Franco Columbu is the former Mr. Olympia who died on August 30 at the age of 78. Columbu, a native of the island of Sardinia in Italy, long considered one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s closest friends and confidants. Columbu passed away just over three weeks after his 78th birthday. The bodybuilding legend is survived by his wife, Deborah and their daughter, Maria.
Columbu’s sad passing was first reported by multiple sources in his homeland. Columbu had lived since the 1970s in Los Angeles. The preface of his book, “Franco Columbu’s Complete Book of Bodybuilding,” reads, “Nobody embodies the American dream better than Franco Columbu.”
During his career, Columbu won Mr. Olympia, Mr. Universe, Mr. World, Mr. International, Mr. Europe and Mr. Italy. In 2009, Columbu was awarded the Arnold Classic Lifetime Achievement Award. Columbu was also in the Guinness Book of Records in 1978 for his ability to burst a hot water bottle by blowing into in 55 seconds. Columbu was inducted into the International Federation of Bodybuilding Hall of Fame in 2001. The world records set by Columbu, according to his website, are bench press 525 lbs., squat 655 lbs., and dead lift 750 lbs.
In the 1980s, Columbu made appearances in the Schwarzenegger movies, “The Terminator,” “Conan the Barbarian” and “The Running Man.” While in 1974, Columbu was featured on the cover of Grand Funk Railroad’s 1974 album, “All the Girls in the World Beware!!!” Arguably Columbu’s most famous contribution to movies is a scene in the movie, “Pumping Iron,” where he lifted up a cab in order to help another motorist park his car.
La Nuova reports that Columbu drowned while swimming at the beach in the town of San Teodoro in Sardinia at around 2 p.m. local time. Other reports says that Columbu suffered a heart attack while swimming. Emergency services airlifted Columbu to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Columbu Was Referred to as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘Squire’
An August 2003 Time Magazine cover story on Arnold Schwarzenegger, as “The Terminator” star was on the brink of becoming the governor of California, Columbu was described as being Schwarzenegger’s “Sancho Panza.” A reference to the titular character of “Don Quixote’s” best friend and squire, Sancho Panza. Columbu is quoted in the article as saying of Schwarzenegger’s political ambitions, “He wants to do a big, beneficial thing, more than a movie—like straightening out this problem in California.”
In the article, Columbu also defended Schwarzenegger against allegations that the Austrian-native was on dialysis due to steroid use. Columbu said, “The first time I heard the dialysis rumor was when we were skiing in Sun Valley. I got a call from someone telling me that Arnold was on dialysis, and I said, ‘No he’s not. He’s here skiing with me.” In addition to his friendship with Schwarzenegger, Columbu’s website homepage shows a photo of him training Sylvester Stallone. On Columbu’s IMDb page, it says that the Italian trained Stallone for the movie, “Rambo: First Blood Part II.”
Schwarzenegger penned a tribute to Columbu on Medium on August 30. It was titled, “To My Best Friend.” Schwarzenegger referred to Columbu as his “partner in crime” and said that during their time training together they “laughed at every moment along the way.” Schwarzenegger said, “I am devastated today. But I am also so, so grateful for the 54 years of friendship and joy we shared.” The post included images of the pair posing in their heyday, on movie sets together and playing chess in their later years.
2. Columbu Became a Chiropractor in the 1970s
Columbu left his hometown of Ollolai in Sardinia in the 1960s to go and work in Munich, Germany as a bricklayer. Fellow bodybuilder, Phil Laden, referred to Columbu as a “very good, Italian mason.” During this time, Columbu began training as a boxer where he first met Schwarzenegger. In the 1970s, the pair decided to move to Los Angeles together, according to a bio on Columbu’s website.
In his later years, Columbu became a chiropractor and nutritionist in Los Angeles. Columbo wrote several books on nutrition and fitness including, “Weight Training and Bodybuilding: A Complete Guide for Young Athletes.” He attained his qualifications at Cleveland Chiropractic College in 1977.
In 2006, Columbu was appointed to the state Board of Chiropractic Examiners in California by Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a press release, Columbu said that his approach to those suffering with injuries was to get back into training (exercise) quickly. The common approach was “non-activity.”
Columbu married his wife, Deborah, in 1990, with whom he had his only child, Maria.
Prior to that, Columbu had been married to a fellow chiropractor named Anita Sanangelo. According to one story, Anita first spied Columbu in a bodybuilding magazine and yelled, “Oh God, Oh God… I have to meet him!” Anita was featured in the sequel, “Pumping Iron 2.” The couple divorced sometime between 1986 and 1990.
3. Columbu Suffered a Gruesome Injury on Live Television in 1977
In 1977, Columbu, then-24, was competing in The World’s Strongest Man on CBS. A little over three seconds into a race that involved carrying a refrigerator on his back, Columbu stumbled to the ground with his legs appearing to buckle under the weight. When interviewed, Columbu maintained that his leg wasn’t broken saying, “I know it’s not broken… I am a chiropractor myself and I saw it was dislocated. The biggest problem is that is uncomfortable, but it’s not too much pain.”
Columbu wound up placing in fifth in the competition despite the gruesome injury. He attributed the injury from trying to run too fast. The competition was eventually won by Bruce Wilhelm. According to the Strongest Man website, Columbu took three years to fully recover from the injuries he suffered that day.
4. Columbu Was Credited as the Director of the Movie Within a Movie in ‘Last Action Hero’
In Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1993 movie “Last Action Hero,” Franco Columbu is credited as being the director of the fictional “Jack Slater” movie series. According to Columbu’s IMDb page, Columbu is due to star in a movie titled “Constantine the Great” alongside John Savage.
On his official website, Columbu says that he produced and directed a documentary on Sardinia titled, “Sardinia, the Greatest Isle of the Sea.” Columbu operated a production company as well, Franco Columbu Productions.
5. Columbu Is Being Mourned as Pioneer & Hero in the World of Fitness & Bodybuilding
As news of Columbu’s sad passing spreads, many in the bodybuilding world have taken to social media to mourn his passing. While the mayor of Columbu’s hometown Ollolai told La Repubblica, “Franco’s death is very painful news for us, he was Ollolai’s ambassador in the world.” The mayor said that Columbu would regularly come to his homeland for three weeks between August and September.
Here are some of the most poignant messages of remembrance: