The Herald, Sharon,
PA Published Thursday, Oct. 7, 1999


Ferrigno achieved superhero dreams

By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer

Lou Ferrigno raises his arm, pulls his sleeve back and flexes his bicep in classic bodybuilder pose. The arm is thicker than the legs of most of the people in the audience, and his bicep rises like a snow-capped peak shrouded in clouds. It has the form and look of solid rock.

"It's still there." He grins gleefully like a kid with a new toy.

But Ferrigno is 47 years old. His physique is etched in the minds of bodybuilding enthusiasts for his world competition titles -- he was named Mr. Universe at 21 -- and others as Bill Bixby's green-skinned, anger-fueled alter-ego in "The Incredible Hulk."

He walked on stage Tuesday at Slippery Rock University looking like your average Michelangelo-chiseled slab of granite. His polo shirt was large and comfortable, but his muscles underneath seemed to be longing for freedom.

All his life, Ferrigno has had something to prove. And as a middle-aged man, he's likely to keep proving things to people, changing attitudes about health, body image, the capabilities of the human spirit and self-esteem.

The most daunting obstacle Ferrigno has had to overcome was his poor hearing. Losing 85 percent of his hearing at about age 1 1/2 or 2 due to an ear infection set Ferrigno up for a hellish childhood of learning problems and abuse from other kids.

"I couldn't hear, I couldn't speak," said the Brooklyn native, who now lives in California. "I had a very introverted childhood."

Ferrigno's father was disappointed in his son.

"My father couldn't handle not having a perfect son," he said. "I didn't have a very good relationship with my father."

Unable to hear teachers when they turned away from the class, Ferrigno fared poorly in school. Kids called him "Deaf Louie" and smacked his hearing aids.

But the experience taught him a work ethic he still maintains. "I had to work harder than anyone else," he said.

It's appropriate for a man who would one day play a comic book character that he read them and fantasized about being strong and a hero. Then he discovered a bodybuilding magazine and sold his comic books to buy more.

Poring over pictures of rippling muscles, he read the text about diet, food and competition. Here was a sport he could participate in that his hearing loss would not be a detriment.

An average-sized kid of 150 pounds at age 14, Ferrigno started with "a barbell made out of two cans," then acquired some more conventional weights.

"No one taught me," he said. "No one gave me advice. It just felt good. You learn to get to know your body and yourself."

When he started going to the gym people would laugh at him when he said he was going to be a bodybuilding champion. Ferrigno admits he was embarrassed when in his first competition he came in 22nd out of 25.

But the experience taught him to work harder, and bodybuilding generally teaches persistence, consistency, self-belief and determination, he said.

Ferrigno won his first world championship and the competition was the first bodybuilding event televised by "Wide World of Sports." Ferrigno said he was crushed when he learned the network would not run an interview with him because his speech wasn't clear enough.

"Everyone said I couldn't be a world champion and I proved them wrong. Now, I had to prove them wrong again with my speech."

The work has made him a comfortable speaker in the motivational style. "My speech will never be perfect because my hearing isn't perfect," he said.

Winning the Mr. Universe title at 21, he retired four years later at his peak to be painted green and growl in "The Incredible Hulk."

"That show started changing my life," he said, because he had to learn to show emotion without speech. At the same time, he still didn't feel good about himself and underwent psychotherapy.

"I wanted to get to like myself. "If you don't like yourself you're not going to like anybody else. The only person who will give you 100 percent support in yourself is yourself."

Although "the Incredible Hulk," which ran from 1977 to 1980, typecast him, it also opened up a new career that spanned 20 films and three television series. His latest film is "Stand Tall," a sequel to the bodybuilding classic "Pumping Iron."

Then, at age 40, Ferrigno decided to return to bodybuilding competition. By this time he was married and had three kids, and his wife had to accept that his focus would be on competition and not family life. "When I'm focused on competition that's all I do."

Ferrigno trained eight hours a day, building his body weight from 265 pounds to 325, and reducing his body fat to 2 percent. His re-emergence initiated new classifications of bodybuilding in international competition, including people in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

Silencing those who said he couldn't return, Ferrigno retired again at 43 and vows he will never compete again for the sake of his family. Ferrigno said his family, which includes an 18-year-old daughter and sons 14 and 9, are the most important aspect of his life, greater than his titles and fame. And with this focus, he has forgiven his father, who at 75 weight trains and jogs.

"He was my biggest critic and my best defender," Ferrigno said of his father. "He did the best he could."

Ferrigno said his father treated him like his grandfather had treated his father, and by understanding that he was able to break the cycle in how he treats his own kids.

Ferrigno, author of the book "Lou Ferrigno's Guide to Personal Power, Bodybuilding and Fitness for Everyone," still works with weights three times a week, and runs on a treadmill or pedals a stationary bike. He's a trim but massive 275 pounds.

"There's no age factor," he said of weightlifting or exercise. "You can always change something. Consistency is the thing."

Ferrigno said Jack LaLanne is a role model for older people. At 85, LaLanne can still do chin-ups and extended-arm pushups.

Back to TOP // Herald Local news // Local news headlines // Herald Home page

Internet service in Mercer County, only $19.95 a month!

For info about advertising on our site or Web-page creation:
Copyright ©1999 The Sharon Herald Co. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or retransmission in any form is prohibited without our permission.