How Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gamble on making Twins opened up a whole new path for him, taking in Kindergarten Cop, Junior and Jingle All The Way.

If you’ve ever sat through Vin Diesel in The Pacifier, Dwayne Johnson in Tooth Fairy or Sylvester Stallone in either Oscar or Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, then you’ve got Arnold Schwarzenegger to thank.

It was, after all, towards the end of the 1980s that a simple pitch that persuaded Universal Pictures to open its coffers and take a gamble, and in doing so create a new line of comedies. That pitch? ‘Schwarzenegger. DeVito. Twins’. The very definition of high concept, where a movie idea can be sold in a sentence, and ideally less. Not a line of plot, you note, but an instant idea of what the poster might look like straight away.

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The road to the project began in 1985, with Schwarzenegger riding high off the back of The Terminator. He was at a charity event and chatting to Marvin Davis, then the supremo at Fox Studios. Arnie was making Commando for Fox at the time, and over the event’s dinner, he found himself with his old friend, comedian Milton Berle. Schwarzenegger would relentlessly question Berle about comedy and how it worked, and the latter would gradually introduce the former to some of the stars of the time.

What they didn’t know was that Arnold Schwarzenegger fancied a crack at a comedy movie, and felt he was at a point where he should give it a go. With Berle as his mentor he’d  learn more and more about how to get a laugh, and the whole idea was percolating more as Arnie went on a skiing holiday to Colorado at the end of 1986. By chance, he found himself hanging out with Robin Williams and Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, who were at the same resort. After an evening of joke telling, Reitman put to Arnie that “there’s a certain innocence about you that I’ve never seen come through on the screen, and a certain sense of humour”.

Schwarzenegger describes all this in his memoir, Total Recall, and explained that when they got back to California, Reitman commissioned a bunch of writers to come up with ideas. Their quest: generate a comedy vehicle for Schwarzenegger. It was one called The Experiment – about mismatched twins – that caught his attention. The title had to change, as Arnie noted, “given my Germanic background”, but the film was a goer. He suggested Danny DeVito as a co-star, and at the very least, the movie had a sight gag to get it going.

Twins

They took that top level pitch into Universal, along with a deal. If the three main creatives all charged their usual salaries, there’s no way a studio would take the gamble went the reasoning. As such, their proposal was zero salary, all backend. Arnie gambled on himself to make the leap to comedy, and that audiences would buy it. It goes against the myth a little, but as it happened Universal was all for paying them up front, as it had little doubt the movie would work. Nonetheless, the deal was struck, and 37.5% of the film’s revenue would be split between the two lead actors and the director.

It became an infamous deal in Hollywood. For Twins was the easiest sell of the season come the end of 1988. It grossed $111m off a $15m production budget, comfortably defeating competition such as My Stepmother Is An Alien, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Ernest Saves Christmas and even Scrooged.

In fact, so successful was the transition to another genre for him that Twins would outgross the action movie Schwarzenegger had made earlier that year – Red Heat – and he’d go straight from making it to the set of 1990’s Total Recall. But what it’d also start would be a cycle where he fairly regularly alternated action blockbusters and high concept comedies. The latter all built from the idea of an action star playing against type.

Twins, as thin as the film is – I’d argue it’s a one-watch comedy, and fun as long as the novelty holds for you – was the most successful. But Reitman and Schwarzenegger needed little persuading to slot another comedy in once Total Recall had wrapped. This time, the surprisingly brutal 1990 hit Kindergarten Cop.

Kindergarten Cop

This one came to him on the set of Total Recall, when he was wading through scripts working out what to try. He was already committed to making Terminator 2: Judgment Day for James Cameron through late 1990 and early 1991, but could in theory slot another movie in. Schwarzenegger had been looking for a project he could do with younger actors too, and this seemed like a comedy he could do. He contacted Ivan Reitman, who needed to get Ghostbusters II made first for the end of 1989. But the pair agreed to quickly turn Kindergarten Cop around for the end of 1990.

Bill Murray and Patrick Swayze had already been close to this particular project, but a speedy shoot commenced in May 1990, with Schwarzenegger nipping off at one point to shoot a Terminator 2 promo. It wrapped in September 1990, was in cinemas in the US just before Christmas, but this time, it’d run into traffic.

The Christmas box office season, after all, was the year a different surprise hit took hold: the original Home Alone, sweeping away all other comedies in its path. Whilst Kindergarten Cop had cost $26m, its US box office came in at $91m, a little below expectations. No matter, it was still hugely profitable.

I’d also argue it’s probably the best of Arnie’s comedies, albeit with a very hard-edged opening act that led to it getting a 12 certificate in the UK, and a 15 on video. Complaints about it were duly registered, and it remains pretty staggering that the opening segment in a film aimed at a family audience was full-on traditional Arnie fare. Heck, Ivan Reitman should have thrown his name into the ring for something like Eraser many years later. All notwithstanding, Kindergarten Cop would be winging its way to video just as Terminator 2 landed in cinemas, becoming the biggest hit of Arnie’s career in 1991. It would be quite a year for the star.

Incidentally, that too was the year when Ron Underwood scored a surprise hit with the comedy City Slickers, and for a while it was mooted that he direct Arnie in the Tooth Fairy film that’d resurface many years later for The Rock (produced by Jason Blum, no less). For Arnie though, even with his action fare he was keen to soften his image and duly plumped – after a prolonged break – for 1993’s Last Action Hero as his first movie post T2. He then reunited with James Cameron for True Lies (after taking a cameo in Ivan Reitman’s Dave), before finally finding space for another outright comedy.

The Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Junior

Again, it was playing against type, but this time the joke was wearing thin. Junior saw him as the world’s first pregnant man, with Danny DeVito co-starring again and Emma Thompson being added to the ensemble. Reitman directed, but the cost for a start was much higher: $60m up front for Universal to shoulder.

As much as the film itself is a little flat, there is a school of thought with Junior that it’s Schwarzenegger’s best performance as an actor. I know that sounds like damning with faint praise, but that’s not the intent (I don’t buy the narrative that Arnie is a terrible screen actor for a start). Instead, he’s good and believable in this, but I can’t say I ever fully warmed to the film. A good idea, not well realised.

The critical response was about the same level as Kindergarten Cop, but once again a surprise piece of competition won the box office battle: in this case, The Santa Clause from Disney. A movie made for a lot less expensive, and capturing the mood of the season better. Junior, come the end of 1994, grossed just $36m in the US. The Reitman/Schwarzenegger boxset was – for now – at an end.

But there was still another comedy to come: it’s the one I like the least, but also the one I’m told I’m wrong about the most. I should confess that I’ve struggled to warm to the directing work of Brian Levant in truth (even his best film, Beethoven, I’d class as ‘okay’), but he was Arnie’s pick to make Jingle All The Way. In this one, Schwarzenegger is less against type, the idea more being of an action hero making his way through a whole bunch of contrivances to get hold of a Christmas toy for his child.

It came together remarkably quickly this one: Home Alone producer Chris Columbus reworked a script from Randy Kornfield in 1995, it was in cinemas by the end of 1996. In fact, the only reason Schwarzenegger could appear was a last minute gap in his schedule opened up, as Fox’s planned Planet Of The Apes reboot – in which he was going to star – got delayed (by the time it happened, directed by Tim Burton a few years later, Arnie was not involved). He signed up for Jingle All The Way just nine months before its planned release date, and the hasty turnaround accounts for the lack of tie-in merchandise for the film as well.

Jingle All The Way

This time, Schwarzenegger took an up-front $20m to star, ballooning the budget again to $60m. Columbus set it up as part of his deal at Fox, and recruited Levant to direct. By the time it arrived in cinemas, it attracted the worst reviews to date for an Arnie comedy, but duly Hoovered up sufficient cash. $129m worldwide, slightly better than Junior, but that’d be that as far as the comedy run went.

Instead, others jumped in, and as much as it’s easy to be snooty about some of the films that came out, it’s worth remembering that the formula took a long time to break. 2005’s The Pacifier earned a profitable $200m at the box office, and franchises were born out of the likes of – shudder – Daddy Day Care. I’d suggest that there’s not a comedy classic amongst the high concept range of films where action stars play against type, and would love to see one with genuine bite.

But for now, if you had to pick one, Kindergarten Cop would be my pick. Or Kindergarten Cop 2 with Dolph Lundgren, which is pretty much a lower rent re-run of the first film, just one that bothered the BBFC less.

The coda to this story though is that Arnie may be finally stepping up to the comedy plate one more time, as the long-mooted Twins sequel Triplets finally looks like it’s happening. Schwarzenegger, DeVito and Reitman have long dabbled with this, with Eddie Murphy long the top choice to join the ensemble. More recently though, we learn that the project is being reconfigured with Tracy Morgan joining up instead.

Watch this space, then. And hold onto your ribs, lest they be tickled too vigorously…

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