Arnold Schwarzenegger takes up 80 percent of the elevator as he rises to the ninth floor of New York's Park Lane Hotel. "You that guy in 'Commando?' " asks a Vietnamese busboy wedged into a corner with his tray.

"Yezs," says Schwarzenegger, Austrian accent still thick despite ongoing efforts to tame it. "You Conan, too?" asks the busboy. "I like also Chuck Norris. That guy Rambo, you know him?"

Does Commando know Rambo? Does Macho know Machismo? Sure he does.

He powers toward his room, rhomboids rippling. The hall seems to shrink as his shoulders nearly scrape the walls.

Yes, he's big.

He's as wide as he is tall, wider than life.

Not as big as Dave Butz, mind you, but he looks better in a loincloth. Like a starlet who knows math, now he wants a little respect not just for his body, but his acting too. "Commando" -- which grossed $7.7 million in its first weekend and $16.25 million in its first 10 days -- is his eighth film, but "it's the first time I play a heroic character with clothes on," he says.

No more nude scenes. No more tanning oil. The biggest of the American legion of superheroes, a comic book icon in his own time, is going legit.

The former barbarian turns the corner, stops and knocks at the last door. The hotel shakes a little. Fiance' Maria Shriver, CBS Morning News cohost and JFK's niece, lets him into their adjoining rooms. She looks tired, excuses herself and disappears next door.

"She's got a great sense of humor," he says, squeezing into an armchair. The famous pectorals push at his black cotton shirt. The buttons strain to contain the world's most celebrated chest. They succeed.

Schwarzenegger props his feet on the edge of the bed, taking care to keep the soles off the spread, and begins stuffing honey-flavored tobacco into his Arnold-sized pipe, tamping with a tamper the size of a Hyborean ox jaw. He puffs, attempting to light the thing, and occasionally succeeding.

He's a congenial burgomaster stretched out comfortably, as the sun goes pink over Central Park. A gentle giant, with a profile from Easter Island, a chiseled, handsome face with dark blond hair moussed back. The gray was covered for his part in "Commando," and the regulation crew cut is growing out, so now he looks more civilian.

He once said of a 50-year-old contender in a body-building contest that age didn't matter when you pump. Now, as he edges up on 40, he has no midlife worries, no fear that his bulges will fall. But he is beginning to get crinkles around his eyes, and his skin is taut, making him all the more attractive. A little gap in his teeth, like David Letterman's, saves him from being too pretty.

Arnold, the Reaganite, and Maria, the Kennedy, have been an item for eight years, but he just proposed to her in August on a lake in Austria. "This is the woman you want to spend the rest of your life with," he thought. "This is the best girl you've ever found. Since you know that, why not get married especially since you're planning on having a family, kids, which I'd love to have."

The wedding, probably the hottest happening since Madonna married Sean Penn, is set for April 26 -- in Hyannisport, of course. The size of the wedding party is uncertain, says Schwarzenegger. He'll invite his friends, she'll invite hers, the family will invite theirs. "It maybe ends up with 20. It maybe ends up with 2,000."

Schwarzenegger grew up idolizing women like his Hausfrau mom, who stayed home. Now he thinks there's something missing in a woman who just waits. With Shriver, he loves the give and take.

"Most of the decisions that I make, I will ask Maria and most of her decisions, she will ask me," he says. "It's perfect, and I respect her opinion completely because she is very smart."

What happens when the stork shows?

If Shriver, who just took over Phyllis George's job, gets pregnant, he says, "Then she just stops. As you know, those jobs are not permanent. I've never seen anybody for life to be on a morning show. Maria is extremely happy, and we all are proud of her, that she has this job, but everyone including herself knows that the job is a temporary job. And, well, someday, maybe family does mean more to her and she wants to quit or go on to do something else altogether.

"She's had a top job and she can be proud of it the rest of her life. And she can say to her kids that she did it, rather than 'Your mother could have done it.' "

Supportiveness aside, Schwarzenegger surprised insiders by appearing on "Good Morning America" before he did "CBS Morning News." When he was finally interviewed by Shriver's cohost, Forrest Sawyer, the groom-to-be jokingly threatened to pop him one if he forgot the wedding.

He still lives in California, while Shriver, who relocated from Santa Monica, is camping out at the Park Lane. But the couple have no plans for a postnuptial residence, he says, nor are they bicoastal. "I wouldn't want to label it as anything. I always like to improvise, especially when it comes to my personal life."

Filming takes him out of the state or country for months at a time, he says. "We are used to the idea of being apart and we are used to the idea of being together. One thing that I know for sure is that we will not be separated for more than a week. We have managed since the beginning of August to see each other almost continuously. As I told Maria when she took the job, there would be no problem. We'd just make it work."

Schwarzenegger's sense of humor is good, if sometimes inscrutable. Right now he is laughing mightily -- falling rocks is the image that comes to mind -- about the Schwarzenegger-Shriver size-of-family controversy. "Maria wants five kids because she comes from a family of five and I want two kids because I come from a family of two kids . . . like clones."

He gets more and more tickled, recalling the time a psychic told him, " 'You are going to have a fantastic and happy marriage. You are going to have five kids.' I called Maria over. 'You got to come over and hear this.' " He shakes with laughter.

"So we'll find out if the woman is right. Five! Can you believe how much work!"

Arnold Schwarzenegger is a man in quest of bigness, like a puzzled Teutonic god who fell to Earth and can't find anything in scale. He has a '57 Cadillac convertible because it's big and he came to America because it's big. He bought a Rolex, a big watch for a big wrist.

As a boy in Austria, he watched Steve Reeves movies, imagined an America full of rock stars with flashy cars, and began to shape his legendary form. His body has been judged perfect in seven Mr. Olympia contests and you can't get any better than that in the body-building biz. He holds the record for most wins, and this year will again be producing and hosting the contest in Columbus, Ohio.

He arrived here in 1968, at the age of 21, speaking little English. In 1977, he grabbed the country's attention with the body-building documentary "Pumping Iron." Since then, he has reshaped a nation of potbellies.

A savvy businessman, he pursues the mechanics of the American dream like the cyborg who couldn't be stopped in "The Terminator," his breakthrough role. He's into real estate as well as show biz. He has a production company near Golds Gym in Santa Monica, where he works out at least three times a week. Through it all, he continues to produce body-building contests, videos and how-to-be-big books. He has a Harley-Davidson and a home full of huge furniture, including an 800-pound bed. He has his Cadillac, his Kennedy, his hit movie.

He is at the top, but he fervently believes he would have been nobody if he hadn't come to America, which he loves for its economic strength and the open attitudes of its people. "It's like I've lived here before," says Schwarzenegger, an American citizen since 1983.

From the get-go, he has been a brilliant self-promoter. Before he agrees to do a movie, he makes sure the studio knows his audience and how to market him. "I'm a salesman. I know exactly what it takes. There's J. Walter Thompson. Well, that's the way my mind operates."

In his early campaign to promote body-building here, he says, he was like Muhammad Ali, full of color and memorable lines. "You want to be one of the people, rather than coming off like a stiff guy preaching down. You know what you get from talking down to people. You lose," he says emphatically. "If you make yourself one of them, you win. This is why Reagan is the King Kong of public relations."

He saw where other fitness promoters made their mistakes. "You cannot come out and say like the body builders did that you have to eat five pounds of meat a day, 300 liver pills, sleep 12 hours a day" and never go to bed with anyone. "How does anybody get hooked up with that?"

So he went on "The Merv Griffin Show" and told American that a good pump was better than sex and that it was okay to eat cheesecake. Yet he's shy with leading ladies; his love scene with costar Rae Dawn Chong was cut from "Commando."

This latest film finds the big guy in an amiable mood. He plays a retired colonel who wants nothing more than to live peacefully in the forest with his daughter. Then the villains kidnap her and make him mad.

The body count, they say, is higher than Rambo's. Schwarzenegger shrugs -- the new, improved, sensitive action hero. He has updated his image, figuring the days of the sword and sorcerer are passe'. Like Sylvester Stallone, he has picked up on the Uzi. But unlike Stallone, he is improving his accent and adding dialogue. No director, he thinks, has ever taken full advantage of his natural humor.

Mention of John Milius, who directed him in "Conan the Barbarian," brings out an uncharacteristic mood in Schwarzenegger. "John Milius just wanted to make Conan a very serious, dark, Nietzsche-like character with the Nietzsche philosophy," he says bitterly, and quotes from "Conan," with a sneer: "'That which does not kill you will make you strong.' " He says it better than he did in the movie actually, an indication that the acting and diction lessons he's taking are working.

But the man is no fool. He doesn't expect any kind of lessons to turn him into Alan Alda.

"I think that you could play anything you want. But the audience wouldn't believe it. I couldn't play 'Tootsie.' I'm too big to put on a dress and put on high heels."

Schwarzenegger sees himself as a power symbol among his male fans, but he's surprised that he might be a sex symbol for women. Both the star and his studio, 20th Century-Fox, are amazed at the large number of women in "Commando" audiences.

"Usually guys go to them," he says.

To be sure, the Schwarzenegger heroines traditionally have been nearly as strong as he, and as competent -- Sandahl Bergman and Grace Jones of the "Conans," Linda Hamilton in "The Terminator" and now Rae Dawn Chong with her own rocket launcher in "Commando." Still, he explains, "Reality is such that the guys feel they're the ones who make it . . .

"But if you have a good woman behind you," he adds, "you can go much further. And that's the way it is in the film."

A good attitude and a sense of humor, too.

The phone rings. "Lou Ferrigno," he answers. "Come on up and take pictures. We are all naked up here."

The photographer on the other end is nonplused.

"She thinks I'm weird, maybe?" he wonders wide-eyed, straightening a pile of white socks before they spill from his suitcase onto the bed.