“In many contests that I would enter, I would look at some monster backstage and think he was the most muscular thing I’d ever seen. Only under the posing lights would the true story be told when the rolls of blubber would show through.” Best known for his graceful and confident pose on the bodybuilding stage, Ken Waller found early fame when he won the 1975 IFBB Mr. Universe contest in Pretoria, South Africa. He later appeared in the 1977 documentary film Pumping Iron, which featured the legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno as they prepared for the 1975 IFBB Mr. Olympia. Although Waller wasn’t the star of the film, his award-winning physique was hard to miss especially with his signature red hair and freckles making him easy to spot in the crowd.
Raised in Jeffersonville, Indiana in the 1940s, Waller enjoyed a normal childhood and showed an early interest in sports that led him straight to Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green where he played on the university’s football team and helped secure their undefeated record at the 1963 Tangerine Bowl. To this day, Waller’s photograph still hangs in the locker room as a tribute to his success on the football field as well as his legacy as a bodybuilder, which we’ll get to momentarily.
After college, the 6’0” tall Waller served in the United States Marine Corp and later went on to teach at a Louisville high school before moving to Canada to play professional football with the Canadian Football League. Tipping the scales at 230 pounds, Waller’s interests slowly shifted from football to bodybuilding in the late 1960s and early 1970s as he spent more time at the gym packing on muscle. In 1968, he entered his first competitions as an amateur and surprised himself when he finished in fourth place in both the 1968 AAU Mr. Olympia and the 1968 AAU Mr. USA. The following year, he took the title at the 1969 AAU Junior Mr. USA and the 1969 AAU Mr. USA where he was also named the “Most Muscular.”
Enjoying ongoing success in the 1970s with wins at the AAU Mr. America and the AAU Mr. World, Waller was ready to go professional and upgraded his status after receiving his IFBB Pro Card. He made his professional debut at the 1971 IFBB Mr. America and finished in first place. He went on to win the titles at the 1971 IFBB Mr. International, the 1971 NABBA Mr. Universe, the 1972 IFBB Mr. International, the 1972 IFBB Mr. World and the 1975 IFBB Mr. Universe. In 1976, he competed in the Mr. Olympia competition in the “Over 200 Pounds” class and earned first place. He attempted to defend his title in 1977 but lost to Robby Robinson. By then, he took a few years off from competing to manage the original Golds Gym until he returned to the Mr. Olympia stage in 1980 with a disappointing 16th place finish. Realizing that his prime had come and gone, he retired from professional bodybuilding in 1981.
Amid his success on the bodybuilding stage and as one of the winningest amateur bodybuilders in the 1970s, Waller also enjoyed time on the silver screen with numerous uncredited parts and cameos throughout his later career. Beyond his appearance with Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno in Pumping Iron, he made a cameo in Schwarzenegger’s 1976 Stay Hungry flick where he played the part of Dougie Stewart, a rival bodybuilder to Schwarzenegger’s on-screen character, Joe Santo. Appearing in the B-movie Kill the Golden Goose in 1979, his last guest role came in 1981 when he appeared in the “King of Beach” episode on The Incredible Hulk television series starring Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk himself.
With his confident posing style and signature red hair and freckles, Waller landed on the cover of Iron Man and Muscle Magazine but did his best to stay out of the spotlight after his retirement in 1981. This left many fans to wonder where the wild redhead with the short temper had disappeared to until Waller reappeared in the 2002 television documentary Raw Iron: The Making of Pumping Iron. In the film, Waller faced his critics head on when he talked about how Pumping Iron portrayed him as a villainous bodybuilder, which frequently led to boos as he walked the stage. “I would go to contests and get booed, after that!” Waller said. Little did anyone realize that Pumping Iron was a docudrama with the bodybuilders playing specific roles that didn’t truly reflect their typical personalities.
Finally setting the record straight from Pumping Iron, Waller cashed in on his fame and expertise as a bodybuilder to open his own gym—Red Lion Fitness—in Culver City, California. Running the gym from 1980 to 1996, he then worked for Extreme Active Wear, a supplier of Golds Gym apparel, for the next decade before retiring from the business world in 2005 and moving to St. Louis, Missouri. Today, the 75-year-old Waller is reportedly still a fanatic about working out with his body in incredible shape for a man his age. And, while he may not be as big as he once was with 230 pounds of pure muscle, he can still hold his own and just might look better than Schwarzenegger even if his red hair has now turned grey. As a matter of fact, a senior bodybuilding competition among the legends seems like a great idea. Don’t you agree?