“To be a champion you must act like one, act like a champion.” Few bodybuilders have defined the bodybuilding industry like New York’s own Lou Ferrigno. Despite never winning a Mr. Olympia title throughout his 31-year career, Ferrigno is still an internationally recognized name in the industry whose influence spans two Mr. Universe titles, countless competitions and the famous 1975 Mr. Olympia competition, which was documented in the 1977 bodybuilding docudrama Pumping Iron. With the film featuring Ferrigno and Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger training for the competition, Ferrigno might have lost the title but the film made him a household name in both bodybuilding and in Hollywood as he went on to star as “The Hulk” in the television series, The Incredible Hulk. Over the years, he’s even been spotted in films like Sinbad of the Seven Seas, Hercules and I Love You, Man.
Long before Ferrigno ever dreamed of becoming a bodybuilder or an actor, for that matter, he faced great hardship as a child growing up in Brooklyn, New York in the early 1950s. As a baby, the Italian, born as Louis Jude, suffered numerous ear infections that left him 75% deaf, which was not officially diagnosed until he was three years old. By the time he was in elementary school, other students bullied him because he was different. “They used to call me, ‘deaf Louie, deaf mute,’ because of my hearing and the way I sounded,” Ferrigno recalled.
Suffering from low self-esteem after years of being bullied, Ferrigno often kept to himself and spent his free time reading comics featuring his favorite superheroes—Spider-Man and The Hulk—as well as watching bodybuilder Steve Reeves in Hercules. He was so inspired by Reeves and dreamt of becoming a man strong enough to conquer his own demons that, at 13 years old, he started weight training on his own with the hopes of boosting his self-confidence. Little did he realize just where his weight training would take him.
By the time Ferrigno graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1969, he already had five years of weight training under his belt. Despite his age, he went on to compete in advanced bodybuilding competitions like the IFBB Mr. America and the IFBB Mr. Universe, both of which he won just four years after high school and earned him a spot as one of the youngest bodybuilders to ever win either title. Training with Schwarzenegger to prepare for bigger competitions, Ferrigno made his first attempt at the Mr. Olympia title in 1974 only to earn second place after losing to the Austrian Oak himself. In 1975, he returned to the stage once more but took third place with Serge Nubret in second and Schwarzenegger in first.
Knowing that his moderate fame wouldn’t help pay the bills, Ferrigno kept his job as a sheet metal worker making $10 an hour at a local Brooklyn factory before he saw an incredible boost in his popularity with the release of Pumping Iron in 1977. Shortly after, CBS came calling and the two-time Mr. America champion was cast as the lead in The Incredible Hulk with Bill Bixby starring as his alter-ego, Dr. David Banner. Originally, the show’s producers intended to cast Schwarzenegger as The Hulk but, unfortunately, he wasn’t tall enough for the role at only 6’2”. Luckily, the 6’5” Ferrigno finally had the upper hand over his long-time friend and fellow competitor.
Ferrigno enjoyed his success as The Incredible Hulk from 1977 to 1981 and, like Schwarzenegger, went on to pursue an even bigger career in Hollywood although he never achieved the same level of fame. Appearing in films and television series like Battle of the Network Star, Trauma Center and a few spinoff series of The Incredible Hulk, Ferrigno may not be an A-list actor but he’s still a recognizable name in both Tinsel Town and in the bodybuilding circuit. In fact, amid his blossoming acting career, he made a grand return to professional bodybuilding in the early 1990s to compete in Mr. Olympia once again. However, with a 12th and 10th place finish in 1992 and 1993, respectively, it was apparent that time had already begun to take its toll.
Making one more attempt to regain his early reputation as The Hulk in the world of bodybuilding, Ferrigno entered the Masters Olympia competition in 1994. Winning the competition in a huge upset, Ferrigno’s determination to beat Boyer Coe and Robbie Robinson was apparent and even earned him a second documentary called Stand Tall, which was released in 1996. With one last major victory under his belt, Ferrigno finally retired.
Over the years, Ferrigno has focused more on his acting with minor guest appearances on various television series like The King of Queens in addition to working as Michael Jackson’s personal trainer in the 1990s. Ferrigno even trained the King of Pop for the concerts planned in 2009 but, sadly, tragedy struck when Jackson passed away before his tour began. Since then, the 65-year-old Ferrigno was sworn in as a reserve sheriff’s deputy in California’s Los Angeles County and was a contestant on the fifth season of The Celebrity Apprentice. Although the now President-elect Donald Trump eventually fired him, Ferrigno showed incredible respect and threw his support behind Trump during his candidacy for President of the United States.
Today, Ferrigno has plenty to keep him busy with guest appearances at bodybuilding competitions and Comic Con events around the world in addition to managing his own line of fitness equipment known as Ferrigno Fitness. Other than that, the former Mr. America has certainly proven he knows his way around Hollywood as he continues to lend his voice to blockbusters like The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Thor: Ragnarok. After all, who better to lend a hand than the mighty, green-skinned strong-man himself, the Incredible Hulk?