Real-Life Superhero Lou Ferrigno Discusses Overcoming Adversity and Finding the Power Within Yourself

Photo by Hernan Rodriguez

by Yasmine Shemesh

Published October 2018 in BeatRoute Magazine

It’s Thanksgiving in Canada and, even though the American holiday isn’t until next month, Lou Ferrigno, speaking over the telephone from Santa Monica, is sharing what he’s most thankful for. This year, it’s fitness, travel, his work as a sheriff deputy in Los Angeles County, the opportunity to make more movies, and his family.

Of course, Ferrigno is best known for portraying the title character in the 1970s TV series the Incredible Hulk, as well as being one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time. But as he speaks — graciously, with warmth and humility — about the journey that both his life and work continues to take him on to this day, gratitude is the thing that most notably radiates from him constantly, and not just in spirit of the holiday.

Ferrigno lost 70-80% of his hearing shortly after he was born. Growing up in Brooklyn, he was bullied as he dealt with navigating through loss of his hearing and mastering his speech. He found a wealth of strength and comfort in comic books —specifically, Superman and the Hulk. “I would watch Superman, the TV series, when I came home from school,” Ferrigno remembers. “So, that gave me a lot of confidence to take action. I used to read a lot of Hulk comics at the same time, because I was obsessed with power. In my imagination, I was a real life Walter Mitty. I liked to read these comics, fantasizing myself being powerful, fighting crime, and protecting life or property; fighting for myself. Gotta be big, strong, and powerful, to not be picked on anymore — because I was ridiculed when I was a kid. They used to call me names. They didn’t think I’d amount to anything. So, I was bullied a lot.”

The powerful physiques of those characters were also how Ferrigno first discovered bodybuilding. “I knew that was my platform to survive,” he says. “Growing up in a rough neighbourhood back in the ‘50s, in Brooklyn — I had to fight my own battles. I had to get myself self-confidence. I received a lot of admiration and respect from bodybuilding; I knew that would take me somewhere.”

In fact, Ferrigno was training for — and slated to win — the 1977 Mr. Olympia when he was cast as the Hulk for the TV series that same year. He was admittedly nervous, at first, because other recent series based on comic book characters had failed: the Amazing Spider-Man, for example, was just cancelled after 13 episodes. Ferrigno hoped that the pilot would get at least picked up as a series.

“So, I gave it everything I could, because I worked very hard on the show,” he says. “I remember I had a great fear of that, if people would like the show, but then when it got to air, it took over the country, the world, by storm, and it gave me a great feeling because I knew I had made the right decision — because my whole life I wanted to play this character.”

It was his first time on camera, too, apart from when he did Pumping Iron — the documentary that centered around the rivalry between Ferrigno and Arnold Schwarzenegger as they prepared for the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions. But Ferrigno was innate. It was a role that was truly meant for him and one that, certainly, felt destined. “It came naturally to follow the character,” he says. “They let me just play the character because it came naturally for me. I was a big fan of the Hulk. I remember we were filming over the summer and the heat was very intense, but I just knew. I said to myself, I kept believing that the show was going to be a hit.” Fond memories of those early days are still vivid. “I remember I had a great time, and I made a lot of good friends — especially when I had the chance to spend time with Bill Bixby, who was a veteran actor, one of my favourite actors.”

Ferrigno will be in Vancouver for the FAN EXPO convention from October 12-14. Along with having an affinity for the city from filming the last two Hulk movies here, he enjoys the convention experience tremendously because he gets to meet fans that have longstanding and deep connections to both him and the Hulk. “I love meeting with the fans, connecting with them, because they’re the ones who have supported me all these years, especially three generations of Hulk fans,” Ferrigno says. “I want to put a smile on people’s faces. It just gives me a great feeling — gratification —when I meet the fans.”

Life has come full circle for Ferrigno, as someone who, as a young boy, once found refuge in the power of the green behemoth. Now, Ferrigno has become that superhero for others. “It feels good because I give them a lot of hope,” he says. “I have a lot of people who come to these conventions, sometimes they have disability, sometimes they have insecurity, they want a pat on their back, and they want to feel like they’re doing the right thing for their life. When I was a child, I never had anything like this. I would have given anything to go to a convention to meet [my heroes], knowing that I’m okay. That’s something I believe in. I relive my childhood when I meet these people. Especially the stories: they converse with me how much it’s affected their lives, watching the show.”

When asked if he has words of wisdom for anyone who is overcoming adversity, Ferrigno’s gentle tone becomes impassioned. It’s about finding power within.

“I’d tell them to maximize their personal power, because every one of us is handicapped in one way or another,” he says. “Maximizing your personal power. Embrace your passions. If you’re passionate about something, embrace it. Do not listen to the naysayers, only believe in yourself, only compete with yourself — because when you compete with others, you’re going to lose.”