By Michael Aushenker
When legendary world-champion bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno had the opportunity to choose the person he wanted to present him with the Muscle Beach Championship’s Lifetime Achievement Award on Monday, Sept. 2, he didn’t select a fellow muscle-bound athlete, he chose a 90-year-old bookworm. But not just any nonagenarian avid reader.
“I chose Stan Lee,” Ferrigno said without hesitation, referring to the famed writer who, with various artists, co-created the Marvel Universe of comic book superheroes dominating the multiplexes these days in movies such as “Spider-Man,” “Thor,” “Iron Man,” and “The Avengers.”
Which only makes sense since Ferrigno is best known to Generation Xers for his role as the title man-monster in the late 1970s hit CBS drama, “The Incredible Hulk,” based on the character co-created by Lee and late artist Jack Kirby. (Ferrigno and Lee even shared some cameo time together in Ang Lee’s 2003 big-screen interpretation “The Hulk”).
“I’m glad we still have him today,” Ferrigno said of Lee, adding the comic legend has the vim and vigor of a man half his age.
“The Muscle Beach Hall of Fame Committee is honored to induct Lou Ferrigno this coming Labor Day,” said event organizer Joseph Wheatley. “He is an iconic figure in the bodybuilding world. Lou won the IFBB (International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness) Mr. America and two consecutive Mr. Universe titles. He’s starred in multiple television series, the most famous being ‘The Incredible Hulk.’ Still today, he continues to work out daily at Gold’s Gym with the same passion and vigor that made him a household name.”
Ferrigno has long been tied to the Venice and Santa Monica beltway. In the 1970s, he kept a post office box at the recently shuttered main post office building on Arizona Avenue and Fifth Street in Santa Monica. Today, he lives in the Santa Monica Flats with his wife, Carla, and he has “a lot of friends with the Santa Monica Police Department” thanks to his deputy sheriff duties for SMPD.
But the reason he loves Santa Monica goes way deeper than its proximity to Venice, what Ferrigno calls “the Mecca of bodybuilding.”
“I’ve been wanting to live in Santa Monica ever since I was a kid,” Ferrigno told The Argonaut, explaining how the Bay City’s mystique echoed that of his native Coney Island in Brooklyn, NY with the Santa Monica Pier and its amusement park attractions.
“The (Santa Monica) Pier has a lot of history,” he said. “A lot of celebrities used to vacation out there. It attracted stars. I wanted to be in Santa Monica. It has a lot of character.
“This is my life, my environment and my family as well,” he added.
Indeed, TV’s erstwhile Hulk is busier than ever. Coming off the goodwill of the hit Jason Segel-Paul Rudd comedy “I Love You, Man,” in which he portrayed an exaggerated version of himself whose home Rudd’s failing real estate agent character is trying to unload, Ferrigno has been scooping up work, appearing on various reality shows such as his recent stint on “Celebrity Apprentice.”
A comic book convention staple, he just taped an episode of Kevin Smith’s “Comic Book Men,” to air on AMC in October. He played roles in an upcoming “Star Trek” series, in a short film he created called “The Liberator.” In the past, Ferrigno also had a recurring character on the long-running CBS show “King of Queens” and appeared on the reality show “I’m With Busey.”
Performing before the cameras is a far cry from where he was in his youth.
“As a kid, I was very introverted,” Ferrigno admitted. “I had low self esteem.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, the skinny, scrawny Ferrigno, who as a child caught an ear infection that left him with partial hearing, sought solace from his bullying in the pages of Marvel Comics, and the muscle-bound, green-skinned Hulk in particular resonated as the super hero he aspired to be.
“I memorized every panel, every bubble, every word,” Ferrigno said. “It was embedded in my brain.”
So it was too cosmic when Ferrigno, after conquering professional bodybuilding, landed the role of a lifetime on the 1977-82 hit show “The Incredible Hulk” as the titular rampaging, gamma ray-irradiated man-monster, the doppelganger of timid scientist Dr. Banner, played on the series by Bill Bixby.
“We were very close friends,” Ferrigno said of the late Bixby. “He was like a second father.
And if Bixby were around today, Ferrigno said he would make sure he attended the Muscle Beach event: “He would definitely be on that stage with me.”
The Muscle Beach Championship bodybuilding, bikini and men’s and women’s physique contest finals are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Labor Day, Sept. 2 at the Venice Beach Recreation Center, 1800 Ocean Front Walk, Venice. Admission is free for spectators.