Written by Shawn Ray
07 February 2014

 The Incredible Lou Ferrigno Interview

Shawn Ray Gets Up Close & Personal


lou1SR: Did you ever imagine as a kid growing up in Brooklyn that your life would come “full circle” the way it has, with regard to bodybuilding, family, film, TV and your career?

LF: Well, growing up as a kid back in Brooklyn, I had dreams that someday bodybuilding would become popular and I would be able to make a living from it— but I never imagined it would grow to what it has become today and produce the opportunities it has given me. I always felt that someway, I would be a part of it and it’s brought me here today from that small dream I had as a boy growing up.

SR: Somewhere along the way you became the youngest two-time Mr. Universe champion, and it helped create an opportunity in 1975 for you to become the nemesis of Arnold Schwarzenegger— who had already won the Mr. Olympia five times— in the movie “Pumping Iron.” How significant was that time in your life?

LF: In 1974, I was runner-up in the Mr. Olympia and then the movie came along in ’75. I was working as a sheet metal worker with no thoughts of competing, but it seemed like an opportunity for the sport to go mainstream. I was not in my best shape at the time because I was training for a television show called ABC’s “Superstars,” but I welcomed the opportunity to go to South Africa for the show and documentary, and be part of something I felt might be bigger. I had only eight or nine weeks but it seemed right for me as the dark horse, and Arnold as the favorite.

lou2SR: It seemed like a disappointment for you after the 1975 Mr. Olympia, especially when you felt you needed more time to be at your best. Then it seemed that Hollywood opened its doors for you. What happened next?

LF: After South Africa I came back to California to train. I was training for the 1977 Mr. Olympia and was in the best shape of my life. I went to talk with Joe Weider and told him that I had been offered a part in a television series to play “The Incredible Hulk.” Joe said it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I should take it. We filmed the pilot and the show became a smash hit! I am really glad I made the decision to take the part and follow Joe’s advice— he’s a smart man— but at the same time I struggled because in my heart I wanted to be Mr. Olympia because that was my dream growing up.

SR: It seemed like a smart move but you then had to sit and watch a guy by the name of Frank Zane— barely 5’9” and 190 pounds— win the Mr. Olympia title for the next three years in a row. In hindsight, do you regret not jumping into one of those Mr. Olympias to see if you could out-muscle him for the title, being that you’re 6’5” and nearly 300 pounds?

lou3LF: Well, I knew those guys were good. Frank had great symmetry and condition back then and you had to be “complete!” After a few years away, I knew I could not come in like the old days and beat a guy that polished. There was a lot more being judged like compulsory poses, definition and symmetry. I knew I had him on size with bigger arms and such, but there was no way I could train for three months or so and expect to beat someone that good— you have to train an entire year.

SR: You met Joe Weider in the ‘70s. Tell me about the “wow factor” in meeting him.

LF: I came in 1976 to guest pose at the Gold’s Gym Classic. Then Joe invited me to his building where he worked and asked me if I could move to California. It was a great honor because this was the opportunity of my lifetime back then. I could train at the best gyms, around the biggest and the best bodybuilders! Gold’s was “the mecca” and Joe always publicized the best bodybuilders in his magazines. I felt very blessed and happy that he thought so highly of me. This was something I had wanted since I was a kid.

SR: In 1990, you had been out of the bodybuilding scene over 17 years when Vince McMahon, owner of the WBF (World Bodybuilding Federation) came along and offered you a contract to return to compete. Two years later you wound up on the Mr. Olympia stage in Helsinki, Finland as a married father of three kids! Tell me about that dynamic and how different it was from your prior contest experiences.

LF: Well, I knew coming back to competition there was going to be a lot of pressure because I was going up against guys like you, Dorian, Vince Taylor and you know it wasn’t like the guys from the ‘70s— this was the ‘90s and a whole new era of bodybuilders! Bodybuilding had changed so much after 17 years; I didn’t have the experience of guest posing, competing or championship training. So the mistake I made going into Helsinki was that I peaked about a month before the contest and I ended up onstage around 290 something— but six weeks before I was much fuller and bigger! I didn’t have the experience at the prejudging— you have to be flexed and pose at all times and here I was relaxing— so it was a learning experience for me back then after so many years away from the stage. It was tough; that’s why I decided to only compete another two years— too much pressure having a family and a career.

lou4SR: Before you walked away, the Masters Mr. Olympia was created and you were first runner-up to Robby Robinson in 1994. You seemed pretty dejected after that show and walked away forever from competition. Please share your thoughts with us.

LF: I knew the difference after a few years back, that “separation” was a big factor. You just can’t fool the judges and I was the best I could have been but you know those guys— Robby included— never took 17 years off. I went as far as I could and had other TV and movie offers to consider. I was improving so walking away was hard, but it was like if you didn’t have striations in your glutes you could forget about it.

SR: Somehow or another, you found yourself working in law enforcement after bodybuilding. Share with us how that came to be.

LF: My father was a police lieutenant and I was always fascinated by law enforcement. So one time I was talking to L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca and mentioned law enforcement runs in my family, and he said why not join the academy? So I went to the academy and took six months out of my life to complete the program, and it changed my life because I wanted to give back. Being a deputy you see the two sides of the law in both protecting and serving. It has helped me a lot with our fight against drugs and protecting our country from bad people, so that’s why I chose to pursue another one of my dreams.

SR: It seems you could hardly fit another passion or dream on your plate. You competed against the best in the world, acted in both television and motion pictures, you have been married 30-plus years and raised three kids, and you’re booked up as a motivational speaker and trainer to the stars. Tell me about the balancing act and your wife’s role in it.

lou5LF: Looking back on my discipline from bodybuilding, it helped lay a foundation that I have been able to apply in my everyday life. It helps my motivation, determination, survival instincts… everything, because I am more of a risk taker. I like challenges— it’s things that seem like they are impossible that I go after. It keeps me going because I am competitive.

SR: On March 5th, 2011 you received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Arnold at the Arnold Classic, and you stated that your entire family are personal trainers. What is the message you want to get out there to others?

LF: It’s not just about lifting weights. It’s about lifestyle. We get people from all over the world that want to learn how to better themselves. They want to maximize their bodies but don’t know how— that’s when they come to me. I want them to walk away feeling like they can be friends with their bodies and know themselves better— what they should eat, how strong they can be, how far they can push themselves. Surprisingly, a lot of people don’t know what their bodies can help them achieve. I give them direction and the tools to find that out.

SR: Looking back on your career, any regrets? Would you change or do anything differently?

lou5.5LF: I probably would have come to California sooner, because back then I was going through a difficult relationship with my father. It was a love/hate thing, which basically left me under his thumb. If I had been able to come to California sooner, I would have been a part of the camaraderie and action that I missed pre-1976 when the guys trained at the original Gold’s Gym on Main Street. By the time I arrived, all the guys from the movie “Pumping Iron” were gone and the gym moved, so I missed that time because I was living in New York. That lifestyle looked great and exciting.

SR: I want you to comment on a few names here:

Your wife, Carla:

LF: When you compete you’re selfish, narcissistic and so on, but Carla is the best thing to happen to me. She is a psychotherapist, who is strong and supportive, a great mother and wife. She is the other half of a strong relationship filled with communication and love.

The Weider Brothers, Ben and Joe:

lou6LF: Ben was a great ambassador and founder of the IFBB and of course Joe is the Godfather of Bodybuilding— and between the two of them they basically saved my life. I certainly would not be who or where I am if it wasn’t for them.

Michael Jackson:

LF: We were very close because Michael admired my success in fitness and I admired his success in music. We had very similar childhoods regarding very domineering father figures. We would always talk about our youth— he trusted me and I trusted him. What I loved about him was that he loved everyone, he wasn’t racist or judgemental, but he was a giver. He cared about humanity.

Jack LaLanne:

LF: When I was a kid I used to watch him on TV, and I got to know him once I had moved to California. He was a very competitive guy and actually he was the first to bring fitness to TV! Very down-to-earth gentleman; he will be sorely missed.

SR: What would you like to see done to bodybuilding to continue the promotion of the sport?

LF: I think bodybuilding deserves more publicity. It is the hardest sport in the world! I think the guys that win shows today should win $500,000 to 1 million dollars! People don’t understand how hard the sport is and the efforts these guys put into it.

SR: Do you see yourself ever promoting a bodybuilding contest in the future?

LF: I would not mind having my own classic, but I would have to be in control of it. We have so many kids fighting obesity and if I could tie the television element into it and reach more kids, it would be something I’d consider.

SR: What role has Muscular Development and Steve Blechman had in shaping your view of the bodybuilding industry?

lou7LF: I think Steve Blechman is the next Joe Weider. He has taken the torch from Joe already by providing athletes with interview opportunities, contracts, monthly columns, photo shoots, etc. Joe believed in giving the athletes a fighting chance with regard to them being compensated for the work they do. Steve is the same visionary and it has paid off for both him and the athletes! Muscular Development is leading the way with its Internet contest coverage, quality photos and informative magazine.

SR: Your sons are personal trainers. What would be your reaction or role if any of them wanted to become a bodybuilder and compete?

LF: I think it is great my kids are all healthy and fit. They have never had a desire to be in bodybuilding per se, but really came around to the active lifestyle and can be proud of helping others achieve their fitness goals like I do. They also have strong desires to go into show business like I did, but they love to motivate other families and help change their lifestyles.

SR: Arnold is taking the Arnold Classic Weekend global, and would like to hold a show on every continent. What’s your take on that?

LF: I think it is great— once again this is something for the “fans” and bringing other people and companies into the sport. It gives the athletes another opportunity to travel and show their hard work to the world. Having this type of show in Europe, Asia, China and so on only helps spread the good news about fitness and being in shape. Arnold is continuing to do a great job at that. It will give more people exposure to this sport and share their ideals with the world’s best athletes.

SR: Looking back on your career dating back to the ‘60s to the present, if you could train one bodybuilder and be of some help to him, who would that be and why?

lou8LF: One of my favorites would be Sergio Oliva, Mr. Olympia 1967-69. Sergio was a freak, beautifully built, strong and impressive. I wish I could pick his brain because he was one of the greatest bodybuilders but he was not much of a businessman— and that hurt his publicity and his career. He could have been one of the greatest ambassadors of the sport, but I think he was his own worst enemy because he was a very stubborn person. He could have done so much more for the sport and himself if he were more receptive to wisdom and advice from others who tried to help him.

SR: You have the last word, big guy. What would you like the world to know about you that we don’t already know?

LF: When you get involved in fitness and bodybuilding, you have to be proud of it because not everyone can do it, change their appearance, live healthier lifestyles and live longer in general. I have learned to appreciate the process and be thankful for the results of the dedication it takes to keep at it over the years through ups and downs— which have made me a better person, husband, father and friend. Helping others achieve the same qualities out of life is the most rewarding aspect of being a bodybuilder. So basically, we are on this planet for a short time— so taking care of my body and mind really is the best of both worlds when you can achieve your personal goals and watch others do the same.

For more on Lou Ferrigno, visit his website: www.louferrigno.com

Photo Credits:

1. Courtesy Lou
2. Bill Dobbins
3. Irvin Gelb
4. Irvin Gelb
5. Courtesy Lou
7. Bill Dobbins
8. Per Bernal