The Secret History Behind The Terminator

Terminator Week

The Terminator was never designed to be a franchise but when a movie is so well done, it’s no surprise that Hollywood wants more. But it’s easy to forget that the first film was a very modestly budgeted (just $6 million) horror/thriller. Add in the sci-fi background to the story and that’s a tough sell, especially back in the early 80s. Expensive enough to make studios worry it won’t find its audience, but cheap enough that critics and the public could easily view it as b-movie schlock.

the terminator movie poster

Still, not only did it get made, it got made well and created careers for everyone involved. Let’s take a look at how James Cameron made it happen.


James Cameron does not like to admit it but the first film he directed was Piranha II: The Spawning, made in Italy in 1981. Cameron was originally the special effects director for the low-budget movie, made for B-movie king Roger Corman. But then the producers tasked Cameron with directing the movie. Along the way, he got very sick during the production. Cameron claims he had a fevered dream about a metallic torso crawling across the floor from an explosion with kitchen knives it its hands. Cameron wanted to break into the film industry like his contemporaries, including John Carpenter, that started with a low budget slasher horror movie. His dream was, he says, the genesis of the idea for The Terminator. When he finished Piranha II, he returned to California and began writing the script for The Terminator, collaborating with his friend Bill Wisher (who has a cameo as a police officer that the Terminator knocks out when the officer tries to help him off the hood of a car). Cameron has said in interviews that he was inspired by episodes of The Outer Limits as well as contemporary movies like Mad Max 2. Interestingly, writer Harlan Ellison sued the movie after it was released, claiming it was based on one of his episodes of Outer Limits called “Soldier,” about 2 time travelers on opposite sides of the war who travel back in time. Production company Orion eventually settled with Ellison for an undisclosed amount of money and put an acknowledgement credit in all future releases of the movie. Cameron claims he was never inspired by it and wanted to fight the case but it wasn’t up to him.

Cameron’s initial script had two cyborgs sent to the past. One was a traditional cyborg and the second was made of liquid metal and couldn’t be destroyed by conventional weapons. Cameron couldn’t figure out a way to properly depict the liquid metal robot so he revised his script to just one robot. Obviously, Cameron later pulled his liquid metal robot idea for the sequel movie, once he was able to procure a much higher budget and technology had advanced. Another early version of the script had the Terminator tracking Sarah Connor by looking for surgical pins in her leg from a childhood skating injury, leading to the Terminator cutting the other Sarah Connors’ legs open to confirm the identifying mark. The novelization of the movie changed this so that she ended up getting metal pins in her leg after the Terminator breaks it. Skynet knew of her injury but not when she got it, and ended up causing it.

terminator prop robot

Cameron’s obstacles to getting started were many. His own agent hated the script and told him to make something else. Cameron fired him. He needed someone to produce it. Enter Gale Ann Hurd, who he would later marry in 1985. Hurd had also begun her career with Roger Corman, as his executive assistant and worked her way up the ranks. She started a small production company in 1982 and convinced Cameron she could get Terminator made. Cameron agreed to sell the rights to her for one dollar in exchange for her promise that he would direct the film. Hurd claims she suggested edits to the script and got a credit but Cameron later said she did no writing on it at all. Either way, Hurd was able to convince Orion Pictures to distribute the movie and got Cameron a meeting with John Daly at Helmdale Pictures who ended up financing the movie, initially for a budget of around $4 million. Cameron had his friend, actor Lance Henriksen, show up to the meeting with Helmdale first, kicking the door open, dressed in leather jacket, shades and tinfoil over his teeth. After sitting there a while, Cameron finally came in and the staff at Helmdale was relieved. Different stories have different takes on whether Cameron intended to convince them that Henriksen should be the actual Terminator but Henriksen said he was just part of the presentation and he and Cameron never discussed him playing the titular character.


The Terminator‘s first casting decision was Kyle Reese, the soldier from the future who comes back in time to protect Sarah Connor from the Terminator. Orion wanted an up and coming star who would also have appeal to the foreign market and to that end, co-founder Mike Medavoy sent the script to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s agent. Cameron was concerned that if they cast Schwarzenegger as Reese, they’d have to find someone even bigger to play the Terminator, to effectively make him a scary opponent. To that end, O.J. Simpson was suggested but Cameron said, ironically, he did not believe Simpson would be believable as a killer. In 1990, Dark Horse Comics published some comics supposedly using Simpson’s likeness as a Terminator. Cameron took a meeting with Schwarzenneger and ended up liking what Arnold had to say about how the killer robot should be played. He ended up deciding Arnold would make a great Terminator.


Other names supposedly considered for the Terminator included Michael Douglas, Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson. Actress Jennifer Jason Leigh auditioned for Sarah Connor but Cameron thought she looked too young. She was instead cast as Connor’s roommate Ginger, but at the last minute she was recast with Bess Motta. James Cameron once said that Glenn Close was offered the role of Sarah Connor but she wasn’t available when filming was set to begin.

Arnold Schwarzenneger was not originally too enthusiastic about the movie. While filming Conan the Barbarian, he described the upcoming film as “some shit movie I’m doing” and in his memior, Total Recall, he said that he was hesitant about doing the movie but figured playing a robot would be a good challenge and that it would be low-profile enough that if it didn’t do well, it wouldn’t ruin his career. Names like musician Sting were considered for Kyle Reese but ultimately Michael Biehn was cast, followed by Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor. Cameron wanted to hire special effects artist Dick Smith (Godfather, Taxi Driver) but Smith turned him down and referred him to his friend Stan Winston, who created the prosthetics and Terminator endoskeleton, which would utilize stop-motion animation to move.


The movie immediately had a delay when it came time to film, initially scheduled for Toronto in early 1983. Arnold Schwarzenegger had an option on his Conan contract that was exercised and he was obligated to film Conan the Destroyer. This would delay filming for nine months. Cameron kept busy by taking a job writing the script for Rambo: First Blood Part II and then meeting with producers to discuss filming a sequel to Alien. He also worked on the Terminator script some more. Orion increased the budget a bit to $6 million but did not interfere much. They requested two changes: that Kyle Reese gets a robotic canine sidekick, which Cameron rejected, and that the love story between Reese and Connor get emphasized more, which Cameron agreed to work on.

james cameron directs linda hamilton

In March of 1984, the movie began filming, this time in Los Angeles. A week before they began filming, Linda Hamilton sprained her ankle. They moved as many scenes of her running to the end of the film, heavily wrapped her foot and she powered through it. Still, you can see that she is visibly limping when she runs away from the Terminator at the end of the movie.

Schwarzenegger commit to his role 100%. He worked with guns every day for a month so that he could shoot them without blinking and strip and reload them without looking, as well as focusing on being ambidextrous with them, all to further the idea that he is a machine. Schwarzenegger also had one of his bodybuilding pals cast, as he frequently did throughout the 70s and 80s. A dream sequence about the future features a terminator played by Franco Colombu, a multiple-time Mr. Olympia.

Shots from the Terminator’s point of view show a dump of the ROM assembler code for the Apple II operating system. If you own an Apple II, enter at the basic prompt: ] call -151 * p and it gives you the terminator code. Other code visible is written in COBOL.

One of the iconic lines of the film is The Terminator telling a police desk sergeant “I’ll be back.” Schwarzenneger had trouble pronouncing “I’ll” properly and argued he should say “I will be back” since he was a robot, but Cameron insisted he deliver the line as scripted. Cameron came to find Arnold’s thick accent a bonus for the cyborg, almost as though Skynet hadn’t quite been able to simulate an American voice.

The relationship between Cameron and Daly deteriorated during filming. Daly and Orion Pictures wanted to be known for their more prestige pictures like Platoon and Amadeus and began to view The Terminator as a small movie to turn a decent profit. Daly told Cameron to end the movie as soon as the tanker truck with the Terminator in it explodes. Cameron yelled at him that the movie wasn’t over yet and eventually Daly backed down and let the movie get finished. Cameron remained convinced that Orion did not really support the movie with many advertising dollars.


Orion Pictures was nervous about the movie bombing due to negative critical reviews and planned not to show it early to critics. The actors agents’ argued it should be screened and Orion held a single press screening. The film premiered on October 26, 1984 and ended up being the number one film two weeks in a row. It made $4 million in its first week and ultimately turned a nice profit in its theatrical run. The film ended up receiving very positive reviews as well. Variety praised its action scenes and Time placed it in its 10 best films of 1984 list. In 1985, the film was released on VHS and Betamax and performed very well. The Terminator premiered at number 35 on the top video cassette rentals and number 20 on top video cassette sales charts. In its second week, The Terminator reached number 4 on the top video cassette rentals and number 12 on top video cassette sales charts. The film was a success.

james cameron directing the terminator


Beyond the franchise that it eventually spawned, it boosted the careers of all involved. Schwarzenegger went on to be the biggest action star of the 80s and 90s. Cameron is one of the all-time most successful movie directors. It’s easy to look back and think of the huge action movie T2, but the original film was much more modest and was definitely played more as a horror movie using our Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation and our comeuppance from over-relying on technology. It delivered all this in a very efficient and action-packed package. The time-travel concepts that really just form a background texture ended up being too fascinating to let go of and Terminator not only inspired many ripoffs but its own creators all returned for Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The Terminator is the only character to end up in the American Film Institute’s 100 Heroes and Villains list as both a villain (for The Terminator) and a hero (for T2).