Arnold Schwarzenegger Had One Big Problem With James Cameron's Terminator 2 Script

25 years prior to visiting Pandora and more than a decade before he sunk the Titanic, James Cameron made a name for himself by directing 1984's "The Terminator." (Yep, that was definitely the first movie he directed, no idea why anyone would think otherwise...) But as lucrative as the sci-fi thriller was, it was 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" that gave Cameron his first real taste of mega-blockbuster success.

Where "The Terminator" is basically a low-budget slasher film with a cyborg assassin from the future as its villain, "Judgment Day" blends sci-fi horror, big action, and an earnest rumination on parenthood and human nature. The "Terminator" sequel similarly evolves Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor from Final Girl to hardened warrior ready to battle the machines, yet also deeply traumatized by her past experiences and locked away from her son John (Edward Furlong), who will grow up to lead the human resistance. But as dramatic as Hamilton's transformation for the sequel was, that wasn't its most shocking element. No, the movie's biggest rug-pull was making Arnold Schwarzenegger's T-800 the hero, pitting him against Peacemaker's garbage dad, Robert Patrick, as the shape-shifting, liquid-metal T-1000.

'I don't kill anybody and I'm the Terminator'

By the time Cameron began working on the "Judgment Day" script with "The Terminator" co-writer William Wisher, Schwarzenegger had become a full-blown action star, building on his breakout turn in Cameron's 1984 movie with roles in hits like "Commando" and "Predator." As Wisher recounted in The Ringer's oral history of "Judgment Day" for its 30th anniversary in June 2021, "We had to call Arnold up and go, 'We've got this great idea.' He listened to us and he said, 'Just make me cool.'"

However, upon reading their screenplay, Cameron revealed that Schwarzenegger was more confused than enthused:

"He and I had a breakfast meeting. Arnold always had the same thing — oatmeal with nuts and dates and fruit in it — so that's what I had. I could tell there was something bugging him, right? We were pals at this point. Post-'Terminator,' we rode motorcycles together. And he said, 'Jim, I have a big problem with the script.' I said, 'Well, what is it?' And he said, 'I don't kill anybody.' I said, 'I know, right? They'll never see that coming. Nobody will guess it.' He said, 'I know, but one thing is surprise. Another thing is I don't kill anybody and I'm the Terminator.'"

It's easier to understand Schwarzenegger's critique when you remember where he was at that stage in his acting career. After films like "The Terminator" and "Commando," audiences were not only accustomed to watching the former champion bodybuilder murder hordes of people in his movies while tossing out cheesy one-liners, they expected it. Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven even satirized the wanton violence and vulgarity of Schwarzenegger's '80s shoot-em-ups with 1990's "Total Recall," a film adaptation of the Philip K. Dick sci-fi short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." As such, a "Terminator" sequel where he deliberately doesn't kill anyone seemed like an inherently risky move to him.

'If we pull it off, it will be huge'

Realizing his pitch wasn't going over the way he had hoped, Cameron said he gave Schwarzenegger "all the reasons how it's going to work," hoping to win him over. Once again, though, the latter was more concerned about how his fans were going to react to the T-800 going out of its way to avoid killing any humans under the young John Connor's orders. "[Everybody] knows I kick in the door and shoot everybody. That's what I do," as Schwarzenegger told the filmmaker. He added:

"How do you make people believe that this is the same guy we've seen in the first 'Terminator'? Now all of a sudden, he's protecting the human race and protecting this kid? How do I switch over to that?"

This conversation is all the funnier in hindsight when you recall that "Judgment Day" opens with the T-800 beating up a group of bikers by throwing one out a window and stabbing another with his own knife. He proceeds to spend the rest of the movie tossing around any people who get in his way and blowing up all sorts of vehicles (once their human passengers are safely out of range), all the while delivering cheesy catch phrases like, "Hasta la vista, baby." That is to say, it's not like the "Terminator" sequel didn't offer the goods when it came to Schwarzenegger's (forgive the term) brand.

All the same, Schwarzenegger had a hard time wrapping his head around the idea that moviegoers expecting him to go full-villain wouldn't be disappointed by him changing teams in "Judgment Day. " The actor recalled, "It was strange, but I thought, 'If we pull it off, it will be huge,'" adding that he finally came around after some further convincing from Cameron. One multi-Oscar-winning box office juggernaut later, it turned out Schwarzenegger was very much correct.