The Terminator tops the box office | The Moments That Made Us

How a low-budget sci-fi slasher flick with low expectations catapulted the careers of a rookie director, and a bodybuilder turned movie star.

Now one of Hollywood’s most successful directors of all time, James Cameron catapulted to fame after directing his second theatrically released film The Terminator in 1984.

A low-budget sci-fi slasher film, The Terminator far exceeded its low expectations, launched a massive franchise, solidified Arnold Schwarzenegger as a legitimate movie star, and Cameron as an ambitious, imaginative filmmaker. Cameron would go on to create arguably the biggest films of his era, including Terminator 2, Aliens, Titanic and Avatar.


Born in the small Northern Ontario town of Kapuskasing in 1954, James Cameron worked as a truck driver and a janitor before he embarked on his filmmaking career. When he wasn’t working, he enjoyed writing and learning about film and special effects. When Star Wars came out in 1977, Cameron quit his driving job and decided to make movies.

Meanwhile, an Austrian bodybuilder who, at the age of 20, had just become the youngest competitor to ever win the title of Mr. Universe. In 1968, after winning the title three more times, Arnold Schwarzenegger began pursuing his dream of moving to the United States to become an actor, despite having few connections and a limited grasp of the English language.

“It was very difficult for me in the beginning,” says Schwarzenegger. “I was told by agents and casting people that my body was ‘too weird’, that I had a funny accent, and that my name was too long. You name it, and they told me I had to change it. Basically, everywhere I turned, I was told that I had no chance.”

Cameron’s directing career started in 1978, learning the craft on the go as he created his first short film Xenogenesis. He worked on movies as a miniature model maker, art director, and special effects artist before being thrown into the director’s chair on the 1982 horror B-movie Piranha II: The Spawning after the original director quit. The movie was a flop, but technically marked Cameron’s theatrical debut as a director.

At the same time, Arnold Schwarzenegger had finally just earned his first big breakthrough in Hollywood as the star of the box-office hit Conan the Barbarian.

While Cameron was in Rome promoting Piranha II, he fell ill and had a feverish nightmare about a metallic torso holding kitchen knives dragging itself from an explosion. Inspired by John Carpenter’s low-budget but very successful slasher film Halloween, Cameron used his dream as a launch pad for a sci-fi thriller about an invincible, time-travelling robot assassin. Cameron offered Schwarzenegger a role in The Terminator after failing to land both Sylvester Stallone and Mel Gibson.

Schwarzenegger signed on, but clearly had a pretty low opinion of Cameron’s screenplay. In an interview on the set on Conan, he was asked about his upcoming role, to which Arnold called it “some shit movie I’m doing, take a couple weeks.” Arnold later admitted he believed the film was low profile enough that it would not damage his career if it failed. “It took me a while to figure out that Jim was the real deal,” he confessed in his memoirs.

The Terminator part would end up being the defining role of Arnold’s career. And while his massive physique and lack of English may have hamstrung his acting career in the past, this time they made him the perfect actor for the part. Schwarzenegger only speaks 18 lines in the film, but they each became some of the most memorable and quotable movie lines of all time. “Somehow, even his accent worked,” says James Cameron. “It had a strange synthesized quality, like they hadn’t gotten the voice thing quite worked out.”

The resulting film left audiences stunned, and topped the box office for two straight weeks. Made for just $6.4 million, the underdog film with low expectations ended up grossing an impressive $78 million worldwide. It catapulted James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger to stardom, and spawned a franchise of sequels, novels, comic books, and video games.

Cameron would go on to make some of the biggest high budget films in history, while Schwarzenegger would continue to star in massively popular action flicks before being elected the Governor of California in 2003 and again in 2006. He returned to acting in 2011, and is reuniting with his original Terminator co-star Linda Hamilton in 2019’s Terminator 2 sequel Terminator: Dark Fate.