Franco Columbu, Bodybuilder Who Arnold Schwarzenegger Called ‘My Best Friend,’ Dies at 78

Former Mr. Olympian appeared alongside The Governator in “The Terminator,” “The Running Man” and “Conan the Barbarian”

Last Updated: August 31, 2019 @ 2:15 PM

Italian bodybuilder and the man Arnold Schwarzenegger called “my best friend,” Franco Columbu, died Friday after suffering a heart attack while swimming off the coast of Sardinia, Italy. He was 78.

According to the Italian news outlet, L’Unione Sarda, Columbu was transported to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Schwarzenegger paid homage to his old friend in an Instagram post, writing, “I am devastated today. But I am also so, so grateful for the 54 years of friendship and joy we shared.”

Read his tribute to Columbu in full below:

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Franco, You’ve heard me say that I don’t like when people call me a self-made man. You’ve even heard me say that you’re part of the reason I could never accept that label. But I wanted you to know why. From the minute we met in Munich, you were my partner in crime. We pushed each other, we competed with each other, and we laughed at every moment along the way. When I finally got to America, I was alone. I’d left my family, my country, my whole life behind. So when I asked Joe Weider to bring you to train with me, it was because I knew I wasn’t the same without my best friend. I could thrive without money, without my parents, but I couldn’t thrive without you. I am devastated today. But I am also so, so grateful for the 54 years of friendship and joy we shared. The pumps, the chess games, the construction work, the meals, the pranks, the life lessons – we did it all together. We grew and we learned and we loved. My life was more fun, more colorful, and more complete because of you. I will always miss you. But I’ll also know that a part of you lives on in me, in Debbie, in Maria, and in the millions of people you inspired every day you lived. And I will be there for Maria and Debbie, so you can rest now with no worries. I love you Franco. I will always remember the joy you brought to my life, the advices you gave me, and the twinkle in your eye that never disappeared. You were my best friend. Love always, Arnold

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Columbu — who frequently showed off his strength by, for example, blowing up a hot water bottle orally until it burst or lifting a car — became one of Schwarzenegger’s closest friend (and later training partner) after first meeting at a competition in 1965.

After Schwarzenegger retired from bodybuilding in 1976, Columbu because Mr. Olympia, a title which Schwarzenegger earned after coming out of retirement in 1980, and which Columbu won back in 1981. In 1986, he served as Schwarzenegger’s best man at his wedding to Maria Shriver.

He later went on to appear in the Schwarzenegger films “The Terminator,” “The Running Man” and “Conan the Barbarian,” and also had a small role in “Big Top Pee-wee.” Upon his retirement, Columbu became a licensed chiropractor and maintained a practice in Los Angeles for several years.

He is survived by his wife, Deborah, and their daughter, Maria.

Other celebrities also paid their respects: