Three-year-old Lou Jr. was in a panic. “Keep Daddy in the motor home and lock the door!” he begged his mother breathlessly. The youngest Ferrigno had just taken a peek inside the motor home dressing room being used by the mild, muscular mensch he calls Dad. Instead he found a 6’5″, 285-lb. pea-green monster with bulging white eyes and flyaway hair. The man in the van was none other than the Incredible Hulk incarnate, the comic-book character who, starting in 1978, spent five seasons busting out of Bill Bixby’s shirts on CBS. Lou Jr. had seen reruns of Dad—but never in monstrous living color. Now here he was, prepping for his comeback, Sunday, May 22, in a new, two-hour NBC-TV movie titled—what else?—The Incredible Hulk Returns.
After a seven-year absence, did Ferrigno, now 37, welcome a return to the green look? “When they first put the paint on me again, I was concerned about getting back into character,” he admits. For one thing, the onetime international bodybuilding champion had de-bulked considerably since his last appearance as Bixby’s TV alter ego, when he boasted 22-inch biceps, a 19-inch neck and thighs the thickness of telephone poles. To get back in shape for the remake, he had to chow down enough to put on 45 lbs.
Not that he’d just been sitting on his glutes in the meantime. Since the Hulk left the air, Ferrigno has appeared in six movies, including such heavily muscled epics as Hercules, The Adventures of Hercules and The Seven Magnificent Gladiators. All’s Fair, a romantic comedy in which he was cast with George Segal and Sally Kellerman, will be released in midsummer, and another film, Desert Warriors, is also finished. But the brightest feather in Ferrigno’s cap of credits came in 1985, when he landed the stage role of Jonathan (played by Raymond Massey in the movie) in a Chicago production of Arsenic and Old Lace. It wasn’t until then that Ferrigno, who has been nearly deaf since the age of 3, was convinced he had truly overcome a lifelong speech impediment.
Born in Brooklyn, the eldest of three children, Ferrigno contracted a childhood ear infection that took away 75 percent of his hearing. Nighttime trade school eventually helped him become a sheet-metal worker; relentless training helped turn him into the youngest bodybuilder ever to win consecutive Mr. Universe titles. But he wanted to act (“I didn’t want to work in a factory the rest of my life”), and in 1977, while preparing for the Mr. Olympia contest, he landed the nonspeaking part of the Hulk. When the show was finally taken off the air, he was devastated. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do with myself?’ ” says Ferrigno.
What he did was come up with a speaking role on the short-lived ABC series Trauma Center. He began taking acting lessons, and “to save my sanity” between films, he gave bench-pressing pointers to stars like Mickey Rourke and Chuck Norris. He also made a weight-training video titled Body Perfection with his second wife, Carla. Meanwhile, to shape up his psyche, TV’s image of pique personified underwent intensive psychotherapy. “I didn’t have a very good home life,” he says, and Dad, a retired cop, “was a very strict, domineering father. I have a lot of anger about my childhood—being hard of hearing and my relationship with my father. And coming from a macho Italian family, I had a lot to learn about women and relationships.”
Carla, 39, lent a hand in that area. A psychotherapist who once worked with deaf children, she met Ferrigno at a restaurant she was running in 1979 and took over temporarily as his personal manager when they married 10 months later. (He and his first wife, a college student and housewife, had divorced one day shy of their first anniversary.) Carla has since acted in both his Hercules movies and now hosts a cable-TV talk show in Los Angeles called Learning the Art of Success. Though they “talk about everything,” says Ferrigno (he is an accomplished lip reader and wears two hearing aids), their marriage has well-defined boundaries. “I don’t go out to bars with my buddies, and Carla doesn’t go to discos with her women friends,” Lou says. “I like to be home every night with my family.”
Ferrigno’s relationship with his children is tended with equal care. “I’m determined to give them the quality of attention my father didn’t give me,” he says. Lou Jr. loves to stage miniature dinosaur wars with his dad, while Shawna, 7, spends her time at the home gym, adjacent to the Ferrignos’ cheerful yellow, seven-bedroom home in Santa Monica. “She likes to use all my machines. It scares me what she can deal with in there,” Lou marvels. But then, self-improvement is the family watchword, as Lou must know better than anyone. “When I was doing the series, my speech wasn’t that good,” he concedes. “Now I’m even taking singing lessons.”
—By Margot Dougherty, with Suzanne Adelson in Los Angeles