Los Angeles — Critics who routinely dismiss Arnold Schwarzenegger's acting ability probably missed his one true Oscar-worthy performance.
The performance was in neither "Terminator" movie. It was not in "Kindergarten Cop," "True Lies" or "Batman & Robin." It is not in his new sci-fi action movie, "The 6th Day," which opens Friday.
In fact, you could not see Schwarzenegger's tour de force on any movie screen. He performed his masterpiece for an audience of one.
That lone audience member, a representative from the company that insured the actor for his last film "End of Days," apparently was sent to keep an eye on Schwarzenegger to determine whether his heart surgery had slowed him down.
"They sent a spy to the set of that movie," Schwarzenegger said with just a hint of anger. "She watched me for weeks, watching for any hint of exhaustion. Nobody was supposed to know who she was, but I knew who she was. So I never let up for a second.
"Finally, one night she came up to me and asked me how I could not be tired after running and jumping around until two in the morning. I smiled at her and told her that I never get tired. I told her that I love doing this and could run and jump around like this all night without getting winded. The next day she was gone, and she never came back.
"From that point on, all my troubles disappeared. Suddenly, there were 10 scripts for me to read instead of no scripts. I had my career back. I was an action stud again."
Sitting in a Los Angeles hotel suite, Schwarzenegger looks every bit the action stud. He is tan, fit and sporting a rugged-looking beard from the movie ("Collateral Damage") he is shooting in Mexico. He comes across confident, content and back in control after an anxious period (he calls it a "valley") when he wasn't sure his career would survive the surgery.
The surgery (actually, there were two surgeries because the first procedure didn't work) was scheduled to replace a defective heart valve. It was not an unexpected medical procedure. He was born with the defect, and knew for years that it would have to be replaced one day.
Although he was out of the hospital in seven days, studio executives were nervous.
"I knew they might be nervous so, six weeks after leaving the hospital, I went on a world promotional tour for 'Batman & Robin,' but not until I made sure to get in shape and get a great tan. I figured that if journalists took film of me working out and looking tan, no one would question whether I could return to movies. But then things started to happen."
Schwarzenegger, 53, said his next movie role, in a Ridley Scott-directed film called "Iron Legend," fell through after the studio cut the budget.
"They knew Ridley wouldn't do the picture with that smaller budget, so I started to get suspicious. Then a second movie fell through. Then I got 'End of Days,' and the insurance company started screwing around with me, sending me from one doctor to another and making me take all these tests. Now I was getting nervous. I realized they were worried that they couldn't sell me to the public as an action star.
"For the first time, I understood what people meant when they said sickness could be disastrous for a Hollywood career.
"But I am not bitter toward anyone in Hollywood," he added. "It's not anyone's fault; it's human nature. It's just something else I had to prove to people. I have had to prove myself my whole life."
Any serious action movie fan can recite the Arnold Schwarzenegger legend by heart: A young boy escapes his Austrian homeland through weightlifting and bodybuilding, is celebrated as the greatest bodybuilder in the world, makes the move to films and overcomes a thick accent, an unpronounceable name and "Hercules in New York" to become the biggest star in Hollywood, marries a Kennedy, opens restaurants, flies his own jets and is often touted as a possible Republican candidate for office.
After his surgery, Schwarzenegger chose "End of Days" as his return to the big screen.
"Although it didn't make a lot of money in this country, it made $150 million internationally, which means it made $210 million overall," he said. "Anytime you join the $200 million club, it's great for your career. So, even though the movie was a little disappointing, it did exactly what it was supposed to do, which was to prove to those nervous studio executives that I could still do action movies."