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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As he famously droned on-screen in his signature "Terminator" movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back.
A year after leaving the California governor's office and becoming tabloid fodder for fathering a boy with his family's housekeeper and splitting with his wife, Maria Shriver, the 65-year old former bodybuilder will star in no less than three Hollywood movies over the next 12 months.
None are likely to win Schwarzenegger an Oscar. Indeed, the movies, and Schwarzenegger's own fee, are low-budget compared with his global blockbusters of yore. But studio executives are betting that overseas fans especially will once again respond to a personality whose 24 films generated worldwide ticket sales of $3.9 billion, according to boxoffice.com.
"He is still a worldwide star who resonates with action audiences around the world," said Rob Friedman, the co-chairman of the Lionsgate motion picture group, which is scheduled to release his next two films. "The Last Stand" will open on January 18, and "The Tomb" in September.
"Ten," the third film, is scheduled for release in January 2014 by Open Road Films, a joint venture of the AMC and Regal Theater chains.
"When you have left the movie business for seven years, it's kind of a scary thing to come back because you don't know if you're accepted or not," Schwarzenegger said at a Saturday press event for "The Last Stand."
"There could be a whole new generation of action stars that come up in the meantime."
The actor said he was "very pleasantly surprised" by what he called a "great reaction" to his cameo in the 2010 action film "The Expendables," which featured fellow action stars Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham. The film grossed $103.1 million in U.S. ticket sales and $274.5 million worldwide.
Since then, Schwarzenegger appeared in a second "Expendables" and says he will join a fifth installment of the "Terminator" if it is made.
Comcast's Universal Pictures wants to "do a bunch" of new films based on the 30-year-old "Conan The Barbarian" movie, said Schwarzenegger, in which he would reprise his role as a barbarian.
He added that Universal, after 10 years of prodding by Schwarzenegger, also wants to do a sequel to the 1988 comedy "Twins," in which he and Danny DeVito played mismatched twins, to be called "Triplets."
Schwarzenegger no longer commands the $25 million paychecks he cashed in his heyday and will get between $8 and $10 million for each of his next three films, according to two people with knowledge of his salary but who were not authorized to speak publicly about it. He also gets a percentage of the profits, according to one of the people.
The new Schwarzenegger calculus banks on his films doing outsized business overseas while operating within budgets that are a fraction of the $200 million cost of his last action film, the 2003 "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines." The budget for "The Last Stand" is estimated at $50 million, according to movie resource site IMDB.com.
"He has significant value outside the United States and Canada, where he is still revered by people who have grown up with him throughout the years," said Jere Hausfater, chief operating officer of film production company Aldamisa International, which hopes to do a film with Schwarzenegger in the future.
What audiences will see is a aging star who isn't afraid of showing his drooping muscles and widening paunch, or of making fun of being past his prime. In the "The Last Stand," a less than rock hard Schwarzenegger plays a retired Los Angeles policeman who becomes the sheriff of a small border town and is then called on to stop a violent drug lord from crossing.
In "Ten" he plays an aging drug agent, and in "The Tomb" an older prison inmate.
"We all go through the same dramas, we look at the mirror and say, what happened? You once had muscles and slowly they are deteriorating," said Schwarzenegger at "The Last Stand" press event.
"The great thing in the movie is that they we're not trying to play me as the 35-year-old action hero but the one who is about to retire, and all of a sudden there is this challenge where he really needs to get his act together."
The one-time muscle man compares his career metamorphosis to that of his friend Clint Eastwood, who transitioned from his Dirty Harry days to a wiser person who's not afraid to make fun of his slipping abilities in recent films like "Trouble with the Curve."
"That's called evolution," said Sylvester Stallone, who stars with Schwarzenegger as aging inmates in "The Tomb." "There are no more wooly mammoths. Things change, but the one thing you cannot replace is charisma. Certain people have it, and will have it until the day they die."
Schwarzenegger's infamy in fathering a son outside of his high-profile marriage to Shriver initially seemed to hurt his popular appeal. Within weeks of the disclosure, "The Governator," a comic book that would feature his likeness, was canceled.
Ultimately, though, moviegoers will be less interested in Schwarzenegger's political adventures and personal scandals than in what he puts on the screen, says Peter Sealey, founder of The Sausalito Group and a former Columbia Pictures president of marketing and distribution.
"The movie-going audience really don't care about things like infidelity, DUIs," added publicist Howard Bragman, vice-chairman of the firm called Reputation. "They overlook a lot. Ultimately, it remains, how are the movies? Is he credible? Is he going to be a joke?"
Reporting by Ronald Grover and Zorianna Kit; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Cynthia Osterman