Some years ago, there were two characters on the popular comedy show, Saturday Night Live, that made good natured fun of the sport of bodybuilding. The characters had a bodybuilding show called “Pumping up with Hans and Franz”. The two talented comedians who performed the skit were Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey and the skits were so popular that they became one of the most imitated routines in the show’s history.
While that skit was done in fun, it did emphasize that long before Carvey and Nealon wrote that comedy piece, the sport of bodybuilding had taken a place in the national consciousness. The event that propelled bodybuilding almost to a national craze was a film that came out in 1975 called Pumping Iron.
Of course, bodybuilding did not come into being when Pumping Iron was released. The culture of bodybuilding had been in existence for many years before the world began to appreciate it after the release of the film. In the early 1960s, the presence of bodybuilders in California was brought to light in such films as Muscle Beach Party and other surfing movies of the day.
But it was Pumping Iron that showed the serious nature of the sport of bodybuilding and brought real respect to bodybuilding competitions and to bodybuilders as well. Not only that, but Pumping Iron produced some true superstars of the sport including Arnold Schwarzenegger and the man who would forever be associated with The Incredible Hulk, Lou Ferrigno. These bodybuilders went on to become international stars of movies and sports and in the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger to success in politics as well.
The makers of Pumping Iron did not know they were making a film that would cause bodybuilding to explode in popularity. The film was designed to document the real athletic struggle that was about to unfold at two bodybuilding competitions, the IFBB Mr. Universe and the Mr. Olympia in Pretoria, South Africa.
And while it is easy to only associate big stars like Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno with Pumping Iron, the movie also told the story of a small army of extraordinarily talented bodybuilders who were also in those competitions including Franco Columbu, Mike Mentzer, Robby Robinson, Mike Katz, Albert Beckles, Ken Waller, Frank Zane, Paul Grant, Ed Corney, Serge Nubret and Danny Padilla.
There are many stories that we get a glimpse of in Pumping Iron that revealed that each of these men came to this bodybuilding competition with a story to tell. Perhaps the most compelling story that came out in the first part of the film was the struggle for supremacy between Mike Katz and Ken Waller. Using classic movie making storytelling methods, Katz is shown to be the unassuming and humble competitor that would capture the audience’s sympathy as he fought against the less scrupulous Waller for the championship.
Perhaps the most heart rending moment of Pumping Iron shows Ken Waller deliberately sabotaging Katz by hiding a shirt he used to compete which disturbed the concentration of Waller’s rival. The outcome was that Katz lost the competition to Waller, which provided a sense of tragedy for viewers of Pumping Iron.
It was only some time later that we have come to understand that the entire plot-line of Waller hiding the shirt was created to give the film a stronger plot and emotional appeal. Ken Waller suffered a great deal of audience disdain for years to come for a “dirty trick” that was really just a made up movie making plot device.
But what was not made up was how Pumping Iron showcased the true champions that the bodybuilders in the film were. The movie legitimized the sport and the discipline of bodybuilding and inspired countless youth to aspire to greatness in a sport that was at best unknown and at worst made fun up prior to the release of Pumping Iron. We can be grateful to the writer, directors and producers of Pumping Iron for showing us that bodybuilding is a real sport and that bodybuilders are men with just as deep a commitment to their discipline as any athlete in any other sport in the world.