The name Lou Ferrigno had never been heard by most people outside the bodybuilding world until the movie Pumping Iron was released and became a surprise success in 1977. The documentary tells the story of a group of bodybuilding competitors preparing for the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition.
Lou was at that time working in obscurity as a steel worker, training under his father’s tutelage in a small downtown gym. In contrast to the ego and flash of some of his competitors, Lou’s humility and strong work ethic is appealing and inspirational. That humble but determined spirit shines through beautifully in Pumping Iron.
Despite Lou’s massive chest, measured at one point at an astonishing 60 inches, he was bested by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1975 contest. However, Pumping Iron made the name of Lou Ferrigno famous. He parlayed his bodybuilding fame and his impressive physique into an admirable career in television and movies.
Lou Ferrigno was born in Brooklyn, NY on November 9, 1951. A childhood ear infection inflicted permanent partial hearing loss. Later he was quoted as referring to his hearing loss as a catalyst in his future success:
“If I hadn’t lost my hearing, I wouldn’t be where I am now. It forced me to maximize my potential. I had to be better than the average person to succeed was. That’s why I chose bodybuilding. If I became a world champion, if I could win admiration from my peers, I could do anything.”
That resolve that Ferrigno shows in that quotation is very much on display in his performance in Pumping Iron.
Growing up in the 1950s, young Lou Ferrigno was a fan of the “Hercules” films, starring Steve Reeves, one of the leading bodybuilders of that decade. He enjoyed the superhero comic books which fascinated most boys of that period, including “The Incredible Hulk”. It is hard to imagine that young Lou could have foreseen the role that character would play in his future career.
A natural athlete, Lou Ferrigno won the title of Teenage Mr. America in 1970. In 1973, he became the youngest bodybuilder (at age 21) to win the Mr. Universe title, a title he won again the following year. He played professional football for the Canadian Football League. At 285 lb and reaching a height of 6 foot 5 inches, he was the biggest professional bodybuilder at the time.
His best known role was as the title character in the TV series The Incredible Hulk. When Lou auditioned for the role, one of his rivals was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who reportedly lost the role due to being a few inches shorter than Lou.
The mild-mannered alter ego of the Hulk, scientist David Banner, was played by Bill Bixby, but Lou will always be the image and persona of the Hulk in the minds of fans. Though Lou’s voice was not used in the original TV series, he did provide the voice of the Hulk for the animated UPN network series in 1996.
In the late 1980s, Lou decided to tone down his massive body, which had once won him the nickname “Big Louie,” in order to be seen as a normal (though extremely strong and fit) person, and to distance his image from the monstrous “Hulk” character. He also applied his considerable self discipline to serious training in theatrical acting. He honed his dramatic skills in numerous theatrical productions.
This enabled Lou to transition into supporting roles, such as in the popular situation comedy King of Queens, where he had a recurring guest cameo role as a neighbor of Doug and Carrie. Lou Ferrigno has now appeared in over twenty feature films, including the sequel to Pumping Iron and Stand Tall, which documents Lou’s 1994 comeback in the Masters Olympia title and his return to bodybuilding after a seventeen year retirement.
In every respect, the careers of Lou Ferrigno have reflected a man of humility, tremendous talent, strength and grace and an inner drive to succeed. Start with Pumping Iron, the fans of Lou Ferrigno have continued to enjoyed watching his success. His is a career that will continue to delight the fans of Lou Ferrigno for many years to come.