By Tommy Chong
I met Arnold Schwarzenegger at Gold’s Gym in 1968, when he first arrived from Europe. He was 21 years old and could barely speak English. He was the talk of the bodybuilding world and had already won his first Mr. Universe title, in the 1967 competition sponsored by NABBA (the National Amateur Body Builders Association)—a contest he would dominate for the next three years.
Steroids and Arnold arrived at the same time, and Arnold took big muscles to new heights. But as big as Arnold was (20-inch arms!), he still managed to lose the Mr. Universe contest sponsored that year by a rival group, the International Federation of Body Builders, to an American named Frank Zane. According to the gossip at Gold’s Gym, Zane was a master in the use of steroids, and it was this skill that propelled him past Arnold for the IFBB title in ’68. But Arnold was a fearsome competitor—as anyone who saw him at the gym could tell you—and the following year he went on to take both Mr. Universe titles.
At the time, Gold’s Gym was really the best men’s club in the world. Eventually, as more and more people flocked to the tiny gym, the success actually turned Joe Gold off. He really just wanted a place where he and his bodybuilding friends could have a good workout without being bothered. He had started the gym in his garage, and his experience as a welder/machinist came in handy building the early dumbbell and barbell sets, along with the benches for presses.
Then the garage became too cramped, so Joe found a storefront in Venice and opened up the first Gold’s Gym. The building is still standing with the original sign, although it’s now a residence. This was the gym where all the greats gathered. And this was where Zabo (a.k.a. “the Chief”) lived for a few months, sleeping on the sit-up board.
Zabo was the manager and co-creator of Gold’s Gym, and he was already known throughout the bodybuilding world as “Mr. Natural,” a living legend due to his incredible body and devotion to the sport. And although Zabo never took steroids, he was very much into marijuana. A dedicated pot smoker, the Chief had a clear mission in life: to work out, get high, lay in the sun and “service” the ladies.
When I arrived in Venice Beach in 1968, I had the same goals, except that I’d added “writing songs” to the list. I became friends with Zabo as soon as I joined, because he could never remember if I’d paid my membership dues, which were a total of 30 bucks for three months. Whenever I appeared at the gym, Zabo would eventually come up and ask, “Are you a member here?”
To which I would reply: “Yeah.”
Then he’d look at me for a second and go: “Oh, yeah—Tommy, right?”
Back in those days, the mantra given to each new customer was “$30 for three months, no instruction, and put the weights back where you found them.” And that was it! “No instruction” meant Zabo wasn’t about to baby anyone in the gym. If you did an exercise wrong, or if you did an exercise that was bad for you, such as side bends with a dumbbell—that was too bad. Giving instruction in those days was a waste of time, because only dedicated bodybuilders used the gym, and those guys didn’t need it. Most of them already knew what they were doing, having read the available literature and learned the routines used by champions.
But Zabo took a liking to me and would, on occasion, correct what I was doing, because he realized I was one of the few guys there who would actually listen when told what to do. This put me into Zabo’s inner circle, which included all the top guys at the time, like Dave Draper, Frank Zane and, of course, Arnold. Zabo eventually moved into a little cottage within walking distance of the gym. It was at this house that some of the biggest men in the sport gathered to smoke the herb.
Zabo had a hookah with one pipe stem that he used whenever he had guests over for a toke. He would load the bowl with a big pinch of bud (a quarter of an ounce) and then fire it up, taking a huge bodybuilder’s toke. The trick was to eventually pull so hard that the burning pot would be sucked down and explode in the water. That meant taking an enormous hit, which would be held in those healthy, oversized lungs for a long time without coughing.
The pot was usually old-fashioned Mexican weed with seeds. (This was before the seedless variety.) But one strain—probably Colombian—was potent enough to put you to bed. My recollection is that the nasty stems-and-seeds weed was available for $20 to $50 a kilo at the time, but I’m not real sure about prices, because I never bought weed in those days. I smoked whatever was handed to me, and enough was handed to me that I was continually smiling at the world.
Arnold loved the competition at Zabo’s, so he would try to outdo Dave Draper, who, after taking an even bigger toke, would hold in the smoke even longer. When the pipe was handed to me, I knew I couldn’t even come close to these guys, so I politely took the tiniest toke, then proceeded to cough my lungs out, to the merriment of my fellow tokers.
I wasn’t embarrassed in the least, because I was happy just to be included in this once-in-a-lifetime moment. Working out in the same gym with these guys was a thrill, so sharing a bong with them was a dream come true. And the fact that I was a nobody back then also shows the humanity and love these special men possessed. I was the only guy in the room that hadn’t made his mark on the bodybuilding scene. Most of them had won at least one major contest in their young lives; meanwhile, I was a skinny little gym rat who did his workout at the lighter end of the weight rack, trying not to get in anybody’s way, especially when the giants did their supersets.
An example of a superset was for these guys to start at one end of the weight rack and do as many reps (repetitions) as possible with the lightest pair of dumbbells, then move on to the next heavier pair, until they were curling 190 pounds in either hand. This was done nonstop; the pain was so intense that the screams coming out of their mouths were animalistic. The misconception that somehow bodybuilding is not a sport, and that all these supermen had to do was inject steroids into their bodies to magically become big and muscular, amazes me to this day.
I was there: I saw their workouts with my own eyes. These amazing men also had as much knowledge of the body—and probably more knowledge of nutrition—than most doctors. And yet they took time out of their hectic workout schedule to smoke pot. I think that says it all when it comes to the propaganda and lies that the U.S. government has been spreading for years about the health risks of marijuana.
Zabo also cleaned the gym at night before closing shop. I worked out late, so I would help him put the weights away. He’d always vacuum the place by hand and never used an extension; instead, he would stoop down low to pick up the dirt. When I suggested that an extension would make the job easier, Zabo replied, “Come on, we come here for a workout. A little bending won’t hurt—and besides, I lost the extension months ago.”
On one occasion, Zabo invited me for a “little run.” I accepted the invitation—which was a mistake, since that “little run” turned out to be a fucking marathon. He said, “We’ll just go around the block a couple of times,” and added that the reason he was running was that he was feeling sick and couldn’t work out.
I found out later that Zabo had been a scout during the Second World War and had contacted malaria in the jungles during the 12 months he was behind enemy lines. The virus was in his blood, and he would have attacks on occasion and couldn’t lift weights, so he would run “a few miles” instead. But Zabo ran like he worked out—fast and insane.
He took off like a shot, with me running as fast as I could to keep up with him, but soon he was a speck on the horizon, so I said fuck it and slowed down to my customary crawl. I hobbled back to the gym and waited for Zabo, but he was gone like a cool breeze, so I did my little workout and hung around. I wanted to see how long Zabo’s “little run” would take. I finally gave up after two hours.
Zabo worked on Things Are Tough All Over, the Cheech & Chong movie where Cheech and I played funny Arabs. Zabo was my double, so he did a lot of work in the film. We shot Zabo’s part in Las Vegas.
One day, when we were shooting some desert stuff that didn’t require Zabo’s presence, he joined us for lunch anyway: He ran 25 miles out to the location, had lunch, then ran 25 miles back to Vegas, where he probably did a workout with weights before he ended his day.
Zabo had won so many trophies during his long career that one day Steve, his friend and landlord, came home and found them out on the sidewalk, stacked in boxes alongside the garbage. “What’s going on here?” Steve asked. Zabo replied, “I don’t need that shit.”
Steve—who, like the rest of us, was a big Zabo fan—decided to rescue some of the more important trophies. One reason that Zabo had so many: When bodybuilding contests first began in the 1930s (BS—Before Steroids), the judges would award a different trophy for every part of the body, such as best arms, best legs, best back, etc. This was because different men were well developed in different areas, and the overall trophy was given to the all-around best-proportioned man.
Zabo had injured his shoulder in a diving accident, so he lacked shoulder size, but he had everything else and then some. He maintained an extremely healthy diet, but he also enjoyed life to the fullest—and when it came to his legendary body, the size extended to all the important parts. In fact, one of the reasons some of us thought Zabo never used steroids was the rumor that it decreased penis size. This was one body part that, if it had its own category, Zabo would’ve won in a heartbeat, without having to expose the entire monster.
Zabo is 83 years old now, and he still has regular customers visiting him (including many gorgeous women). I could write a book on the legend of Zabo’s monster, but this is an article about getting high with the Governator, so maybe next time.
I recently ran into Arnold at the Starbucks in Brentwood where he has breakfast, and he recognized me immediately. He smiled as if remembering those carefree times and said, “We both had dreams, didn’t we?” I smiled back and thought to myself: “Yeah, we both did.” I dreamed about becoming a successful writer, and Arnold about becoming a famous movie star. We both fulfilled our wildest dreams. We both started with nothing and became insanely successful.
The question is: How much of a role did pot play in our success? It played an enormous part in my success, obviously, because I went on to make movies like Up In Smoke and Nice Dreams. But although Arnold smoked a joint in Pumping Iron, his success has not been pot-related—or has it? After all, when the Beatles landed in New York for their first American tour, Bob Dylan turned them on to pot—and we all know what that started.
When Arnold landed in America, Zabo turned him on to pot, and now Arnold is the governor of California—after an enormously successful career in bodybuilding and Hollywood. So is there something about pot that changes people? Does it tap into some unseen spiritual side, helping to connect us with the real world where everything and anything is possible? I’m convinced that it does. I personally feel connected to the spiritual world whenever I smoke pot—but maybe that’s because I’m already aware of the spiritual world. Whatever!
In the end, what I do know for certain is that I smoked with the Governator, and he remembered … and that was so sweet!
Read the full issue here.