The Terminator: 30 Years Later
This Sunday will be the 30th anniversary of the release of the movie The Terminator. Outside of Sarah Connor’s hair and clothing, there’s not a lot in the film that indicates how old it is. Oh, there have been some advances in special effects, but anyone who is old enough to have seen The Terminator in a first-run theater probably doesn’t see any problem with that. Those effects were astounding at the time. But in 1984, the star-studded cast and crew weren’t as star-studded as they seem now. The success of the film changed their lives, some of them exponentially.
At its heart, The Terminator was basically about three people: a good guy and a bad guy fighting over a girl. She was your average girl-next-door who became caught up in circumstances she didn’t understand. When you think about it, the terminator and Kyle Reese could have gone back to the past and found any girl, but that idea may lead to a headache. Bridget Fonda and Rosanna Arquette were considered for the role of Sarah Connor, but Linda Hamilton landed the role. Before The Terminator, Hamilton found fairly steady work in short-lived TV shows, little-seen feature films, and made-for-TV movies. As the passive member of the triangle, the role of Sarah Connor in 1984 didn’t do much for Hamilton’s career. She returned to off-and-on movie and TV work, with the most memorable role of the period being one of the title characters in the TV series Beauty and the Beast, which ran from 1987 to 1990, although Hamilton quit at the beginning of the third season to have a baby.
The biggest benefit from playing Sarah Connor in The Terminator for Hamilton was the opportunity to reprise the role in the 1991 sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In Terminator 2, Sarah Connor had transformed herself into a buff action hero, which surprised and delighted the audience. Hamilton worked out for months preparing for the role, dieted to lose weight, and took martial arts and weapons training from an Israeli commando. After Terminator 2, we expected Hamilton to leverage her performance to promote herself as an action hero, but instead, she returned to ensemble roles on TV movies and guest appearances on TV shows. What changed Hamilton’s life during Terminator 2 was that she started a romantic relationship with James Cameron.
The actress and the director moved in together following his divorce from director Kathryn Bigelow. They had a daughter together in 1993. Cameron and Hamilton got married in 1997, despite his affair with Suzy Amis, who appeared in Cameron’s movie Titanic (and later became his fifth wife). Hamilton’s marriage to Cameron came to an end in 1999, and she was awarded a settlement of $50 million. Hamilton doesn’t need stardom.
When he came up with the idea for The Terminator, James Cameron had directed only one feature film, the forgettable Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981)—and he was fired from that project. He was 26 years old and the majority of what he knew about filmmaking, he learned from Roger Corman. Cameron said the idea of The Terminator came to him in a dream, which he took to another Corman employee, Gale Ann Hurd. The two hashed out a storyline and agreed to do the movie together, with Hurd producing and Cameron directing. Both got the writing credit, although Cameron disputes that Hurd had any significant input. When you type “Who wrote The Terminator?” into Google’s search engine, the answer is Harlan Ellison, which is a whole other story. Ellison sued, saying The Terminator was taken from several of his TV scripts, and a settlement included adding him to the credits over Cameron’s objections. The Terminator cost $6.4 million to make, and made over $78 million in box office receipts. While a modest success, the movie was only the beginning of the Terminator franchise, which spawned four sequels (the next due in 2015), a TV show (The Sarah Connor Chronicles), video games, comic books, novels, and action figures and other merchandise.
After The Terminator, James Cameron was able to pick and choose his projects, which became bigger with each blockbuster film he directed. They include Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies, Titanic, and Avatar. He also got a wife: Cameron married The Terminator’s producer Gale Ann Hurd. That marriage lasted until 1989, after which he married director Kathryn Bigelow, then Terminator star Linda Hamilton in 1997, and Suzy Amis in 2000. The money that Cameron’s ever-bigger blockbusters brought in allowed him to indulge in his other passion: deep sea diving. He built and learned to operate submersible vehicles while filming Titanic. He then founded the company Earthship Productions to make deep-sea documentaries. In 2012, Cameron became the first person to reach the deepest part of the Mariana Trench, called the Challenger Deep, on a solo expedition (and only the third person to ever reach the bottom).
Michael Biehn, who played Kyle Reese in The Terminator, actually had quite a few acting credits going into the production. He was in several TV shows, then played a bit part in the 1978 musical Grease. A few movies followed, but he was mostly on TV, and played a recurring character on Hill Street Blues while The Terminator was in production. There were quite a few different actors considered for the role of Kyle Reese, but Cameron thought they were all too tough. Biehn had the humanity to pull off a love interest and the versatility to keep the audience in suspense as to his character’s intentions through the first half of the film. If you can think back to the first time you saw the movie, no one knew Reese was the hero for the first hour.
After The Terminator, Cameron called upon Biehn again, for Aliens in 1986 and The Abyss in 1989. Strangely, Biehn’s hand was bitten in all three Cameron films. He was shot by Val Kilmer’s character Doc Holiday in the 1993 movie Tombstone. You might be forgiven for thinking that Biehn dropped off the face of the earth after those, but he has been working steadily in film ever since. You have to look for him; he doesn’t quite look like the teen idol he once was.
Gale Ann Hurd
The producer of The Terminator has less name recognition than the others on this list, but Gale Ann Hurd has plenty of accomplishments under her belt. She worked her way up the ladder at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, then formed Pacific Western Productions. The company’s first production was The Terminator, after she bought the rights from James Cameron for $1. The Terminator was a money maker, mainly because the budget was relatively low. Hurd said, “Success for us meant being able to make another movie. It didn’t mean box-office success or critical success—our goal was to be able to do it again. Anyone who doesn’t feel that way should not be in the business.”
The success of The Terminator did exactly that: it allowed her to produce movies such as Aliens, Alien Nation, The Abyss, Tremors, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Armageddon, The Hulk, and a slew of other films. Hurd also married James Cameron in 1985, although they divorced in 1989. She was then married to Brian DePalma from 1991-93, and to screenwriter and director Jonathan Hensleigh since 1995. In 2010, Hurd landed a gig as executive producer of a new TV series called The Walking Dead. She’s been there for all 53 episodes so far.
Orion wanted the production to have a star, even though The Terminator was a relatively small-budget film. Orion chief Mike Medavoy suggested O.J. Simpson as the terminator. Cameron didn’t think it was a good idea to have a black man chasing a white woman down to kill her, and nobody would believe that O.J. could do that. This was in 1982, remember. Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger auditioned for the role of Kyle Reese, but Cameron came to see him as the terminator. Not the terminator he had originally envisioned, but a better one. Schwarzenegger had made a few movies already, although the only film of note was Conan the Barbarian (its sequel, Conan the Destroyer was filmed during a break in The Terminator schedule). Schwarzenegger didn’t like being assigned the role of the terminator because he would only have 18 lines in the entire movie—around 100 words in all. However, Schwarzenegger’s command of the English language was insufficient for the role of Reese.
The success of The Terminator sent Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood career into high gear. In the next ten years, he starred in ten action films and several comedies. The biggest of them all was Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in which he again played a terminator, but this time he was the good guy. Schwarzenegger played a similar cyborg in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and is set to reprise the role in Terminator: Genisys. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger married NBC journalist Maria Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family, in 1986. They were married for 25 years and had four children together. In 2003, Schwarzenegger entered the special recall election to replace California governor Gray Davis. He defeated over 100 other candidates on the ballot to became the governor of California. He was reelected in 2006. Schwarzenegger’s stint in politics earned him the title of “The Governator.”
The 1984 film The Terminator wasn’t the blockbuster we think of when we look back at it now, because it takes time and hindsight for a movie to become a classic. But it performed better than Orion expected: It made money and it established a franchise that now seems so familiar to us all.