“Just know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture,” Spencer Tracy once counseled aspiring actors. His advice has hardly helped Lou Ferrigno, the former Mr. Universe who has begun his fourth season portraying TV’s most misunderstood monster, the Incredible Hulk. In his fright wig and green makeup, Ferrigno bas bashed the furniture and delivered grunts and groans aplenty—but not a line of dialogue. This Friday, however, Ferrigno finally speaks up. In addition to the monster, he also enacts the part of a body builder preparing for his first competition. And for the 29-year-old actor, the role marks a watershed after a lifetime battle with a childhood bearing loss and the resulting speech impairment Ferrigno bas undergone 15 years of speech therapy and next May will serve as national chairman for Better Hearing and Speech Month. Married last year for the second time, he and his wife, Carta, 31, a former restaurant manager, are expecting their first child in June. At his rambling four-bedroom home in Brentwood, Calif., he spoke with PEOPLE’S Suzanne Adelson about his battle against a personal disability and public mockery.
I had an ear infection at the age of 3 that caused permanent nerve damage, and I lost between 65 and 75 percent of my hearing. My parents took me to the best doctors, and at 4 I was fitted with hearing aids. My mother cried the first time she put my ear molds in place. My parents always wondered if I would be able to lead a normal life. They kept me going to public schools, but it’s been a battle all my life to compensate for my hearing loss.
My aids improved the situation marginally, but usually I understood what others were saying by reading lips. I didn’t need to learn sign language and nobody around me had to use it. That’s a means of communicating for the deaf; I wasn’t deaf. But aids weren’t as advanced in those days so I developed very defective speech. That was harder to deal with than the hearing loss, because people assumed I was dumb when they heard me talk. I had difficulty making myself understood. That’s why I didn’t talk much, just enough to get what I needed.
I was very introverted and always isolated myself from my classmates. I never had the nerve to ask any of my teachers if I could sit up front where I could hear. In my time, being hard-of-hearing wasn’t accepted as it is today. I was too shy to let anyone else know about my problem. My favorite heroes were in the comic books—Superman and the Incredible Hulk.
At school in Brooklyn, I’d sometimes have to fight with my fists. Not very often, but when I was taunted too much. I would never go home and tell my father about these kids teasing me because I knew he would scold me; he wanted me to demand respect for myself. So I fought back, but at the same time I was heartbroken.
I lost all those years of teenage fun. I just couldn’t bring myself to speak to girls because I had spent so many years by myself that I lacked that gift of gab it takes to communicate. I wouldn’t ask girls out. I didn’t get bitter about my handicap, but I did hold a lot of things inside. I’d pretend that I was just fine. I didn’t want to look to anyone for pity, and I didn’t want to pity myself.
I learned to mimic my younger brother’s and sister’s speech, mainly to please my father. I idolized him. He made sure that at home I spoke the best I could, and he never gave me special attention. He treated me as though I was normal and my brother and sister accepted me that way. Dad was determined that I be normal, even if I wasn’t. That’s why I had to work twice as hard at everything.
He is a former New York cop who’s very big—6’3″ and 220 pounds. He had a set of weights and encouraged me at 13 to begin body building. Although I pursued it on my own, I always asked his advice. It was recompense for the loss of my hearing. To train with barbells you have to be very disciplined, and that helped too.
For a long time after I got into weight training, I had to deal with the “dumb body builder” rap, particularly after I got into show business and started attracting attention. If they didn’t think I was stupid, people figured I was from another country.
It takes time to overcome a handicap. There are ups and downs and you can never be a quitter. I believe the maxim that you only get out of life what you put into it. I found my courage to persevere because I don’t believe in defeat. I am a survivor, and I love challenges. I always say either yes or no, never maybe. And I don’t use the word hope. I either do it, or I don’t do it; I don’t hope to do it.
With a wife like Carla, my battle was half won. One night she simply decided, “You have to realize your potential—you have to get a speaking role.” She went to the producer and three days later a script was being written for me. She believes in me even if a lot of people don’t. I am still studying with a speech therapist and taking voice lessons too. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll be able to sing. Since hearing aids have improved so much and I can now afford the best, I am able to correct my self as I speak. And I practice daily in my mobile home on the Incredible Hulk set. Carla says I have changed a lot since she first met me in 1979. She was sensitive to my problem; she had worked with deaf children at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. Because of her I am less sensitive about my hearing and more confident about my speaking.
I have no ambition to continue as a professional body builder; I want only to be a fine actor. In the meantime, though, I am waging a campaign against anabolic steroids, which most of the body builders take. Steroids increase muscle size, but they make you sterile during the period you’re taking them. It’s a gamble. I was on them for about six weeks. Then I decided it’s ridiculous to abuse your body like that for just a handshake and a trophy.
Now that I have my first speaking part and am looking forward to other roles, I’m working very hard on perfecting my diction. I will not let myself become stereotyped or limited in my acting.
I am thankful for the years I have been the Hulk because it has taught me a lot about pantomime. I’ve learned to be comfortable in front of the camera, showing all those emotions behind the white eyes and the teeth. When I did this speaking role, I only needed, at most, two takes. It was a breeze. I get a lot of attention these days, and although the intrusions—the kids, and the women who want to touch and kiss me—are sometimes difficult to deal with, I still love it. I waited a long time for this, and I want more. My goal is to do a film, maybe a television movie. I love the feeling of being in front of a camera. There I am no longer shy.