Arroyo Grande’s Lou Ferrigno: From ‘The Incredible Hulk’ to today

Lou Ferrigno built this 1,200-square-foot gym down the hill from his Arroyo Grande home, which he bought about a decade ago. He splits time between SLO County and Santa Monica.
Lou Ferrigno built this 1,200-square-foot gym down the hill from his Arroyo Grande home, which he bought about a decade ago. He splits time between SLO County and Santa Monica.

As the title star of TV’s “The Incredible Hulk,” Lou Ferrigno was the picture of primal rage.

On a recent March afternoon, however, the 60-year-old actor, bodybuilder and television personality was all smiles.

“This is my temple,” a bronzed, beaming Ferrigno said, standing in a large, sunny room full of exercise equipment.

Ferrigno and his family divide their time between Santa Monica and San Luis Obispo County, where they bought a second home in 1988.

They purchased their current house, which boasts 180-degree views of the peaceful Arroyo Grande countryside, about a decade ago. (Ferrigno added a 1,200-square-foot personal gym two years later.)

County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said most locals probably don’t realize there’s a celebrity in their midst.

“When you’re with him in public, you can see the look on people’s faces,” Parkinson said of his friend. “They’ll grab me later (and say), ‘Hey, was that Lou Ferrigno you were with?’ You can see the excitement in their eyes.”

Building a career

Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Ferrigno suffered an early setback when an ear infection left him with permanent partial hearing loss. His condition made him “very introverted,” he recalled.

Still, the young Ferrigno felt a special kinship with the comic book character The Hulk, the giant green alter-ego of scientist Bruce Banner.

“I was fascinated with power,” said Ferrigno, who started lifting weights at age 12 to build self-confidence. “I loved building muscles and gaining respect.”

Short on funds, the young bodybuilder crafted barbells by dipping broom handles in liquid cement and made a weight bench using milk crates. He plastered his basement gym with pictures of bodybuilder Steve Reeves, star of the “Hercules” movies.

“I trained harder than anybody at that time,” Ferrigno said.

His efforts paid off in 1973 when he won the International Federation of BodyBuilding & Fitness’ Mr. Universe title at age 21. The following year, he placed second to Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger in the organization’s Mr. Olympia competition.

“We were rivals,” explained Ferrigno, whose failed bid for the 1975 Mr. Olympia title was chronicled in the 1977 documentary “Pumping Iron.” “To be the best, I had to beat the best.”

Meanwhile, his acting career was taking off.

In 1977, Ferrigno joined the cast of the hit CBS series “The Incredible Hulk” as a replacement for Richard Kiel, best known as Jaws from the James Bond movies. His stint on the Emmy Award-winning show taught him how to show his emotions through his actions, he said.

Ferrigno has reprised his role several times since “The Incredible Hulk” went off the air in 1982, appearing in an animated series, a few TV movies and two big-budget films (2003’s “Hulk” and 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk”). He supplies the voice of the Hulk in the action blockbuster “The Avengers,” coming to theaters in May.

When Ferrigno and his wife, Carla, visited the South Pacific island of Bora Bora as newlyweds, the locals greeted them with chants of “Hulk! Hulk! Hulk!” he recalled.

“I can’t go anywhere without being recognized,” he said. “Every single person on this planet knows the Hulk.”

Many hats

Ferrigno has turned that notoriety to his advantage, working as a motivational speaker and personal trainer. (Past clients include Michael Jackson, Chuck Norris and Mickey Rourke.) He’s also written three books, including “Lou Ferrigno’s Guide to Personal Power, Bodybuilding, and Fitness.”

Ferrigno played a fictional version of himself during a seven-year stint on the sitcom “The King of Queens,” and appeared in the 2009 comedy “I Love You, Man.”

In 2012, he was a contestant on the NBC reality competition “The Celebrity Apprentice,” which pitted business-savvy celebrities such as talk show host Arsenio Hall, magician Penn Jillette and comedian Lisa Lampanelli against one another.

“I went on the show because I want to show how smart I am, how honest I am, and how good I am at branding,” explained Ferrigno, who hoped to win $250,000 for his charity, the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

“It was tough, but it was mental toughness,” he said, adding that he has his own fitness-focused reality show in the works.

Ferrigno is also pursuing a side career in volunteer law enforcement.

He joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department as a reserve deputy in 2006 after undergoing training for firearms, first aid and high-speed driving techniques. His duties range from routine traffic stops and search-and-rescue operations to working with the department’s Youth Activities League program.

“I get to be a hero without putting on a costume,” said Ferrigno, whose father served as a lieutenant with the New York Police Department.

Although Ferrigno said his celebrity status shields him in the field, he agreed that being a sheriff’s deputy isn’t easy.

“When I go out there, it’s a risk,” he said. “It’s not like making a movie.”

Ferrigno was sworn in as a reserve deputy with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office in 2016.

“He really wants to give back,” Parkinson said of Ferrigno.

“I’ve always believed in my dreams,” Ferrigno explained. “I’m an action-taker. I don’t want to hear people talk. Either you do it or you don’t.”

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.

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