Arnold Schwarzenegger was the year's nimblest optical illusionist: In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he made a killing machine look like a boy's best friend, and in Kindergarten Cop, he made a roomful of adorable children look like a policeman's worst nightmare. The knack extends to his personal appearances: Dropping by The Arsenio Hall Show to plug Terminator 2, he popped his flashbulb smile, repeatedly proclaimed it would be ''the biggest movie of the summer,'' and-presto! a blatant boast was turned into a good-natured joke. Except, of course, he wasn't kidding: T2 was not just the biggest movie of the summer, but the biggest movie of the year, grossing more than $203 million in the U.S. alone.
While Schwarzenegger's two-fisted counterparts Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone have hit brick walls whenever they've tried to escape their signature roles, Schwarzenegger has deftly pumped up both his image and his audience. He credits self-promotional instincts that are even more highly toned than his legendary pecs. ''When people come to me with a script,'' he has said, ''I tell them, 'Before we shoot the first frame, we have to shoot the poster. What is the image? What are we trying to sell here?'''
Arguably, Kindergarten Cop, a late-1990 release that hit it big early this year to the tune of $88 million was a better poster than a movie. It turned the former Mr. Universe into a lovable gentle giant, with kids hanging from every mighty limb. But when it came to T2, the poster was just the beginning: As he'd promised in the original 1984 film, the leather-clad Terminator was back! Only this time around, director James Cameron turned the neat trick of transforming Schwarzenegger's android killing machine into a force for good. Serving as young Edward Furlong's guardian angel, Schwarzenegger became a high-tech update of The Wizard of Oz's Tin Man with a little reprogramming, the man of metal discovered that he was almost human. Though the hard-driving movie came complete with the requisite tag lines ''Hasta la vista, baby!'' and eye-boggling special effects, Schwarzenegger still managed to imbue it with a surprising amount of tenderness.
Meanwhile, the indefatigable Schwarzenegger keeps expanding his horizons: An inveterate entrepreneur, he joined fellow celebrities Stallone and Bruce Willis to open the movie-themed Manhattan restaurant Planet Hollywood this fall, and he's planning to open a second restaurant of his own, Schatzi on Main, in Santa Monica, Calif. In preparation for that unthinkable day when his acting career cools down, he's currently at work on his feature-length directorial debut, Christmas in Connecticut, a TNT movie starring Dyan Cannon, Kris Kristofferson, and Tony Curtis, set to air next holiday season. The director's chair may prove a surprisingly comfortable fit: Who better to yell ''Action!'' than the star who embodies the concept more than anyone in the world?