George Butler, an adventurous filmmaker who skillfully explored the bodybuilding subculture in “Pumping Iron,” a documentary starring then little-known Arnold Schwarzenegger as a charismatic center, died on October 21 at his home in Holderness, NH. He was 78 years old.
The cause was pneumonia, his son Desmond said.
“Pumping Iron” (1977) launched the British-born Mr. Butler on an eclectic journey as a documentary filmmaker: he went on to make films about Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica; endangered Bengal tigers in the Sundarbans, a mangrove forest in India and Bangladesh; the exploration of Mars by robotic vehicle; and his longtime friend, Senator John Kerry.
“He said films should take people to places they couldn’t imagine, not just places they hadn’t been,” said Caroline Alexander, his longtime companion and screenwriter, by phone. co-writer of five of his documentaries.
Mr. Butler’s best-known film is “Pumping Iron,” which he directed with Robert Fiore. He is credited with helping bodybuilders escape their niche as physical curiosities and gain recognition as serious athletes.
Mr. Butler told the New York Daily News in 1977 that there was a “myth” that bodybuilders were “narcissistic, stupid, uncoordinated muscleheads”. On the contrary, he said, they were actually “addicted to other sports – some at a professional level.”
“Pumping Iron” (with some scripted footage) focused on a group of bodybuilders as they trained at Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, Calif., And competed in 1975, some for the Mr. Universe title and others for Mr. Olympia, in Pretoria, South Africa. The film paid particular attention to the intense rivalry between Mr. Schwarzenegger, five-time Mr. Olympia, and the shy Lou Ferrigno, who was cast shortly after in the title role of the television series “The Incredible Hulk”.
Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times praised “Pumping Iron” for treating bodybuilders “without compassion or ridicule, but rather with steadfast, cool detachment – even when they are naked manipulators themselves – making it a movie. smooth, artfully calculated, great fun and enjoyable experience.
George Tyssen Butler was born October 12, 1943 in Chester, England, and raised in Wales, Somalia, Kenya and Jamaica. His father, Desmond, was an Irish-born British Army officer who later ran an Avis plantation and rental car franchise in Jamaica. His mother, Dorothy (West) Butler, owned a restaurant business and rental properties in Jamaica.
George’s sense of adventure was stoked in Somalia, where he drank camel milk and hunted for dinner with his father. While living in Jamaica, he lifted weights in a gym in Montego Bay.
He graduated from Groton School in Massachusetts, then received a BA in English from the University of North Carolina and an MA in Creative Writing from Hollins College (now University) in Roanoke, Virginia. He then joined Vista (now AmeriCorps Vista), the national service program, in Detroit, where he started a community newspaper and began taking photos of the city after devastating riots.
His friendship with Mr. Kerry, future senator and secretary of state for Massachusetts, began in 1964, when they met at a party. In 1971, he accompanied Mr. Kerry when Mr. Kerry testified emotionally against the Vietnam War before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was editor and photographer for “The New Soldier,” Mr. Kerry’s book on the Washington protests by Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Mr. Butler’s involvement in bodybuilding began in the early 1970s, when he took competition photos for Life magazine and The Village Voice. He and Charles Gaines, the author of “Stay Hungry,” a 1972 bodybuilding novel, teamed up for a Sports Illustrated article about a competition in Holyoke, Mass. At another event, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Mr. Butler watched Mr. Schwarzenegger pose for a captivated audience.
“When he came out for it, the crowd erupted in applause and cheers unlike any I’ve seen before,” Mr. Butler told Muscular Development magazine in 2016.
In a phone interview, Mr. Gaines said, “George and I were also impressed with Arnold, who we thought was something more than just a bodybuilding champion. We decided the subject was interesting enough to warrant a book.
Their book, “Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Bodybuilding” (1974), was a success – by 1982 it had sold 258,000 copies – and led to the making of the documentary, for which Mr. Butler and Mr. Gaines wrote the screenplay.
But when potential investors saw the 10-minute test film Mr. Butler had made, starring Mr. Schwarzenegger, the response was silence. He told Muscular Development that playwright Romulus Linney stood up to say, “If you’re making a movie about that person Arnold, we’ll make you laugh on 42nd Street.”
Mr. Butler raised several thousand dollars from attendees at a bodybuilding exhibit he hosted at the Whitney Museum in Manhattan, featuring Mr. Schwarzenegger and others, and collected the remainder from various other sources, including his mother-in-law.
Mr Schwarzenegger, in a statement after Mr Butler’s death, praised him for his “fantastic eye” and said he had been “a force for the sport of bodybuilding and the fitness crusade”.
Other Mr. Butler films included “In the Blood” (1989), which linked a big game hunt by Teddy Roosevelt in 1909 to a modern African expedition by Mr. Butler and his son Tyssen, and “The Endurance : Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Adventure “(2000). Other projects included a book of photographs by Mr. Schwarzenegger.
He adapted Shackleton’s film for the Imax screen under the title “Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure” (2001), adding an additional element by enlisting three climbers to trace the expedition’s overland route.
In 2004, he produced and directed “Going Uppriver,” on Mr. Kerry’s navy service and anti-war activism, for which Mr. Butler drew inspiration from some of the 6,000 photographs he took. by Mr. Kerry.
He then directed a second Imax film, “Roving Mars” (2006), about the journey of two rovers sent by NASA to explore the planet and the images they transmitted to Earth; “The Lord God Bird” (2008), on the futile search for the rare ivory-billed woodpecker, which was declared extinct last month; and “Tiger, Tiger,” which followed the big cat environmentalist Alan Rabinowitz, who had been diagnosed with leukemia, to the Sundarbans. Mr. Butler himself was battling the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease while he created “Tiger, Tiger”.
An Imax version of “Tiger, Tiger” is expected to be released next year.
“Alan was on what could have been his last quest,” said Ms Alexander, his partner, “to do what he could for this animal, which was under a death sentence.” Mr. Rabinowitz passed away in 2018.
Besides Mrs. Alexander and her two sons, Mr. Butler is survived by a brother, Richard, and six grandchildren. His marriage to Victoria Leiter ended in divorce.
Mr. Butler was not done with bodybuilding after “Pumping Iron”. In 1985 he focused on female bodybuilders like Rachel McLish and Bev Francis in “Pumping Iron II: The Women”.
In her book “Moving Beyond Words” (1994), Gloria Steinem called this film a “historic detonator” and said that it “started a revolution in our ideas about the female body which is still ongoing”.