Lou Ferrigno, the championship bodybuilder turned actor famous around the world since becoming “The Incredible Hulk” nearly 40 years ago, told Boys & Girls Club of Bulloch County members and supporters not to look to other people for approval, but to find their own passion and make a list of things they want to accomplish.
After the microphone was raised to his height, Ferrigno began to talk directly to the more than 400 people who filled the Nessmith-Lane Conference Center ballroom for the 11th Annual Steak and Burger Dinner. It served, as always, as a major fundraiser for the club, which this year marked its 15th year providing social activities and learning help for underprivileged children.
“You know, my whole life is about overcoming adversity,” Ferrigno said. “I came from nothing. I was one of those kids that looked out the window and wished I could be like everybody else.”
An illness in his first year of life resulted in about 80 percent hearing loss that his parents didn’t recognize until he was 3 or 4 and didn’t respond when they clapped. It was the 1950s and his first hearing aid was an old-fashioned one that was strapped to his chest with wires going up to his ears.
“I felt like a Martian,” he said.
Other children called him names, and his father, who resented him for not being the perfect son, he said, frequently told him all the things he might have been if only he could hear better.
So, growing up in Brooklyn, the young Ferrigno resolved to become all of those things and sought refuge in his own interests. He read comic books about Spider Man and Superman “to escape the pain” as he visualized himself being the hero, he said.
His retelling of how he became Superman at home after watching George Reeves play the part on television was one of Ferrigno’s several humorous vignettes. He described how he tied a red blanket around his neck and leaped from a second-story window.
“I jumped, I came collapsing, almost broke my legs. That was the end of Super Man,” he said, pausing for the laughter. “That was it. I shifted more toward the Hulk.”
Ferrigno started bodybuilding when he was about 12 years old. He went to a junkyard, found some cement pails, filled them with cement and, with a broom handle, made his first jury-rigged barbell set.
“When I first picked it up, it gave me such a good feeling,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why, but I just loved it because I was obsessed with power and strength. I knew it gave me some sense of respect, a good feeling about myself.”
Of course he went on to actual barbells. By his late teens, Ferrigno became a world-class bodybuilder. After winning a Mr. America teen title in 1971, he was International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness, or IFBB, Mr. America overall winner in 1973 and IFBB Mr. Universe overall winner in 1973 and 1974.
His first Mr. Universe championship, at 21, made Ferrigno the youngest winner ever, and that record still stands. His first film role was as himself, featured prominently in the 1977 documentary “Pumping Iron.”
Becoming the Hulk
That same year, he landed the role of the shirt-bursting green-skinned superhero in the TV series “The Incredible Hulk,” which lasted from 1977 until 1982 in its original run. Actually, he and the late Bill Bixby, whom Ferrigno described in an interview here as a “mentor, like my second father” were co-stars, with Bixby as the non-green, pre-transformation Dr. David Banner.
Besides playing the Hulk in several movies, Ferrigno starred as Hercules in two movies in the 1980s, as Sinbad in 1989, and had a starring role in the 1989 martial arts movie “Cage.” He appeared as himself in the 2000-2007 TV fiction series “The King of Queens” and in the reality show “Celebrity Apprentice.”
He provided the Hulk’s voice in the 2012 movie “The Avengers” and again in a 2015 Avengers movie, and was Iron John in “Avengers Grimm.”
Now 64, he doesn’t compete as a bodybuilder but still works as a personal trainer. Ferrigno worked out at 180 Fitness during his day-long visit to Statesboro accompanied by Boys & Girls Club staff and board members.
“From what we saw this morning at the gym, it doesn’t look like he’s retired. He’s still quite a bodybuilder,” Boys & Girls Club Board President Russell Rosengart said during his introduction.
Ferrigno and his wife Carla, married 36 years, have a two sons and a daughter. All three work as personal trainers, and one is an actor. Ferrigno and his family operate Ferrigno FIT.
During his remarks, Ferrigno sounded at moments like a mentor to the Boys and Girls Club’s school-age members, at times like a personal trainer to the adults.
Everyone is handicapped in some way, but the important thing is to overcome your fears and set your own measures of success, he said.
“If I can overcome adversity, you can do the same,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in a wheelchair, it doesn’t matter if you’re blind, it doesn’t matter if you’re deaf. It doesn’t matter. It’s all about that passion you have.”
Club’s 15 years
Boys and Girls Board Vice President Alison Rich presented Ferrigno a framed picture of the Hulk created by a club member who is in fifth grade.
Dr. Darin Van Tassell, a member of the club’s founding board, publicly recognized others involved in getting the club started 15 years ago. Those present, including Bryan Burke, Charlotte Hull, Keely Fennell, Bruce Yawn, as well as Van Tassell, received a photo from the club’s first year with a frame decorated by boys and girls now in the club.
Other early leaders and supporters, including Josh Aubrey, Ray McKinney, Pat High, Joe Mathews, Catherine Hendrix, David Bobo, Edwin Hill, Joel Martin and David and Faybeth Ball were recognized in absentia.
Boys & Girls Club Chief Professional Officer Mike Jones didn’t have a count yet of the event’s fundraising total.
“Financially, it was probably the largest grossing Steak and Burger that we’ve had,” he said.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.