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How Lou Ferrigno Changed the Shape of ‘The Hulk’

Lou Ferrigno recalls getting the call from the casting people at The Hulk.

“It was 1977, and I was training for the upcoming Mr. Olympia. I met with the director and producer and they offered me the role. I knew I couldn’t take the job and train for the Olympia, too. So, I asked Joe Weider for advice. He told me that the television role was once in a lifetime, but there would be another Olympia next year.”

The original first choice to play The Hulk was Richard Kiel, the 7’2” actor who played Jaws in the James Bond films. But one day the director’s son, who was a fan of The Hulk comic books, came to the set and told his father that Kiel did not look like the hyper-muscular Hulk in the comics. So, the production set about re-casting and eventually settled on Lou.

Marvel's Stan Lee giving a speech about Lou Ferrigno and Marvel Comic book hero The HulkBill Dobbins

It’s hard to remember that back in the 1970s, action heroes didn’t have physiques akin to those of bodybuilders. In the 1950s, Steve Reeves as Hercules introduced the bodybuilder physique to international movie audiences. In the 1960s, a lot of other bodybuilders found their way to the Cinecitta movie studios in Italy, and the largest film studio in Europe — including Mickey Hargitay, Brad Harris, Reg Park, Franco Columbu, Earl Maynard, and many others. Gordon Scott starred as Tarzan. And, of course, there was Arnold in Hercules Goes Bananas, also known as Hercules in New York.

But in major, mainstream movies from Hollywood and on television, you’d sometimes see very buff, mesomorphic athletes like Clint Walker as Cheyenne, baseball player Chuck Connors as The Rifleman or football player Jim Brown in a lot of different movies. None of these had the kind of muscularity we associate with bodybuilding.

Lou Ferrigno the actor who played Marvel's TV Show The Hulk posing in the gym with dumbbellsBill Dobbins

Then came Arnold in Pumping Iron and Conan, Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, and Lou Ferrigno as The Hulk, followed by Jean-Claude Van Damme in the 1980s, and that was the beginning of the current trend: actors playing super heroes in Marvel and other movies all look as if they spend an immense amount of time in the gym.

“It’s not just in the movies,” Lou points out. “When I was a young man, most athletes did not do a lot of gym training. Nowadays, almost all of them do. Not just for sports like football, but tennis, golf and baseball a well. Not just the men, but the woman as well. Just take a look at the size and strength of somebody like Serena Williams.”

Sometimes, once athletes retire from competition, they tend to gain weight and fall out of shape because they stop training. But it doesn’t have to be that way, Lou says. “I have never stopped working out and have always tried to stay in pretty good shape. Arnold and Sly Stallone are still making movies. I’ve seen Jean-Claude in the gym. And Robby Robinson is in his 70s and is still amazingly muscular. I would no more stop working out than I would stop brushing my teeth. I think more athletes feel like this nowadays than they used to back before fitness became such a central idea in tour culture.”

Lou Ferrigno the original actor who played the Hulk posing in a gymBill Dobbins

Interestingly, even though female athletes in many sports are working hard to build muscle— and we’ve had decades of female bodybuilding, fitness and figure— Hollywood does not, for the most part, cast muscular women as super heroes. Gal Gadot, who plays Wonder Woman in the DC Extended Universe, is in great shape — but you would never confuse her with a bodybuilder.

One difference that usually exists between movie stars and TV stars is that in the movies, the stars tend to be more international while those in TV are usually more local or national. But when the IFBB World Amateur Championships was held in Egypt in 1981, Lou was invited as a guest poser. The bodybuilding group stayed at the Holiday Inn Pyramids, and Egyptian TV was just beginning to air The Hulk. Before he showed up, the hotel staff was excited, anticipating his arrival. “The green man is coming; the green man is coming,” they kept saying.

Over the course of the week, Lou and I attended a kind of narrated light show at the pyramids. Walking out to get a taxi, traffic was bumper to bumper. (Traffic in Cairo is the worst I’ve ever seen, all over the world.) Being from California, Lou stepped off the curb, expecting cars to stop.

They didn’t.

One came right at him and he had to jump out of the way. He tried it again, and as the next car kept coming toward him, Lou slapped the hood forcefully and yelled “I’m walking here!” The look on the face of the driver was total shock. Here was “the green man” come to life right in front of him. He might have expected Lou to get so angry he would reach down and turn over his car.

I wonder what he told his family and friends when he got home.

So, it turns out that Lou Ferrigno has an international reputation, fanbase and following to equal many A-list movie stars because The Hulk is still being broadcast on TV stations all over the world.

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