So who would have believed it? Mr Universe to Mr Governor.
By Katty Kay
BBC correspondent in Los Angeles
The victory speech was vintage Arnie.
On a crowded stage in a cloud of ticker tape, Arnold Schwarzenegger thanked his wife, his campaign volunteers, and of course Californians.
Politicians across the US will be asking if their voters want change
It was the same irresistible star appeal which got him elected in the first place.
Mr Schwarzenegger has only been a politician for nine weeks, but in that short time he has gone from film star to governor-elect of the fifth largest economy in the world.
At his victory party in Los Angeles he showed he had also learned political lesson number one: Reach out to your opponents.
He told Democrats his door would always be open to them and asked all Californians, those who had supported the recall as well as those that had opposed it, to work together to tackle this state's huge problems.
The discontent with the status quo which led to this result has echoes all across the country.
"For people to win, politics-as-usual must lose," he warned, adding "Tomorrow the real work begins."
And begin it must. Within moments of giving his speech Arnie left the stage and the party was over.
'Failed to connect'
California has serious financial problems and during his campaign Mr Schwarzenegger was noticeably short on specific proposals for fixing them.
He accused the Democrats of an addiction to high taxes and lavish spending. He promised both to cut taxes and balance the vast budget deficit but did not spell out in detail how he would do that.
But this never really was an election about policies. It was an election about character, about Gray Davis' lack of it and Arnold Schwarzenegger's ease of it.
Stiff and wooden to the very end, Governor Davis conceded defeat promising that he too would co-operate with his opponent.
He lost, not so much because he had failed to fix California's finances or it energy crises, but because he had failed to connect with his voters. Angry Californians were desperate for change.
So what does this historic vote mean for the rest of America?
Conventional political wisdom has it that national trends start here. That does not mean we can expect a slew of governors being recalled - not many states allow such measures.
But the discontent with the status quo which led to this result has echoes all across the country.
Whether it is the ongoing insecurity in Iraq or the failure of the economy to produce jobs, American voters are grumbling.
And they are not convinced that their experienced career politicians are doing much to address their concerns.
Arnie was a fresh face, appealing precisely because he was not an established politician.
It is this same yearning for change which has given such momentum to the campaign of democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, another self-styled outsider.
The message from this vote in California is surely that politicians all across America must now be wondering 'Do my voters also want change?'.
At the White House, President Bush has already promised to work with the new governor.
The two men have little in common on social issues, where Mr Bush is a conservative, and Mr Schwarzenegger is a liberal, but it certainly does not hurt the president to have a Republican running his key election state.
For the Democrats meanwhile, it will mean spending more time and money here to ensure that they retain control of California in 2004's presidential election.
And every dollar and every day spent in California is a dollar and a day not spent in another battleground state.