April 13, 1981 12:00 PM

When Richard Simmons was little, he wasn’t so little. By the time he was 19 he was as round as the Pillsbury Doughboy. Yet even at a blubbery 268 pounds, the 5’7″ Louisianian was much in demand as an actor and model. In Italy, where he was studying art, Simmons played fleshy grotesques in Fellini’s Satyricon and The Clowns, and appeared in 137 commercials—including TV spots for chubby jeans, Dannon yogurt and Fruit of the Loom. “I felt like the Italian Cheryl Tiegs,” he recalls.

Then, one day in 1968, Simmons found an anonymous note on the windshield of his car. It read: “Dear Richard: Fat people die young. Please don’t die.” Frightened, Simmons became obsessed with losing weight, and over the next two and a half months shed 112 pounds by starving himself, popping diet pills, undergoing hypnosis, taking injections and exercising to the point of exhaustion. “I ended up looking like a thin Glad bag,” he recalls. “My hair fell out, my skin drooped, my breath was foul and my mood matched.” Now, 13 years, one hair transplant and several surgical nips and tucks later, Simmons has been reborn at 32 as the clown prince of fitness. The star of his own syndicated half-hour TV show, seen in 132 markets nationwide, he also appears regularly, as himself, on ABC’s top-rated soap General Hospital. And his Richard Simmons’ Never-Say-Diet Book (Warner Books, $14.95), with 295,000 hardcover copies in print, has topped the national bestseller lists.

As the title of his book suggests, Simmons wants the word “diet” stricken from the English language. “Look at it,” he says. “The first syllable is die. Now, is that any way to inspire anyone?” He calls his own regimen the “Live-It” Plan—a three-point program that focuses on balanced meals, daily exercises and, above all, a positive outlook.

What makes Simmons’ approach so appealing is the breezy irreverence of the master himself. Never-Say-Diet, for example, contains sections like Coming to Grips with Your Hips and How to Eat Out and Not Pig Out, and is liberally sprinkled with the author’s own “True Confessions.” “The only time I wasn’t fat,” he writes, “was the day I was born. I went directly from pabulum to crepes suzette.”

The same compulsive flow of one-liners is the hallmark of his campy TV show. In between sit-ups and low-cal cooking lessons, Simmons dishes up a smorgasbord of characters, from the Reverend Pounds (“a man of the cloth—the tablecloth”) to a cop on the Slob Squad who patrols supermarkets and gives tickets to shoppers buying fattening foods. Off-camera, Simmons himself has even been known to accost strangers caught in the act of overindulging. “I’ll see an overweight woman eating a butterscotch sundae,” he says, “and I’ll sit at her table and say, ‘What is this?’ For me this is not a job,” he explains, “it’s a mission.”

The younger son of a retired vaudeville dance team, Simmons grew up in New Orleans tubbily oblivious to his eventual calling. Given the surname Milton at birth, he tired of it at 11 and changed it to Richard. Still, he languished in the shadow of his brother Lenny, who, he says, “was perfect in every way.” Richard’s solution was to stuff himself. “Food is a big number in New Orleans,” he recalls. “When I went away to camp I was the only kid who put béarnaise sauce on his Rice Krispies.” To make matters worse, both parents were accomplished cooks. “When tourists asked me, ‘Where’s the best food in town?’ ” he claims, “I’d bring them home.”

By the time he was a high school freshman (“I majored in lunch”), Richard was 70 pounds overweight. After graduation he went into a seminary, then dropped out (“Black was not my color”) to enroll at Florida State University. In 1967 he made his fateful trip to Europe, where his damn-the-torpedoes weight loss landed him in a hospital and persuaded him to read up on nutrition. Returning to the U.S. in 1971, he tested his newfound willpower by taking a job as maître d’ in a Los Angeles restaurant. “I was amazed at how people overate,” he admits. “I had flashbacks of being fat and I said, ‘I can’t feed people this stuff.’ ” So he quit, and in 1975 opened Ruffage and the Anatomy Asylum, a combination health food restaurant and exercise studio in the heart of Beverly Hills.

As a host, Simmons acquired a reputation for genial outrageousness. When new customers arrived, he would sit them down, hop in their laps and tell them they were fat. The Ruffage clientele—which included Simmons’ idol Barbra Streisand (“She walked in and I almost went into cardiac arrest”), Dustin Hoffman, Cheryl Ladd, Diana Ross and Paul Newman—ate it up. Soon Simmons was a regular on the talk-show circuit, and in 1979 he made the first of his weekly General Hospital appearances.

In Simmons’ future are projects including a Mexico-bound “Cruise to Lose” for 500 fatties, a recreational center for the handicapped (Ruffage is now closed for conversion into additional exercise space) and a second self-help tome, The Never Say You Can’t Cook Book. He is also writing a screenplay with the working title Lbs. Such a schedule requires sacrifices, and Simmons has made them. “I don’t have a social life,” he complains. “I don’t party. I never see people. But if I do go to a restaurant, people come up and chat. And then,” he sighs, “the entire place watches me eat.”

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