Hulk Not Nerd! Hulk Smash! My Incredible Interview with Lou Ferrigno
The morning I interviewed Lou Ferrigno, I felt un-strong. The familiar, brawny person in the mirror had become unfamiliar, and instead, what looked back at me was that inner nerd I no longer wanted to be.
The irony was, this previous version of myself, a presumed weaker one, was in fact quite strong, a realization that who we once were, is rarely possible to ignore. And in life, if we’re lucky, we learn that our greatest weakness can sometimes serve as a foundation that will help to make us incredible.
“Hulk changed my life,” Lou Ferrigno told me. And, although he admits to once being a nerd, a trait, I still see in his compassion, I wondered if becoming an icon of strength induced by anger, was actually the world’s way of painting fairness onto a person whose placid desire was to be stronger in the eyes of everyone, including himself.
Here’s what I found out:
Stefan Pinto: You said in one of your television interviews that you used bodybuilding as an escape while you were growing up. It’s hard to imagine you were a “nerd” and was teased in high school.
Lou Ferrigno: Yes, bodybuilding saved my life because I overcome the nerd stage. I got picked on. I was fascinated with power and then I decided to take that direction because I knew that would make me feel good about myself.
SP: I find that to be quite common among once nerdy guys. It was the same for Arnold; bodybuilding saved him… it certainly saved me.
LF: Yeah. If you’re tough, you’re more of a man, “you’re not going to beat me up.” It was all I had. I did it to survive. I had nothing else.
SP: So when you got the role of The Hulk…
LF: 1977, I went down for the audition, they had a screen test and then I got the part, we started filming soon after. I had to put my bodybuilding competing on hold.
SP: Were you looking to be an actor?
LF: Not at the time. I was training for the Mr. Olympia competition. When I got the part for Hulk, it seemed everything just fell into place at the right time, and I was in the right place.
SP: When you feel perfect to play a role, say The Hulk, do you think that the so-called Universe orchestrates everything so that you get it? I mean, you said you weren’t looking to be an actor, yet you got this incredible, so to speak, television role.
LF: I didn’t think about it at the time. But looking back, I always felt that that character would be perfect for me, it was something I did realize when I read Hulk comic books. I always envisioned that someday I would eventually play a superhero and the role of The Incredible Hulk was a dream come true.
SP: It sure was. How do you train to be a Mr. Universe? What does that involve?
LF: Ah, you know barbells, dumb bells, working out, eating, dieting, training –
Carla Ferrigno: Posing.
LF: [nods] Tanning…
At this stage of my life I’m just happy to maintain what I have
SP: Do you miss that? It is part of who you are. That’s the essence of Lou Ferrigno.
LF: No, I don’t miss competing. I still workout. At this stage of my life I’m just happy to maintain what I have. I’m 59 now. I enjoyed the competition and since I retired to do The Hulk TV series, I came back at 40 to compete again and I knew that I lost 17 years, but you can’t devote the same time as you used to.
Hulk is the best thing that happened in my life
SP: You were out of it for 17 years, and you came back at 42, that’s a long time to be away from something you like. How do you continue to motivate yourself to make this type of comeback?
LF: I have a tremendous passion for fitness, I love challenges and I am a very driven guy. I wanted to compete again as I felt I had unfinished business. When I retired [from competing] in 1975, I wasn’t in my best shape and then when I decided to come back to the sport, I had to compete against 90 body builders instead of 70. Bodybuilding changes every decade and it was one of the biggest challenges of my life. It’s very hard and I’m glad I did it because I never have to look back and say “I should’ve done it one more time.” I had to deal with it even though it wasn’t the best time for me to do it. If I had continued and didn’t do The Hulk TV series, I would’ve won Mr. Olympia seven or eight times, like Arnold, but I chose to go into show business and I didn’t expect The Hulk to run that long as a series.
SP: If you didn’t do bodybuilding, or followed that path, what do you think you would’ve been doing with your life?
LF: That’s a good question. Probably… construction. I was a sheet metal apprentice. I worked a lot with my hands. But I didn’t like it. Probably quite a lot of different jobs. Luckily I didn’t have to make that choice.
SP: Are you glad you did The Hulk?
LF: Yes, it’s the best thing that happened in my life.
SP: It changed your life
LF: Oh yeah, ‘cause I was the Hulk my whole life
SP: How do you feel about the last movie? How many were there, anyway? I forget, now. Was it two movies?
LF: The last movie is better than the first one only as it’s closer to the TV series. The first one… I’m not so crazy about the CGI. That’s the direction it goes, all of these special effects.
SP: Do you ever go “dressed” as the Hulk for Halloween?
LF: I don’t think it’s a good idea.
SP: Yeah, you’re probably right. You’ve said, “the charisma is gone, the camaraderie is gone [from bodybuilding] and you want to bring it back.” Have you brought it back?
LF: Um… no. Everything is changed. Personalities have changed. Pumping iron is not what it used to be. It doesn’t have the personality it used to. When we started out, people who worked out, had nothing. Now, there is so much money involved, back then it was the love of the sport. We appreciated what we have. Today it’s not the same.
Everyone wants self respect, some never get it
SP: Do you think it’s done mostly to be admired?
SP: Uh huh
LF: It has a lot to do with how you feel… about confidence. Because you want to be respected, as people. Most pro body builders have bad relationships with their fathers. We want to prove something. That’s a good question. It is self admiration, self respect. You see growing up I didn’t get admiration and respect. Bodybuilding gave me that.
SP: I don’t think it’s something that’s negative. Everyone wants self respect, some never get it.
LF: Oh yeah. But it’s a choice you make. Too many people work out, but they don’t sustain it, to be a champion or to be successful. It’s called being successful with yourself, with your body and your own personal power.
I was always, and am always, who I am
SP: Do you think that’s different for women, though? Do women feel the same way?
LF: It’s the same, exact way. Women have competitions. It doesn’t have to be about bodybuilding. It’s about your own genetic potential and how you appreciate yourself to what you do with your life; from taking care of your body and taking on a challenge to doing other things.
SP: I want to talk about fame. You’re an American icon, a household name. You’ve worked hard to become Lou Ferrigno, the brand. Your name is even trademarked. Has recognition for doing something worthwhile changed, in that, people are now famous simply for being famous? What do you think is the fascination with fame, especially with the younger generation?
LF: There’s a mixture now of drugs, alcohol and no foundation. It’s worse today; people aren’t committed to themselves, they can’t be committed to relationships and they’re very vague in their minds. It has to do with their upbringing and the foundation you come from. I came from nothing. There are times I think individuals today have it too easy. You open the newspaper, people are breaking up, over spending, they take fame and use it in a negative way, feeling they can hide behind it, thinking they can live forever. Be careful how you handle fame. To me fame can be a great thing and I cherish it.
SP: Were you always Lou Ferrigno? Some people become someone and the true essence of who they are, is lost.
LF: I was always, and am always, who I am. I never judge people for who they are and nobody is better than anybody. I can’t pretend. You know how some people hide behind hats and sunglasses and put on a different show? That’s not who I am.
Carla: It’s one of the reasons I married him. He’s gotten better, but he’s never changed.
SP: How did you two meet?
Carla: I was a therapist taking a break and decided that I would do this other job for a while –
SP: What job?
Carla: I managed restaurants. So, one night Lou came in with his friends. I threw him out…
SP: Did you know he was Lou Ferrigno?
Carla: No. I had no idea. I had been in a cult at that time, so I didn’t watch television…
SP: Why’d you throw him out?
Carla: Because he was rowdy and his friends were under 21. I got a call from the front that this man wanted to see the manager. Now, in those days, it was 1979, there were really no women restaurant or bar managers. Here he was; 300lbs, second year of the Hulk, super macho with all his guy friends surrounding him and he looked at me and said “I want to see the manager.” I told him, “I was the manager, and I’m sorry you’re with people under 21 and you cannot stay.” He was being a macho Italian. I walked him to the front door. And he asked if there was anything we can do and I told him, no, there wasn’t. And he left. A week later, he returned — by himself to ask me out on a date.
SP: Where did he want to take you?
Carla: He invited me to a Dolly Parton party in Hollywood. And I thought, “what a jerk! Trying to impress me with Hollywood parties!”
SP [to Lou]: Do you think if Carla didn’t have the personality that she has, you wouldn’t have been so attracted to her? Do strong men respond to a stronger woman?
[Lou looks at Carla] Yes, depending on the man. Most men want to control women they look down on weak women. But she has a strong personality. And I never wanted to be with a woman that I felt couldn’t be my partner. I need to be with a woman who respects herself not someone who has the brain of a donkey.
[Carla giggles. It’s louder than usual]
SP: A lot do! Especially nowadays.
LF: It’s huge! [Carla is laughing and looking down at the floor, perhaps at her slip-on shoes. Her toes are neat and her slippers are shiny silver, almost transparent].
SP: Anyway, I didn’t know this, but you were close friends with Michael Jackson…
LF: Yes, for 20 years
SP: And I don’t want to ask cliche questions, but obviously Michael Jackson is not synonymous with working out and muscle building. He’s a dancer. But you trained him. What was it like to train someone like Michael Jackson? Is it a completely different training regimen?
LF: It was different because Michael and I became friends when we were together. It was my admiration for his passion for music and he admired my passion for fitness. So we collaborated and we had similar fathers.
SP: How long did you train him?
LF: On and off for 20 years. He would tour, take a break, train… Michael Jackson trusted me. He felt safe with me. He felt when I was with him, I didn’t want anything from him. I created a routine that worked for him. He had too many enablers and… Michael was a very smart guy and he was a huge fan of the Hulk. I never really had a big interest in music, so I wasn’t star-struck by him. But Michael inside was a very good guy. He reminded me a lot of myself when I was a kid and that’s why we got along so well. He let his guard down when I was with him and the same with me. We didn’t pretend.
SP: Carla? Is that your family? [There’s a large picture hanging above a settee type sofa of the Ferrigno family. It is framed and looks like it might be a painting of a photo taken when everyone was much younger, when people still seemed to have time to pose for family portraits].
Carla: Yes! That was taken years ago!
SP: They’re not teenagers anymore…
Carla: No, no they’re not!
SP: What are you doing now? Are you still a psychotherapist?
Carla: When I met Lou, I took over his business. I have a business degree, I have a degree in divorce mediation, I have a psychology degree –
SP: You’re smart.
Carla: [laughs] yeah… and I have a PhD in men… so, I took over his business, and made a success of our lives.
SP: One of the things about dating an actor and being married to an actor is understanding that an actor is a brand. Do you think that people in these roles have to pull that back in order to meet someone or for someone to be comfortable with them or does the person they’re with have to understand that type of genre of person?
Carla: That type of genre of person is extremely narcissistic. They’re usually not educated — that’s not true about some, like Edward Norton, for example, is highly educated, he studied English Literature. But most, if they are educated, they are educated in an acting school, maybe in Yale in the acting program, they’re not getting what I call a real education…
SP: Like Liberal Arts.
Carla: Right, so they’re always involved in who they are and what they’re doing. And the big thing about actors and why they get divorced is because they meet and fall in love with each other’s images, each other’s PR but not about the person, and the person is usually pretty shallow and doesn’t have a lot to contribute. And most start out pretty young and never really live life. Look at Charlie Sheen, he never lived life. He’s been acting since he was young. They were never out in the world and experiencing life, their lives were… cushioned…
LF: Lindsay Lohan.
Carla: Lindsay Lohan. They’re cushioned by their own publicity around them. At such young ages they’re taught that they are everything.
SP: So they’re living a version of themselves.
Carla: They are and they never find out who they really are. And the reason they get involved in drugs, alcohol and letting their lives fall apart is they don’t know what the dark side of life is, and something is missing, they want to experience more life that they never got around to. So they drag themselves through DUIs, the drug addictions, the sex addictions and all that stuff. Self involved. They all started very young. I mean when I started, I knew I wanted to go into the world and have something to contribute. Yes, I was a beautiful, young girl — so shallow — but experiencing life.
SP: I saw that movie The Dilemma and I think that both Vince Vaughn and Kevin James need to lose weight. And I know they know it. They can’t not know it.
Carla: [laughs and slaps her thigh] All the years Lou did “King of Queens,” we were always talking to Kevin about training with Lou — for free!
SP: And he looks like he put on weight.
Carla: He did! But you know what he always said…
SP: Does he feel that it’s his character?
Carla: Yes [smacks thigh] and he says he doesn’t think he’ll be successful so he’s afraid because he’s gained such success from being fat and there is a certain area in show business…
SP: That’s an excuse.
Carla: No, that’s what he wants. He wants to be that way. He has choices. His brother isn’t like that. He’s like that. And he wants to be that way. Whether it’s fear of no career or fear of being more handsome. Who the hell knows? All I know about Kevin is that he doesn’t want to be any different than he is. We’ve tried.
SP: Are you glad your kids are grown?
Carla: I am… I am… not that I wouldn’t love being [Carla, begins to cry] I can’t believe you asked me that [she says this while looking down. Both hands are in her lap]…
[Lou looks at me. I swallow and wonder if I made him mad]
SP: I ask you, as I have a 22-year-old sister, and I think it’s hard to raise kids today.
Carla: I’m glad that we raised the kids in the years that we did. I think as a result of those three kids, and they’re very far apart, the two older ones had it easier. They grew up in a time that wasn’t quite as wild as what our youngest has experienced. And… it’s hard. And I’m really glad that they’re grown up. They have they’re own lives and all of that. I would never want to be 25 again [laughs] and I would never want to have a child again. And, I’m not even looking forward to grand children, sad to say that, but true. I’m done. I’ve done so much mothering. I was a mom that never had a nanny, travelled around the world, took them with me; a 24-hour-a-day-mom. I gave, I think, a thousand percent.
SP: “The Incredible Ferrignos?”
LF: Our reality show. As of now, we’re talking to networks. It’s about changing other family’s lifestyles and how we can help.
Carla: It’s really a wonderful show. And, it’s not about us. It’s about other people and helping people in America. And God knows, people need help. But the truth is, at this time in our history, no one is interested in anything without a lot of controversy, a lot of fighting, a lot of sex, a lot of drugs and…
SP: I don’t know if I agree with they’re not interested. I think people use that as a sedative, someone else’s life is worse than mine.
Carla: That doesn’t help us, because we’re not that way.
LF: Well it has a lot to do with the drama of the other families. The focus is on the other family and we’re the good police that show up and change a family’s lifestyle.
SP: As a couple, you’ve been married 31 years, more and more people seem to be falling out of marriages, getting divorced. In fact, a recent media article went so far as to say that marriage may be out dated. What do you think of this notion and is there a secret to marriage longevity?
LF: Open communication.
SP: Open communication?
LF: Right. Everything. Respecting each other. Being partners. Being best of friends.
SP: I was going to ask you about pre-marital sex.
Carla: Pre-material sex? It doesn’t seem like a question.
SP: Well, I mean people say that’s old school, it doesn’t matter, If you really like someone you can sleep with them on a first date. Do you think it really matters?
Carla: Yes I do. Absolutely.
SP: I do, too.
Carla: Absolutely. What I think about life, is that men and women, from the day they’re born, are led by hormones. I don’t care when our daughter says, “that’s old fashioned.” No, hormones are never changing.
[Lou chuckles] Men are still men. When a women has sex with a man, the first thing that happens is she loses all sight of anything that’s real. It’s over. You’re now bonded.
SP: What does that mean?
Carla: It means you’re bonded by oxytocin, whether you like him or not, whether you know who he is or not, and he will look great to you no matter what, nine times out of ten. It’s a bad choice. If you want something real, you need to get to know who that human being is before you start getting intimate.
LF: [to Carla] You taught him something.
SP: Do you think promiscuous women lose a valuable part of themselves?
Carla: What I know about that is they become calculating, hard and used. I would never recommend a woman sleep with a man on a first date. I have come to the conclusion that it is very foolish to sleep with a man until you get to know him for at least four or five months. And pre-marital sex? I wouldn’t marry someone unless I had sex with them first, but you really have to know who they are.
LF: [to me] No more sex on the first date.
SP: Well it’s a very generational thing…
Carla: Used up. Used up, right!
SP: I said “used up?”
Carla: No, I did. I came from the generation that “free love” and “free sex” and all of those things. I was taught incredible morals and self respect, sexually. And when I went into the world, my mother was very liberal, avant garde and wild, but very connected to her man. She taught me morals, but she let me read magazines, romance magazines, that no other mother would let their daughters read. The ones where you’d find out the women were having sex and getting pregnant. So, I got an education before I went into the world. And I went through a generation where women would have sex with everybody, everybody, everybody, and I could never figure out how they did that.
SP: Where’d they find the time?
[Lou chuckles] Carla: The time? I don’t know. I just couldn’t understand it emotionally. Men would try and talk me into having sex, I couldn’t figure that that out either.
SP: Did you know you were pretty?
Carla: Um… not really. Not really. I never knew that, but I knew that men loved me, for whatever reason. But I didn’t do things that the women of my generation did. And now, I meet women that are fairly sad. They’re sad and they’re sorry. They feel regretful of the way they lived their life, the things that they did, the way they had sex with every man that came along, the way they got pregnant by different men; those were all things I chose not to do.
SP [to Lou]: Do women still throw themselves at you?
LF: They do but I am who I am, and I don’t feel that I need that attention. It’s the nature of some women. I enjoy respect, and will never step over the line.
SP: What was the first strange thing that happened to you?
LF: One time, I was at a show, signing autographs, this woman, she was kind of drink, threw her leg on the table and wanted me to sign between her legs.
SP: Did you do it?
LF: No, she had no panties on
[Carla giggles] I said “I can’t do that.” Then she asked me to sign one of her breasts. I said I really can’t do that. It was an embarrassing situation. I asked myself “what do I do now?” The person next to me was kind enough to say, “he’s not going to do that, if you want, he’ll sign a piece of paper or a picture.” She was just over excited. You have that sometimes and as a celebrity you may not be prepared for it.
SP: Especially at the beginning because you feel, that they will laugh at you if you don’t, or will they think these things about me?
LF: I knew an actor, I won’t mention his name, back in the 70s, he would sleep with six, seven women a day. They would throw their number at him, and he would be with that person two hours later. These people have no desire to be with one woman. I wasn’t raised like that. I wouldn’t respect myself and it’s not how I like to be.
Carla: I tell women to choose two top things that you want in a man. I chose a man with integrity and not a womanizer. Lou is a man who is fully who he was to himself and doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone.
LF: The truth is if you’re unhappy, just don’t cheat on your wife.
Carla: You know, the further you get into a conversation with a man, you know if he’s telling the truth. People say “oh, you’re so lucky.” Friends, some not so-friends, have all come onto my husband. They say, “yeah, he’s so great.” Well, you know, this is hard work. It’s not just luck. I chose well, so stop choosing the womanizing, insane, macho men and you’ll have something.
SP: But don’t you feel that is a mentality, the fact that they’re saying, “oh, you’re so lucky” that’s a mentality that’s permeated it’s way through everything; you should instantly become famous, you should instantly lose weight, you can instantly find a man, just because.
Carla: This type of thinking is ridiculous. We made choices. We talked about these things before marriage. We made deals. He made deals with me and I made deals with him.
LF: It works both ways. It has to do with choice but so many people are in denial and people make wrong choices and don’t want to admit it. You can never figure out another person’s relationships.
Carla: People are human, they make mistakes, they hurt you. That’s the way it goes.
LF: [to Carla] You’re scaring him. He’ll never go on a date again.
SP: No, no it’s okay. So, do you think vows are outdated? For some people they’re just words.
LF: Well my word is better than a contract. My word is my bond.
SP: Yes, but a lot of it, Lou, is your upbringing. You’re from Brooklyn and I find that with New Yorkers, their word is their bond.
LF: Well, there are some of them that don’t keep their word.
SP: Certainly having nothing to prove is fundamental. Speaking of nothing to prove, I measured my biceps with this device and posted it on Facebook [I show Lou the device I used to measure my bicep]. People commented like crazy. So, today I posted that I’m interviewing an “incredible” celebrity and if you guess correctly, you win the device I used. So, could I measure your arms –
LF: I don’t measure body parts.
SP: Seriously? Well, will you sign it? Her name is Rebecca. You need a Sharpie, though.
LF: Sure. [Lou Ferrigno gets up and goes to the kitchen, presumably to find a Sharpie to sign Rebecca’s Facebook prize. I secretly hope she likes it].
Carla: Let me ask you a question, what do you think about social networks and relationships? Don’t you think it’s so available that the access is tremendous? There’s always something.
SP: Well the irony is, you said you have to make a choice, when in fact we have too much choice. Do people want to date me or their formulated idea, based on a picture, of me? And the younger generation is being raised on pop music and pornography, both quite visceral and fleeting. The minute anyone decides that there is something minor about a person that they don’t like, the scroll, scroll mentality sets in with “what else is out there?”
Carla: Dating can’t be hard for a handsome man like you.
[Lou Ferrigno returns with a Sharpie. The bicep measuring device is already signed, “To Rebecca, dare to dream. Lou Ferrigno.” His penmanship is beautiful].
SP: Well, maybe I don’t date as much as I should, and now, Lou gave me some new advice.
LF: How old are you?
LF: Really? I thought you were 29. I’m impressed. Thank your parents, you have good genes.
SP: Thank you. I think they know how grateful I am and are happy that I grew up.