George Butler, ‘Pumping Iron’ Filmmaker, Dies at 78

Bodybuilding documentary made Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name

Pumping Iron Arnold Schwarzenegger George Butler
Cinema 5/Creative Commons

George Butler, filmmaker known for the bodybuilding documentary “Pumping Iron” about the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition between Arnold Schwarzenegger and future “Incredible Hulk” star Lou Ferrigno, has died. He was 78.

His son, Washington Post reporter Desmond Butler, said his father was battling pneumonia before he died on his Holderness, New Hampshire, farm on Oct. 21, according to the LA Times,

Butler, who grew up in Somalia and Jamaica, directed nearly a dozen films during his 40-year career. With a master’s degree in creative writing from Hollins College (now Hollins University) in Roanoke, Virginia, under his belt, he got a job as a reporter at Newsweek. As an objector of the Vietnam War, he joined VISTA (now AmeriCorps Vista), the national service program, in Detroit, and started a community newspaper called The Oakland Lion.

A photo assignment from Life magazine to cover the 1972 Mr. Universe Championship led Butler to make a documentary about bodybuilding. The result, “Pumping Iron,” not only put Schwarzenegger in the spotlight, it also debunked stereotypes about bodybuilding and brought the sport into mainstream.

Schwarzenegger tweeted a tribute to Butler the day after he died, calling him “a force for the sport of bodybuilding and the fitness crusade.”

Among Butler’s other films were “In the Blood” (1989), a modern expedition in Africa by Butler and his son Tyssen, which grew out of inspiration from a big-game hunt by Teddy Roosevelt in 1909; “The Endurance” (2000) about Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic voyage; “Going Upriver” (2004), a glimpse into former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s service in the Vietnam War; and “Roving Mars” (2006), about the Mars Exploration Rovers.

Due out next year, his latest work, “Tiger, Tiger,” follows a big cat conservationist Alan Rabinowitz through India and Bangladesh on a limited clock due to Rabinowitz’s leukemia diagnosis. It was during the making of “Tiger, Tiger” that Butler began to suffer symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

Butler is survived by a brother, Richard; longtime companion, writer and filmmaker Caroline Alexander; his sons Desmond and Tyssen; and six grandchildren.