Fitness guru Jack LaLanne, 96, dies at Morro Bay home

Jack LaLanne, in his home gym in Morro Bay in 2005.
Jack LaLanne, in his home gym in Morro Bay in 2005. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Fitness guru Jack LaLanne — who inspired television viewers to lose weight and lift weights decades before exercise hit the mainstream — died Sunday afternoon of respiratory failure caused by pneumonia at age 96 at his home in Morro Bay.

Known as the “Godfather of Fitness,” perhaps no other individual in history had a greater hand in literally reshaping a culture.

For almost 34 years, LaLanne was a television staple with the first syndicated daily exercise show, whipping his viewers through a regimen of jumping jacks, deep-knee bends and pushups.

In his later years, he and wife Elaine used cable outlets to tirelessly extol the virtues of juiced vegetables — using his patented juicer — as a mainstay of good nutrition and health.

“I have not only lost my husband and a great American icon, but the best friend and most loving partner anyone could ever hope for,” Elaine LaLanne, his wife of 51 years and a frequent partner in his television appearances, said in a statement.

As told to numerous interviewers over the years, his life story could have been ripped from the pages of a Horatio Alger novel.

Born François Henri LaLanne on Sept. 26, 1914, in Oakland, his French immigrant parents, John LaLanne and Jennie Garaig, were poor.

By his own admission, he was a miserable child prone to rages where, on one occasion, he tried to burn his parents’ house down; on another, he chased his brother with an axe.

“I had boils, pimples and suffered from near-sightedness,” he noted of his youth in a 2005 interview. “Little girls used to beat me up.”

Providence intervened when, at 15, he heard nutrition pioneer Paul Bragg lecture on the benefits of diet and exercise.

He discovered that he was “a sugar and junk food junkie.”

That realization led LaLanne on a crusade that would span decades. But not all of those years were a smooth ride.

Shortly after opening the nation’s first modern health studio on the third floor of an aging Oakland office building in 1936, LaLanne began to take heat from, of all directions, the medical community.

“People thought I was a charlatan and a nut,” he said in a 2005 interview.

“The doctors were against me — they said that working out with weights would give people everything from heart attacks to hemorrhoids; that women would look like men.”

LaLanne prevailed.

By 1951, his message of diet and exercise had proved popular to the point that he was given a television show to preach his gospel of health.

In his trademark skin-tight suit, he was nonstop in leading exercises while spewing a steady patter of inspirational platitudes such as: “Don’t exceed the feed limit; your waistline is your lifeline; work at living and you don’t have to die tomorrow; eat right and you can’t go wrong.”

The show was a hit and the jumping off point for an empire that would eventually include a couple of hundred health clubs, videos and compact discs, books, films and even a stint as himself on “The Simpsons” animated television show.

And no one sold Jack LaLanne better than Jack LaLanne.

For instance, in 1954, at age 40, he swam the length of the Golden Gate Bridge underwater with 140 pounds of equipment, including two air tanks.

Twenty years later, at age 60, he swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf for the second time.

He was shackled, handcuffed and towing a 1,000-pound boat.

At 70, once again shackled and cuffed, he towed 70 boats with 70 people from the Queen’s Way Bridge to the Queen Mary in Long Beach Harbor. It was a wind- and current-whipped 1.5 miles.

In the 1980s, he served on the governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports with then-actor/bodybuilder and now former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, accepted a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and moved to Morro Bay with Elaine.

Of this last development, he told the then-Telegram-Tribune in 1987: “If you don’t like Morro Bay, you don’t like sex and money.”

In 2005, the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce presented LaLanne its Living Treasure award, a lifetime achievement honor given to local citizens.

But LaLanne also had a couple of setbacks along the way.

In 1991, he pleaded no contest to a charge of alcohol-related reckless driving after he was stopped by the CHP near Cuesta College and blew a legally impaired 0.08 percent blood alcohol level. He received a fine, counseling and probation.

Then, in 1996, 70,000 of his Juice Tiger vegetable juicers were recalled after at least 14 people were cut on the hands, face and chest. Another 600,000 juicers weren’t recalled, however.

In addition to his wife, LaLanne is survived by two sons, Dan and Jon, and a daughter, Yvonne.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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