terminator and its sequels. One of the most important decisions — who to cast for the starring roles — was similarly justified. His rationale, however, was oddly ill-fitting. As one of Simpsons’ lawyers might have said, “If the role don’t fit, then that part you don’t get.”
The Terminator is about a ruthless, murdering cyborg from the future who travels to the 20th century to change the course of future events. The only thing standing in the machine’s way is Kyle Reese, a fighter in the human resistance movement of the future, who likewise travels back in time to stop the Terminator.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name came up early in the casting process, but not for the part for which he is remembered. He was initially considered for the role of Kyle Reese.
Cameron was less than enthusiastic at the prospect. Up to this point, Schwarzenegger’s only significant role had been as Conan in Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer. In both movies, Schwarzenegger was cast more for his muscular physique than for his finesse at acting.
Cameron agreed to meet with the actor. Although he made it clear that he was talking to Schwarzenegger about the Kyle Reese role, Schwarzenegger could only talk about another part.
“I could visualize very clearly what the Terminator should look like,” said Schwarzenegger. “And so when I met Cameron to talk about Kyle Reese, I gave him all these points: This is what you should do with the Terminator, this is how the Terminator should act.”
He remembered telling the director, “One thing that concerns me is that whoever is playing the terminator… it’s very important that he gets trained the right way. Because if you think about it, if this guy is really a machine, he won’t blink when he shoots. When he loads a new magazine into his gun, he won’t have to look because a machine will be doing it, a computer. When he kills, there will be absolutely no expression on the face, not joy, not victory, not anything. No thinking, no blinking, no thought, just action.”
As a result of that meeting, Cameron was convinced Schwarzenegger was right for his movie, but not as Kyle Reese. He offered, instead, the title role.
Schwarzenegger was not immediately interested. “The Terminator had even fewer lines than Conan – it ended up with eighteen,” Schwarzenegger wrote in his book Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story. “I was afraid people would think I was trying to avoid speaking roles, or worse, that a lot of my dialogue had been edited out of the final film because it wasn’t working.”
Despite his concerns, Schwarzenegger was persuaded to take the part. He received more than $30,000 per word for his role, and it cemented his position as one of the top action film stars of all time.
But if Schwarzenegger was not the initial choice for the role of the Terminator, who was?
Whoever would be cast as the relentless, murdering robot from the future would have to be big and imposing. The actor initially suggested to Cameron definitely fit that description. Additionally, he was a much better-known celebrity than Schwarzenegger. It was the former professional football player turned actor, O.J. Simpson.
Simpson had been featured for several years in a popular series of commercials for Hertz Rental Cars. He could be seen running through the airport and jumping over luggage carts and counters. His size, celebrity status, and obvious athletic ability all worked in his favor to fill the role of the Terminator.
Only one thing stood in his way: he was too nice.
Cameron concluded that Simpson wouldn’t be believable as a killing machine because he was obviously just too nice of a guy to do something like that.
This assessment seems shocking in light of the way O.J. Simpson is most commonly remembered today. In 1994, he was arrested and charged with the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Although acquitted of the criminal charges after a trial that lasted more than 8 months, Simpson was found liable for the two deaths in a civil action and was ordered to pay $33,500,000 in damages.
In 2008, Simpson was convicted of multiple felony counts, including criminal conspiracy, kidnapping, assault, robbery, and using a deadly weapon. In 2017, he received parole after serving 9 of the 33 years imprisonment of his sentence.
When he was considered for the part in The Terminator, however, that aspect of Simpson’s character was as alien to conventional wisdom as the cyborg he was to play. His “good guy” personality made him the perfect fit as Detective Nordberg in The Naked Gun trilogy of movies. In a disturbing bit of foreshadowing, however, there was one line in Naked Gun: 2 1/2 — The Smell of Fear that ended up being cut from the final version. Frank Drebin approaches Simpson’s character at a crime scene and asks, “Bloodstains, Nordberg?” Simpson replies, “No. The wife and I are redecorating.”
As for his reasoning for rejecting Simpson for The Terminator, Cameron later explained, “Mind you, this was before O.J. was actually a killer. We might have reconsidered after he had [allegedly] killed his wife. [Laughs] This was when everybody loved him, and ironically that was part of the problem — he was this likable, goofy, kind of innocent guy. [Laughs] Plus, frankly I wasn’t interested in an African-American man chasing around a white girl with a knife. It just felt wrong.”