He started life as a shy and unassuming boy, but by his 20s Lou Ferrigno was the strongest man on the planet. Now nearing his 70s, The Incredible Hulk star has done battle with Arnold Schwarzenegger and even fought crime during his epic life. And judging by his jaw-dropping appearance today, this bodybuilder shows no signs of slowing down.
When you think of the Hulk, you probably imagine Mark Ruffalo’s nuanced portrayal in The Avengers. But this star wasn’t the first person to play the iconic superhero onscreen. Nor was it Edward Norton or Eric Bana, who both depicted the character in earlier movies. That honor instead falls to the American actor Lou Ferrigno.
Born in Brooklyn in 1951, Ferrigno immortalized the Hulk on TV long before superhero movies were all the rage. And unlike the stars who came after him, he didn’t need CGI to render the character’s monstrous bulk. Rather, the bodybuilder relied solely on his colossal and intimidating 6’5-inch, 285-pound physique.
More than 40 years since The Incredible Hulk premiered, Ferrigno’s landmark role has made him an icon of both bodybuilding and TV. But weirdly enough, he owes his career to the mightiest Avenger in more ways than one. To explain that, let’s take a look at Ferrigno’s younger years and the motivation that eventually made him a star.
As a child, Ferrigno had a hard time fitting in. The future star was ill at ease around other people thanks to a severe case of hearing loss. As a result, he was shy and withdrawn. Ferrigno was also underweight, which only increased his low self-confidence. In his solitude, the young boy took to reading Hulk comics and a dream began to form that one day he’d be just as powerful as his superhero idol.
At age 12, Ferrigno discovered a way to make his dream a reality through bodybuilding. Yes, the budding strongman soon discovered the sport was as good for his soul as it was his body. He told the website Bodybuilding in 2019, “I was always fascinated by power and strength and muscle. I admired people like Steve Reeves as Hercules and that gave me a lot of confidence in myself.”
Ferrigno apparently lacked the money to buy workout equipment, but nonetheless the star knew that bodybuilding was what he wanted to do. Over time, his list of idols grew to include Mr. Olympia champion Arnold Schwarzenegger. And in striving to copy his hero’s physique, Ferrigno told the publication that he spent hours training with homemade weights and gorging himself on up to 10,000 calories a day.
Soon enough, Ferrigno was the juggernaut he’d always longed to be. By age 20, he had packed on an incredible amount of muscle which let him win bodybuilding competitions like Mr. Universe with ease. He’d even go on to compete against his hero Schwarzenegger in Mr. Olympia in 1974 and ’75.
Ferrigno wasn’t able to secure the coveted title on both of those occasions. But he came away with arguably an even better prize. While competing in the competition the second time around, the bodybuilder was followed by a camera crew compiling footage for a documentary called Pumping Iron. And the film captured the imagination of a TV exec named Kenneth Johnson when it came out in 1977.
You see, Johnson was working on a new show for CBS and was having trouble casting a central role. The character in question – the monstrous alter-ego of a meek scientist – had to be inhumanly big. And while their original choice Richard Kiel certainly had the height for the part, he just didn’t have the bulk.
That’s when Johnson turned to Pumping Iron and witnessed the mammoth frame of Ferrigno. According to Premiere Speakers, Ferrigno weighed 285 pounds at this point, so he more than matched the weight needed to play the role. Plus, his height meant that he edged out his shorter rival Schwarzenegger, who also lobbied for the part. And just like that, Ferrigno’s childhood dream came true – he was finally the Hulk.
For Ferrigno, becoming the Hulk was the culmination of a decades-long dream. And any network executives still uncertain that this unknown actor could play their part had their fears crushed on Ferrigno’s first day on set. Stepping out of the make-up chair, the actor’s appearance left everyone in disbelief.
The star recalled the breathless reception he got when he first went into character in his 1982 autobiography The Incredible Lou Ferrigno. He wrote, “I was accustomed to people’s stares, but this was different. People were actually intimidated by this green creature. They took a step backward and their mouths dropped open.”
Playing the Hulk was Ferrigno’s ultimate fantasy, though working on The Incredible Hulk wasn’t exactly easy. First, the long working hours meant that the star was working up to 12 hours a day, he told Bodybuilding. Then he had the thick green makeup to contend with, which made movement near impossible. On top of that was the temperature on set. This apparently made Ferrigno burn calories unnecessarily and required him to adopt a stricter diet.
Also challenging was the fact that Ferrigno was leading a major network television show despite having never acted before. Fortunately, his co-star Bill Bixby – who played his character’s mild-mannered alter-ego Dr. David Banner – helped Ferrigno out by teaching him about acting techniques like pantomime. The muscle man soon came to see his more experienced colleague as a mentor and a lasting friendship was born.
One aspect of the character that Ferrigno didn’t need help with, though, was conveying the Hulk’s strength. Throughout production, the actor could smash through walls, hurl heavy objects and pulverize props with relative ease. Once while filming, Ferrigno explained to PBS that he even turned a car over himself when the mechanism used to flip it broke down.
Yet sometimes, Ferrigno’s might caught the show’s professionals off guard. While preparing to be thrown off a 12-foot drop, for example, a particularly mouthy stuntman taunted the actor’s seeming lack of strength. In response, the star went the extra mile – hurling the stuntman an extra 3 feet. Ferrigno recalled, “He picked himself up, looked at me and said, ‘That is the last time I am working with that man.’”
Of course, the actor’s efforts all added to what would become a classic series. From its first outing, The Incredible Hulk was a smash with TV audiences. And its serious tone even struck a chord with comic book fans disillusioned by the era’s crop of campy superhero adaptations. To this day, actors including Ruffalo have based their version of the character around the show.
For all its popularity, though, The Incredible Hulk couldn’t stay at the top forever. And after four triumphant years, it fell prey to a killer of many successful TV series – nervous TV execs. With the show’s ratings slowly dwindling, the heads at CBS decided to pull the plug midway through season five.
What made The Incredible Hulk’s cancelation especially tragic was that the Hulk’s story arc was left unfinished. But while fans were anxious to know Banner’s eventual fate, a guardian angel was spreading its wings behind the scenes. That came in the form of rival network NBC, which saw potential in Ferrigno returning for a string of one-off adventures.
Beginning with 1988’s The Incredible Hulk Returns, NBC’s three specials carried on the story where CBS left off. These outings also featured several other Marvel characters like Thor and Daredevil in supporting roles. As a result, these films actually prefigured the trend for huge crossover superhero movies like The Avengers way before they were popular.
But Hulk was undeniably still the hero of these shows. And Ferrigno had worked hard to retain the superhero’s physique in the five years he’d spent away from the character. Between acting roles in the likes of 1983’s Hercules, the star had been pumping iron harder than ever. And when he returned to the character, Ferrigno told Bodybuilding that he weighed nearly 300 pounds.
Though for all the anticipation the NBC films generated, they didn’t come close to capturing the spark of the original. To this day, the standalone films aren’t as fondly remembered as the CBS series. And Bixby’s tragic death in 1993 put an end to the franchise and the chance of the Hulk having a happy end after all.
Undeniably, the end of his show and the loss of a friend would have come as a blow to Ferrigno. Yet this unstoppable star didn’t stay down for long, and he soon returned to the profession that made him famous. Though he was in his 40s at the time, Ferrigno went back to bodybuilding and competed in Mr. Olympia in 1992 and ’93 and Masters Olympia the year after.
On the surface, it looked like Ferrigno was sticking to his guns with his bodybuilding comeback. But the following decade would bring plenty of new opportunities. In 2002 the actor made the jump to comedy with a recurring guest spot as himself on The King of Queens. He then played himself again to side-splitting effect in 2009’s I Love You, Man.
And it wasn’t just new horizons in acting that the star would pursue. After years spent playing officers of the law onscreen, Ferrigno would take on the role for real in the noughties. In 2006 he was appointed as a reserve deputy for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department before taking similar posts in San Luis six years later and Socorro in 2020.
You might be surprised to learn that acting as a sheriff was actually one of Ferrigno’s lifelong dreams. He has grown up with a father in the NYPD, and these appointments meant that the star was following his family’s footsteps. Ferrigno stated on his website in 2020, “This I take very seriously… because my whole life I’ve always wanted to be a sheriff.”
Still, the Hulk legacy ranks strongest above all else in Ferrigno’s career. And with interest in superhero movies booming in the new millennium, the actor found the franchise calling him once again. Several decades on from Ferrigno’s first portrayal of the character, the star would make a cameo in the series’ first big-screen adaptation in 2003’s Hulk.
In this film, the Hulk was played by a different actor – Eric Bana – with the help of a little CGI. But in later instalments, Ferrigno had a greater involvement in the character that made him famous. Starting with 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, the actor voiced the eponymous character in three Marvel Cinematic Universe films in support of Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo’s physical performances.
That being said, Ferrigno hasn’t been completely satisfied with the newer versions of the Hulk. In particular, he has spoken against the use of computer effects in rendering the character to newer audiences. Ferrigno opined to FabTV in 2020, “I don’t know what direction the Hulk is going [in]. That’s why a lot of people… refer back to the series because it’s more organic, more authentic.”
And it is not just Marvel’s use of CGI that stoked Ferrigno’s critique. No, it’s also the choice of actors. He commented at the Montreal Comic-Con in 2019, “I like Bill Bixby the best, I like Edward Norton. But Ruffalo – I think he’s a wonderful actor, he blends in with the Marvel aspect of the Avengers – but I can’t take him seriously enough.”
Though as we all know, the Marvel Cinematic Universe enjoyed record-breaking success. So Ferrigno is probably alone in his assessment of these films. But had Marvel opted to follow his vision of an “authentic” and “organic” Hulk, who would be best served to play the character today? And could the former bodybuilder realistically return to the role that made him a star?
Well, we certainly wouldn’t doubt the actor’s chances given his current physique. Ferrigno is almost 70 at the time of writing, though he looks just as good as ever. Plus, his dedication to exercise and maintaining his bulk and body mass has ensured that he’s still looked up to by those seeking a Herculean build.
So, how do you go about replicating Ferrigno’s awe-inspiring frame? For starters, a healthy diet is the best place to start. As the star himself put it to FabTV, foods including “meat, fish, eggs, fruit and vegetables” should always be at the top of your grocery list. On the flip side, “fried food” and “anything that has saturated flour” should be left on the shelves.
Of course, one can’t gain an Olympian physique by diet alone. And that’s why constant daily training is also required. As well as putting on muscle, strength training is also a must for people wanting to stay bulky beyond their youth. He told the Los Angeles Times in 2014, “After the age of 35 your muscle atrophies, and the only way to stop that is resistance training…”
Ferrigno’s tireless promotion of nutrition and workout has made him a great role model for many exercise enthusiasts. But he’s not the only person in the family inspiring people. That task also falls to his eldest child Shanna, who is the CEO and co-founder – alongside her pop – of lifestyle organization Ferrigno Fit.
Shanna has obviously taken a lot from her old man. That resemblance, though, is nothing compared to that of her little brothers Lou Jr. and Brent, who are a spitting image of their dad. In fact, his actor son Lou Jr. in particular could easily pass for a younger Hulk.
But Lou Jr. would struggle to draw much experience from real life if he ever did play the Hulk. That’s because the dad he grew up with was a million miles away from the character’s monstrous persona. The young man wrote on the website Fatherly in 2017, “[What] I mostly remember is that my dad was always just really nice. Whenever we had an attitude, he said, ‘Be nice.’”
However pleasant he may be to his family, to his fans Ferrigno will always be an intimidatingly awesome figure. With 70 credits to his name, he’s also a prolific actor who continues to branch out into different styles. For instance, his next upcoming project Heart of the Gun will even bring him into the Western genre.
And yet as big as Ferrigno’s filmography may be, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as long if it weren’t for the Hulk. While the current crown may belong to Ruffalo, Ferrigno’s ground-breaking portrayal is a hard act to follow. And it will be a long time before there’s someone else bold – and big – enough to bring the creation to life.