Though Arnold Schwarzenegger's acting legacy will forever be cemented by his title-character role in 1984's The Terminator, his follow-up one year later established the archetypal character he would portray in numerous films to follow. In 1985's Commando, Schwarzenegger used his massive physique to dish out generous servings of pain as retired United States Special Forces Colonel John Matrix, just as he had done as The Terminator's T-800. Commando, however, was simultaneously an action film and a humorous romp, helping Schwarzenegger make the leap from muscle-bound combat hero to bonafide superstar.
The film also inspired contemporary filmmakers to pair exaggerated combat action with comedy, as seen in later films such as Lethal Weapon and The Predator. At a time when most movie stars employed stunt performers and stand-ins for the dirty work, Schwarzenegger proved his dedication and merit by performing all of his own stunts in Commando. He also proved so adept at comedy that lines were written for him on the fly throughout filming.
Despite these groundbreaking elements, the movie was rife with issues from the very beginning and was eventually fast-tracked by a new studio head who considerably reduced the production budget. Commando would likely have been another candidate for the burgeoning direct-to-video movie market were it not for the charisma of its lead. Thanks to Schwarzenegger's growing star power, we not only have the film but also these amazing behind-the-scenes stories from the making of Commando.
Schwarzenegger Agreed To Star Because It Was 'A Part John Wayne Could Play'
After purchasing Commando's original script from Jeph Loeb, Fox hired Steven de Souza to revamp it "to suit [Schwarzenegger]'s bigger-than-life persona," transforming Loeb's lead character from an Israeli soldier who's left fighting behind into a Herculean warrior with comic-book-level strength. Schwarzenegger had to be convinced to take the part, however, having already played two similarly physical roles in Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator.
Making his pitch directly to Schwarzenegger, Steven de Souza acted out the script, even doing a poor "cocktail-party impression" of Schwarzenegger at one point. The actor was skeptical at first but ended up accepting the role because it was more grounded in reality than his previous parts and was "a big step forward" in his acting career. He told de Souza:
I like this part. I'm not a robot from the future or caveman from the past. I'm in clothes and having a family. It's a part John Wayne could play. I do this picture.
The Director Overestimated Schwarzenegger's True Strength
As a Mr. Universe-winner and seven-time Mr. Olympia champion who had only recently left the world of bodybuilding, Schwarzenegger was still in peak physical shape when filming began for Commando. Costar Rae Dawn Chong described him as the physical "ideal" in "genetic perfection."
He was so impressive in stature that director Mark L. Lester allegedly overestimated Schwarzenegger's strength, planning to film one action scene without any technical assistance for the actor. Lester was surprised when Schwarzenegger, who could deadlift up to 710 pounds and bench press 520, told him that he wouldn't be able to hold co-star David Patrick Kelly over a cliff with his bare hands:
I said, "But you life weights and he is like 160 pounds. I purposely cast a really tiny guy so you can hold him over the ledge." He said, "This is not real life. A weight is straight up, I can't hang there for hours and then hold him over a cliff."
Lester called the studio and a giant crane arrived on set the next day. Cables were used to hold Kelly in midair during the scene.
Schwarzenegger Performed His Own Stunts Because They Couldn't Find A Suitable Body Double
Arnold Schwarzenegger's incredible physique presented the producers of Commando with a roadblock: how do you stunt-double a man of his proportions in such an action-heavy movie without losing authenticity? The solution was to have Schwarzenegger perform most of his own stunts, which actually suited the star. Schwarzenegger claimed his experience as a tank driver in the Austrian army prepared him for the action in Commando.
Lester even said that Schwarzenegger believed he was too unique a specimen to duplicate, even if it meant risking his own health:
Arnold insisted on doing almost all of the stunts himself, because he said that nobody could duplicate his body. Even when we were doing a close-up of Matrix jamming a knife into a sheath, he said, "My hand cannot be duplicated. It is one of a kind." When he did the shot, he accidentally cut himself and had to go to a hospital.
Schwarzenegger often claimed he owed it to his fans to put his body on the line for stunts, saying "it's me they pay to see."
An Interracial Love Scene Was Cut To Appease Southern Theater Owners
Before Canadian actor Rae Dawn Chong landed the role of Cindy opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger's Col. John Matrix, the producers screened "dozens and dozens of your typical blonde actresses" for the part, including Sharon Stone and Brigitte Nielsen. None of them could bring a "real comedic flair" to Cindy, however, according to director Mark. L. Lester.
Chong won the role by improvising her way through an uncomfortable audition, but although she was perfect for the part, her mixed Chinese, Scotch-Irish, and African background forced Lester to change the script in order to appease racially biased theater owners:
We had to cut the love scene... originally there was [an intimiate] scene between her and Arnold, but in those days, the Southern theaters wouldn't play a movie if it had interracial [intercourse], so that was out.