In August 2019 Arnold Schwarzenegger suffered a terrible loss when his best friend Franco Columbu passed away suddenly at the age of 78. And, naturally, the actor was devastated by the news, as he would make plain in a tribute message about his long-time buddy on social media. But what Schwarzenegger chose to confess about his relationship with Columbu may well leave you stunned.
And those who have followed Schwarzenegger’s career since his bodybuilding days may well recognize Columbu’s name. You see, Columbu was a bodybuilder, too. He’d first encountered Schwarzenegger in 1965 at a Munich competition, after which the two men joined forces in order to better their lives.
In particular, Schwarzenegger and Columbu both relocated to the United States in the late 1960s in the hope of improving their prospects. And after making it to America, the friends not only worked under the famous bodybuilder Joe Weider, but they also started a bricklaying company together in order to earn more money. The pair discovered, moreover, that they had a talent for drawing in customers.
In 2000 Schwarzenegger told the story on his official website. It turned out that he and Columbu would lure in potential clients by claiming that they used “Austrian bricklaying” as a building method – and the bold-faced gambit paid off. After an earthquake in Los Angeles, the two men were particularly in demand. Schwarzenegger said, “Franco and I were busy for two years rebuilding chimneys and fireplaces and patios and walls.”
Then in 1970 Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding career took off, as that year he became the youngest ever Mr. Olympia – a honor he can still claim today. Yet Schwarzenegger’s time at the top of the pursuit was relatively short-lived, as he would go on to retire five years later after having emerged victorious at the Mr. Olympia competition six times in a row. Columbu did well, too, winning the title of Mr. Olympia himself a year after his friend had bowed out.
After having conquered the bodybuilding world, however, Schwarzenegger decided to break into acting. He and Columbu had both appeared in the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron, which had helped get the aspiring star’s name out there. And in the late ’70s Schwarzenegger saw a modicum of success, too, picking up small parts in sitcoms and police shows.
Then, finally, Schwarzenegger won his breakout role as the eponymous hero in 1982’s Conan the Barbarian. That film turned out to be a hit, with a sequel following in 1984. And arguably Schwarzenegger’s most famous movie also saw release in 1984. This was, of course, The Terminator, with the classic action flick making the Austrian a household name.
Columbu also came along for the ride, nabbing small roles in several of Schwarzenegger’s earlier films. He pops up in Conan the Barbarian, The Running Man and The Terminator, for instance. Eagle-eyed viewers may similarly have spotted Columbu in another famous action movie of the 1980s: Rambo: First Blood Part II.
And Columbu also worked behind the camera as Sylvester Stallone’s trainer. In 2003 he told Film Monthly, “In the film [Rambo: First Blood Part II] when Sly shows his stomach muscles… One day, [the producer came] to me and asked me if I can make Sly look like this in seven weeks, and they show me some pictures. And I said, ‘Why seven weeks?’ And they said, ‘Because we start production in seven weeks.’”
Columbu continued, “I trained [Stallone] so brutal [that] he got in shape in seven weeks. At the end, he says to me, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna do this again.’ And I said, ‘That’s fine, but you’ll never be in [such great] shape again, you know.’ When making a movie, the production comes first, the actors come second, and they are not going to hold the production up for you to get in shape.”
Furthermore, in the same year that Columbu gave the interview, Schwarzenegger had become Governor of California. Understandably, then, the interviewer asked Columbu how he thought his famous friend would perform in his new role. And the former bodybuilder responded, “Arnold will do well because he keeps things very simple.”
Columbu went on, “[Schwarzenegger] put up his own money to run the [gubernatorial] campaign, and he won. So, he doesn’t have any debts owed to anyone, if you know what I mean. He owes no favors. He keeps things simple – very simple. He will make it work.” And he did; indeed, Schwarzenegger is still a part of American politics to this day.
Columbu also talked about Schwarzenegger to CNN in 2003, during which he divulged details about the pair’s first meeting. At that time, the Austrian Oak had told his buddy that the two of them should train together; in addition, Schwarzenegger had apparently claimed that he ultimately wanted to be Mr. Universe. Columbu continued, “And that actually happened. [Schwarzenegger’s] ambition was step by step to go higher and higher.”
And when CNN asked Columbu if Schwarzenegger’s move into politics had surprised him, it turned out that apparently it hadn’t. Of his friend, Columbu said, “When I came here, like, six, eight months later after him in the ’70s, we used to watch TV. We only watched the news media and the politics because we were not familiar with football, baseball and other sports. And we were, like, so interested in America going to the moon and all of [those] kind of things.”
Schwarzenegger’s time in power had benefits for Columbu to boot, as the governor would go on to appoint his buddy to the California Chiropractic State Board in 2006. A alumnus of Cleveland Chiropractic College in Los Angeles, Columbu had been practicing since 1977. In his new job, then, he would be making sure that regulations governing chiropractors in California were correctly adhered to.
But as Schwarzenegger ran for governor in 2003, there was some consternation about the steroids that he had admitted to occasionally taking during his bodybuilding days. There was even speculation that the star was on dialysis as a result of steroid abuse. Columbu firmly denied this, however, when speaking to Time magazine that year.
Indeed, Columbu said that his old friend was “absolutely not” on dialysis thanks to steroids or anything else. He added, “The first time I heard the dialysis rumor was when we were skiing in Sun Valley. I got a call from someone telling me that [Schwarzenegger] was on dialysis, and I said, ‘No, he’s not. He’s here skiing with me.’”
And when Columbu chatted about his life to website The Arnold Fans in 2013, he mentioned the steroids issue again. The former bodybuilder explained, “When I said to [Schwarzenegger], I heard they’re taking some kind of steroid in the gym, he was like ‘Come on, what do you want to do? Train or take steroids?’ I said, ‘Okay, let’s go. Let’s train.’”
Columbu added, “[Schwarzenegger] pushed me to get to the gym. I put on more weight, and then I pushed him to go heavier, too. There was nothing better [in] the way we did things. We were the best. We went forward so fast in the [bodybuilding world]. I mean, so much improvement!”
In his interview with The Arnold Fans, Columbu also opened up about the period when he and Schwarzenegger had been bricklayers. He said, “Joe Weider was a little stingy. Arnold got more money than I did. He got $80 a week, and I only got $60. So that’s why we needed more work, and [we] did some construction because we needed more money to buy food.”
However, having to turn to building work ended up being a blessing in disguise for both men. Columbu went on, “What I discovered was when we ate and did construction, we got continuous definition. Meanwhile, the other guys were lying down at the beach all day lying down and getting bloated.”
And Columbu revealed, too, just how much he would like to appear in Schwarzenegger’s movies again – particularly in any new Conan film. He said, “Now that’s a movie I want to be in. I can come back and keep doing the same thing like scouting and running. That will be a good thing to do. I actually think that [Schwarzenegger] will be better for Conan right now than then.”
Columbu added, “Back then, [Schwarzenegger] was almost too young, almost like a kid. But now the way I see him as Conan… Well, you go back thousands of years; the guys in the tribes who were really wise and knew what to do to survive in the forest or against animals were the older guys. The most feared men in the tribe were the old guys.”
Six years after giving that interview, though, Columbu suddenly passed away. While swimming close to the Italian island of Sardinia on August 30, 2019, the 78-year-old is said to have experienced a sudden ailment and subsequently died as he was being taken to hospital. He left behind wife Deborah and daughter Maria.
And on the day that Columbu passed away, Schwarzenegger released a long and very touching tribute on Instagram to his friend. The message began, “Franco, you’ve heard me say that I don’t like when people call me a self-made man. You’ve even heard me say that you’re part of the reason I could never accept that label.”
Schwarzenegger continued to talk directly to his old buddy, writing, “But I wanted you to know why [I don’t like being called a self-made man]. From the minute we met in Munich, you were my partner in crime. We pushed each other, we competed with each other, and we laughed at every moment along the way.”
Schwarzenegger went on, “When I finally got to America, I was alone. I’d left my family, my country, my whole life behind. So when I asked Joe Weider to bring you to train with me, it was because I knew I wasn’t the same without my best friend. I could thrive without money, without my parents, but I couldn’t thrive without you.”
Apparently, Schwarzenegger actually never had a good relationship with his mom and dad. In 2004 he told Fortune magazine what his life had been like while growing up, saying, “My hair was pulled, [and] I was hit with belts. So was the kid next door. It was just the way it was. Many of the children I’ve seen were broken by their parents, which was the German-Austrian mentality.”
In the same interview, Schwarzenegger explained, “Therefore, I became a rebel. Every time I got hit, and every time someone said, ‘You can’t do this,’ I said, ‘This is not going to be for much longer because I’m going to move out of here. I want to be rich. I want to be somebody.’” Under those circumstances, a person needs a friend, and Schwarzenegger had Columbu.
Schwarzenegger himself said as much in his Instagram tribute. He continued, “I am devastated today. But I am also so, so grateful for the 54 years of friendship and joy we shared. The pumps, the chess games, the construction work, the meals, the pranks, the life lessons – we did it all together. We grew, and we learned, and we loved.”
Touchingly, Schwarzenegger added to Columbu, “My life was more fun, more colorful and more complete because of you. I will always miss you. But I’ll also know that a part of you lives on in me, in Debbie, in Maria and in the millions of people you inspired every day you lived. And I will be there for Maria and Debbie, so you can rest now with no worries.”
Finishing his Instagram tribute, Schwarzenegger went on, “I love you, Franco. I will always remember the joy you brought to my life, the advices you gave me and the twinkle in your eye that never disappeared. You were my best friend. Love always, Arnold.”
And people would send their sympathies to Schwarzenegger in the Instagram comments, with one writing, “Franco was a legend and a great inspiration to millions, including me. I am so, so sorry for your loss. Much love.” Another added of Schwarzenegger and Columbu, “You are both heroes and great champions in the game of life, and your friendship has always been an inspiring expression of humanity.”
But Schwarzenegger wasn’t the only one to post a heartfelt tribute to Columbu; the actor’s ex-wife, Maria Shriver, did so, too. Alongside a picture of her, Schwarzenegger and Columbu together, Shriver wrote on Instagram, “Franco was Arnold’s best friend. I loved the friendship they had. It was the real thing, and it stood the test of time. It was funny, kind, honest and loving.”
Shriver went on in her post, “[Schwarzenegger and Columbu] shared a love of hard work, chess, bodybuilding and family. Franco was family. [He] was also a great friend to me and all our children. He was always loving, always supportive and encouraging to the very end. A friend for more than 40 years.”
Shriver added, “Franco was also our daughter Christina’s godfather. He never missed a birthday, and he always showed up for her. My heart goes out to Debbie and Maria. God bless you.” Together, Shriver and Schwarzenegger have four children in all: Christina, Katherine, Christopher and Patrick.
But according to fellow bodybuilder Ric Drasin, Columbu’s death may have been due to drowning. Offering his thoughts on his late friend’s passing, Drasin said in an August 2019 YouTube video, “Never in a million years would I thought that would have happened. It was such a surprise, and I’m still in shock.”
Drasin alleged in his video that Columbu had “decided to go swimming in the ocean… Apparently he jumped in, went down and didn’t come up.” He continued, “[Columbu’s] publicist had to pull him up and tried to revive him, and [then he] called the paramedics. They rushed [Columbu into] hospital, but he was already gone from drowning.”
Drasin continued, “[Columbu] had no physical problems that I knew of. He was just healthy. But to drown is a tragedy.” First and foremost, though, he remembered the kind of person that Columbu had been, saying of his friend, “He always had a lot of fun in the gym. He had a lot of fun with all of us, and we would all go out to eat, and he would just be one of the guys. Just like Arnold, they were all great, good people.”
Now, Schwarzenegger is gearing up for a new Terminator movie that sees him reprise the role he made famous in the 1980s. After that, the sky is practically the limit – not least because he’s still massively popular as a movie star. But as the actor himself has told the world, it was his friendship with Columbu that helped get him to that point.