Inside The Incredible Hulk Is a Gentle Giant from Brooklyn, Bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno
Bill Bixby gets so cute when he’s mad. That’s when the star of CBS’s The Incredible Hulk, a mild-mannered but irradiated scientist, turns an alarming pea green and shreds his shirt with prodigiously swelling pectorals. In short, he “Hulks out,” and—presto—becomes Lou Ferrigno, a 26-year-old, 6’5″, 275-lb. two-time Mr. Universe who millions of American women have decided is more hunk than hulk. Their taste for beefcake (plus kids’ delight in the Hulk’s set-destroying rages) have made the spring replacement show a sleeper survivor. It has brought Ferrigno fame that soon may eclipse that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who just muscled him out for the 1975 Mr. Olympia title as documented in the film Pumping Iron.
It doesn’t bother Lou that millions now know him as TV’s unjolliest green giant. “When people laugh at me,” says Ferrigno, who two years ago was a journeyman sheet metal worker, “I say, ‘I’m green all the way to the bank.’ ” His per-episode take has zoomed from $500 to around $20,000. For this he endures a two-hour makeup session that begins at 6 a.m. Slathered head to toe in water-soluble body paint, wearing a rubber forehead and nose and a green fright wig, he spends his time between takes lying with arms outstretched in a dressing van arctically chilled so sweat won’t ruin the makeup. But his sole gripe is about the Hulk’s large white contact lenses. “The pain is so bad I can only wear them a half hour at a time.”
Lately, though, the rigors of Hulkdom have been smoothed by the former Susan Groff, 22, a UCLA psychology major Ferrigno married in May after an eight-month courtship that began with a chance meeting at an iron-pumpers’ gym. Now she handles his public relations, accompanies him on personal appearances—and rises as early as 4 a.m. to cook his eight-egg onion-and-mushroom omelet (his diet is high-protein, low-carbohydrate). Afterward he heads for a strenuous two-hour workout to maintain his 59″ expanded chest, 34″ waist, 22½” biceps and 29″ thighs.
Born in Brooklyn to a policeman and a homemaker, Ferrigno was the eldest of three children. “I was a medium-size baby,” he cracks. “I weighed 10 pounds.” At 3 he lost much of his hearing due to an ear infection, a disability that has made his speech sound childlike. This can cause problems on the Hulk set (though the character has no lines). Unable to wear his hearing aid, Lou once missed the director’s “Cut” and threw an actor to the ground before a stuntman could be substituted. It was never a handicap in school athletics, and to build up strength, he began lifting weights at 16. Two years later, while studying sheet metal work at Brooklyn Tech, he entered his first competition—and won the teenage Mr. America contest. In 1973 he won the Mr. America and Mr. Universe titles.
But bodybuilding didn’t pay the rent, and after a two-game fling in Canadian football as defensive tackle (“just something I had to get out of my system”), he fetched up in L.A. in 1976 with “$100 and one valise.” While making personal appearances, he heard that Universal TV was auditioning bodybuilders. “They were looking for an innocent,” recalls Lou, “somebody who could cry and be angry at the same time.” Totally without acting experience, the gentle hazel-eyed giant Ferrigno triumphed over 100 bulging competitors. But accepting the TV pilot role was a gamble in that he had to give up a proffered role in Sly Stallone’s Paradise Alley.
Now “People come up to me in restaurants, at discos, anyplace, and say, ‘Hey, Hulk, waddaya doing?’ Or they try to pick a fight with me,” Lou complains good-naturedly. “It’s getting so we can hardly go out.” So after work hours Lou and Susan entertain themselves with racquetball, Scrabble, chess and stained-glass projects for their new Orange County ranch house. A skilled carpenter, Lou also crafts much of their furniture, and at Susan’s urging is studying toward a physical education degree.
For the future, Lou admits, “I’d like to do variety shows—not the singing and dancing stuff, though—or play a football coach, or even do Li’l Abner. I can do a lot more than just growl.”