Franco Columbu, an Italian bodybuilder whose herculean physique won him major titles in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, and who helped popularize the sport with his close friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, died on Friday at a hospital in Olbia, Italy. He was 78.
His death was confirmed by a doctor at the hospital, who did not specify the cause. Italian news reports said that Mr. Columbu had become sick while swimming in the sea at San Teodoro, a beach town in Sardinia he was visiting, and that he had been taken to the hospital by helicopter.
Mr. Columbu was a talented boxer before he gravitated to powerlifting and bodybuilding in the mid-1960s. He stood under 5 feet 6 inches tall and usually weighed around 185 pounds, which might seem diminutive for an Atlas. But he sculpted his muscles enough to win titles like Mr. Universe, Mr. World and twice Mr. Olympia, one of bodybuilding’s most prestigious honors. He was nicknamed the Sardinian Samson, after the island of his birth.
“Franco Columbu was never the biggest man on a bodybuilding stage, but he was usually the strongest,” an article in Muscle & Fitness magazine said in 2012, adding that he “was a three-ring circus unto himself” who would “regularly put on a deadlifting exhibition in which he’d pull more than 700 pounds before a stunned audience.”
Mr. Columbu met Mr. Schwarzenegger, the future film star, politician and perhaps the most famous bodybuilder in the sport’s history, at a bodybuilding competition in Munich in 1965.
They trained and worked together after Joe Weider, a bodybuilding impresario, brought them to California in the late 1960s. They later competed against each other and appeared together in films, notably the classic bodybuilding documentary “Pumping Iron” (1977), which also featured famous muscled men like Lou Ferrigno and Mike Katz. All of them helped bodybuilding gain broader mainstream acceptance.
Mr. Columbu was Mr. Schwarzenegger’s best man when he married Maria Shriver in 1986, and they remained close.
He continued: “When I finally got to America, I was alone. I’d left my family, my country, my whole life behind. So when I asked Joe Weider to bring you to train with me, it was because I knew I wasn’t the same without my best friend. I could thrive without money, without my parents, but I couldn’t thrive without you.”
Mr. Columbu won his Mr. Olympia titles in 1976 and 1981 — he took some years off from the competition in between after he dislocated his left knee while racing with a refrigerator on his back during the 1977 World’s Strongest Man Competition.
Such feats of strength were hardly unusual for Mr. Columbu, whose website notes that his personal records included bench pressing 525 pounds, squatting 655 pounds and dead lifting 750. In one scene in “Pumping Iron,” he casually lifts a car by the back bumper and heaves it out of a tight parking spot.
Mr. Columbu was born on Aug. 7, 1941, in the small mountain village of Ollolai in Sardinia to Antonio Columbu and Maria Grazia Sedda, who were shepherds. He often got into tussles as a boy, which he said were more fun and games than combat.
“I was always skinny,” he told The Miami Herald in 1982. “Until I was 11, I got beat up a lot. Then one day, I started beating people up. Nobody could touch me.”
He thrived on the attention.
“As soon as it dawned on me that people noticed me when I competed, I made a point to become good at it,” he wrote in his memoir, “Coming on Strong,” with George Fels.
He worked as a shepherd and a bricklayer, dreaming of fame through boxing and training at a gym a 10-mile bike ride from his home. He was strong and quick enough to defeat some early opponents, and he left Italy to train in Munich, winning more than 30 bouts before he decided to quit boxing for weight lifting and bodybuilding.
“Boxing’s too rough on your face and head,” he said.
Later in life, Mr. Columbu became an actor. He appeared in action films like “Rambo: First Blood Part II” (1985) and several that starred Mr. Schwarzenegger, like “Conan the Barbarian” (1982), “The Terminator” (1984) and “The Running Man” (1987). His more recent parts include a turn in the Italian movie “Dreamland: La Terra Dei Sogni” (2011).
Mr. Columbu lived in Los Angeles. His survivors include his wife, Deborah; a daughter, Maria; and three sisters, Anna, Gonaria and Celestina.
Mr. Columbu was also a chiropractor, and in addition to his memoir wrote several books on bodybuilding and nutrition.
He noted that moderate exercise had its benefits, even if they might not include hoisting cars.
“This kind of program will not get you in shape for the Super Bowl,” he said in 1982 of a training regimen mellower than the ones he practiced, “but it will help to ensure that you are around for a great many football games to come.”
Anna Momigliano contributed reporting from Rome.