Not Everybody Was On Board With Arnold Schwarzenegger's Total Recall Casting

By now, we've all come to accept Arnold Schwarzenegger in pretty much any acting role he feels like filling. We've seen him follow a complete arc from action hero to comedy star to real-life politician, and at this point, it's become normal that he once played Danny Devito's brother and a male scientist that impregnated himself. In 1996's "Jingle All The Way," director Brian Levant showed us Schwarzenegger as just an ordinary family man, shortly after James Cameron portrayed him as a secret agent that defrauds his family into believing he's an average guy. He might not always be very believable in any of these roles, but he's far more convincing than he has any right to be.

In 2022, we've gotten used to these performances, and we can look back with nostalgia, numb to the absurdity of them all. But back in 1990, the idea of casting Schwarzenegger as the everyman was not Hollywood's first intuition.

A dream deferred

After reading an early draft of the script by future "Alien" writers Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon based on a Philip K. Dick novelette from 1966, Schwarzenegger had an immediate interest in starring "Total Recall." Sadly for him, Dino De Laurentiis — a self-made producer from Italy whose studio was behind "Flash Gordon" (1980), "Conan the Barbarian" (1982), and David Lynch's "Dune" (1984) and "Blue Velvet" (1986) — owned the rights to the source material. In a June 2020 interview with The Ringer, Schwarzenegger remembered the producer's response well:

"I've been chasing for years, years, years...Because Dino De Laurentiis had it. And he always felt, 'Schwarzenegger, I'd like you to be 'Conan.' I don't like you to be in 'Total Recall.' I have Jeff Bridges.'"

With De Laurentiis cold on the idea of casting Schwarzenegger, the actor instead turned to making films like "Red Heat" and "Twins" in 1988. Meanwhile, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group set out to make "Total Recall" without him, with Patrick Swayze and Richard Dreyfuss as contenders for the leading role, and Bruce Beresford and David Cronenberg (we can tell you how that would've gone) considered for the directing chair. As Schwarzenegger was expanding his resume and range, opportunity knocked in 1988 when De Laurentiis' studio went bankrupt while "Total Recall" set construction was already underway in Australia and $8 million had been spent on pre-production.

Seizing the moment

Schwarzenegger remembers that his reaction to learning about De Laurentiis' company was instant, "As soon as I read that, I said to myself ... He owns 'Total Recall.'" He called his collaborators from Carolco Pictures, investors Mario Kassar and Andrew Vanja, with whom he'd made "Red Heat," to notify them of the opportunity. The two men swiftly bought the rights, including taking on the film's production costs, as Schwarzenegger recalls:

"Literally the next day...It was immediate action. That's the way those guys operated, Andy and Mario."

Now with immense creative control over the production, Schwarzenegger personally hired Dutch director Paul Verhoeven of "RoboCop" (1987) acclaim for the only project they would work on together in their careers. In turn, Verhoeven hired Gary Goldman, writer of John, Carpenter's "Big Trouble in Little China" (1986), who had a simple fix for fitting Schwarzenegger into the lead role: his character Doug Quaid would be a jackhammer-wielding construction worker. At 82 years old, Verhoeven told The Ringer:

"The original character in the original script is a measly accountant...That would be silly with Arnold."

If Dino De Laurentiis had entertained the same solution, maybe we would have gotten "Total Recall" sooner. But in that case, we wouldn't have gotten to see Schwarzenegger's full vision for the film, which would open a path for him to take on adjacent roles in the future and shake up what's possible in casting along the way. Ask Vin Diesel or The Rock.