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Will Schwarzenegger Ever Outlive “I’ll Be Back”?

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Very few people outside of the bodybuilding world had heard of Arnold Schwarzenegger prior to 1984. Upon his debut on the silver screen in The Terminator, Schwarzenegger instantly became a household name. And what is the one thing from that film everybody remembers? The classic line, “I’ll be back.”

The Terminator is 107 minutes of mostly nonstop action. The further you go in the film, the more suspenseful the story gets. Schwarzenegger’s character transitions from a hunky humanoid to full on cyborg during the course of the film. And despite all the story has to offer, Schwarzenegger’s now famous line is what most of us remember.

The question is, can Schwarzenegger ever outlive it? He used the line to his advantage when he ran for governor of California in 2003, and then again in 2007. The line follows him wherever he goes to this day. How he feels about it is anyone’s guess.

The Things We Remember

Public reception of The Terminator is an interesting study in how the human brain works. Some of the things we remember seem to be completely random when taken out of context. Other things we remember because of context, but they are so unimportant that forgetting them would be no big deal.

We remember the line, “I’ll be back.” But there is a second thing from The Terminator that most people who saw the film remember as well. What is it? Schwarzenegger’s black wayfarer sunglasses. The image of his character in the sunglasses was used to promote the film, which explains why it is burned into so many brains.

Here’s the thing: does Schwarzenegger in black wayfarers remind you of another actor in another film? A lot of people are reminded of Tom Cruise in Risky Business. Cruise’s character also donned a pair of black wayfarers, albeit for entirely different reasons. Place the two images side-by-side and the resemblance is striking.

What Makes You Sticks with You

The lesson here, at least for Hollywood types, is pretty simple: what makes you sticks with you. Arnold Schwarzenegger will be remembered long after his death for his role in The Terminator. Even today you can buy “I’ll be back” T-shirts from companies like Nerd Kung Fu. It is a safe bet those same shirts will still be selling long after Schwarzenegger’s death.

Note that Arnold is not the only actor who has been defined by a single character. If you are a Big Bang Theory fan, can you imagine Kaley Cuoco playing any role other than Penny? Will Jim Parsons ever be anyone other than Sheldon to you?

Plenty of actors have fought to move on from career-defining roles only to discover that they could not. Yul Brynner never escaped The King and I. Carol Channing never got out from under the shadow of Hello Dolly!. Judy Garland was forever Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

Not a Bad Legacy

If Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to escape his legacy as the Terminator, here’s hoping he succeeds. But even if not, it is not a bad legacy to leave. Any actor whose films remain popular for decades after their first release has definitely made a mark on the both the industry and the culture.

We will always remember “I’ll be back”. We will even use the phrase ourselves when the time is right. All of us who have seen the film will know exactly where the line comes from. And will remember Schwarzenegger at his acting finest, playing a role that seemed to be designed just for him. Isn’t that what every actor ultimately wants?

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