It seemed too good to be true. In the summer of 2016, just two days after the announcement of a TV series focused on 1970s bodybuilding in Venice, California came news of another at another network about 1980s bodybuilding in—yep—Venice. And the first was being developed by some dude named Arnold Schwarzenegger; the second had the backing of the Rock. An embarrassment of riches. Two TV shows! The right two people behind them! But over three years later, neither has materialized. What happened and what’s happening?
In the aftermath of Pumping Iron’s early 1977 release, TV had a brief fling with bodybuilding. It was fresh, it was visual, it was sexy and/or freaky. A long-forgotten and short-lived ABC comedy appeared later that year, The San Pedro Beach Bums, which featured a musclehead character (“Moose”); Arnold even guest-starred in the episode “Lifting Is My Life.” Also in 1977, Arnold was a psychopathic murderer in an episode of The Streets of San Francisco, which at least has a cool title, “Deadlift”; and Lou Ferrigno began going green on The Incredible Hulk.
In 1980, CBS aired a two-hour movie-of-the-week about Southern California bodybuilding, porn-titled The Hustler of Muscle Beach, which includes a workout scene inside Gold’s Gym (at its cramped second location in Santa Monica) and roles by legends Frank Zane, Franco Columbu, and Lisa Lyons. You can find it on YouTube, but that’s not a recommendation. The next year, Zane guest-starred as a gym owner (with solid gold barbells!) on an episode of Hart to Hart. But the Pumping Iron buzz had faded. Hollywood never figured out what to do with bodybuilding then—embrace it, mock it, fear it, champion it?—even as Arnold continued his ascent until, in the ’80s and ’90s, he was a box office phenomenon.
Some stories are better told as histories.
July 18, 2016. Pump, an hour-long drama, which was originally developed at Showtime and bounced to Hulu, landed at CBS. Arnold is one of the producers, and the proposed series is based on his and his muscular friends’ hedonistic exploits in and around Gold’s Gym in the early ’70s.
Arnold said: “The ’70s were such a colorful, transformational time, for me and for our entire country. I look forward to bringing that color to people’s living rooms with the fantastic, deep characters and the multi-layered storylines of Pump. I feel so passionate about this project because today it’s easy to take our gyms and culture of fitness for granted, but it all started with this wild group of bodybuilders as a tiny subculture in a little dungeon gym in Venice Beach.”
July 20, 2016. Muscle Beach, an hour-long drama, landed at the USA network. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is a producer. It’s also set largely in Gold’s Gym, but in the ’80s. The Rock posted on Instagram then: “[A] colorful tribe of lost souls struggle to reinvent themselves by bench-pressing their way to a bigger, better American dream, no matter what the cost. As the series explores the body-obsessed fitness movement that took the nation by storm during the supersized Reagan ’80s, the excess of the era, and the many temptations of Los Angeles. [It] will expose the dark side of chasing dreams.”
Over three years later, we’ve yet to hear anything more about Muscle Beach. USA—which embraces some edginess—seemed like a nurturing home at the time, but maybe not. As for Pump, the New York Post reported last August that Arnold was “in negotiations” to move it once again. That’s good news because grandma’s CBS never seemed like the ideal fit.
Here’s hoping either or both projects get produced by a network or streaming service where their stories can be told without constraints. That doesn’t seem promising now, but things can change fast.
For a long time, bodybuilding was hard to wedge into a TV format. A sitcom in a gym? Sigh. A drama with an exhausting 22 episodes per season, each with its own story? Yawn. But today with short seasons, serial plots, and adult content at places like FX, Netflix, and HBO, it’s easier to envision it working—with the right people behind the scenes and on the screen. Here’s an idea: Arnold and the Rock join forces and tell the tale of Venice bodybuilding in decades: ’60s in season one, ’70s in the next, ’80s in the third.
We might as well dream big. It’s all we have for now.
(Opening photo: AF archive/Alamy)