The Incredible Hulk Returns: Lou Ferrigno Speaks About His Role & Acting Life!

In this two-part interview, Lou speaks out about his acting career and provides a never-before-heard account of his life as the Hulk.

The Incredible Hulk Returns

Lou Ferrigno Speaks About His Role & Acting Life!

At a prime bodybuilding contest weight of 285 pounds - 300 pounds cut at his heaviest (in top shape) - a height of 6' 5", and with an aptitude for acting and a passion for show business, it is no surprise that when scouts began the selection process for the original Hulk series, Lou Ferrigno was a natural candidate for the Hulk role.

When Lou began playing the title character on The Incredible Hulk series - screening between 1978 and 1982 - the only acting experience he had had was a role, playing himself, on the 1976 bodybuilding masterpiece, Pumping Iron. But nevertheless, he took to acting with the natural enthusiasm and disciplined mindset indicative of one who has spent many years dreaming of acting stardom - no less than a superhero-brought-to-life role - and presenting himself to audiences as one of the largest bodybuilders to have ever competed.

Training to become the largest bodybuilder in the world brought its own unique set of dynamics and challenges, especially for one with profound hearing loss, a disability that hampered him since early childhood, but big Lou forged on to achieve this aim.

Poised to become the next Mr. Olympia, and with that the greatest bodybuilder in the world, with no direct challengers after the retirement of reigning seven-time champion, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou experienced the dilemma of whether to chose between this, his life-long goal, and taking the job he had just been offered: playing the Hulk. He chose the Hulk and bodybuilding's loss became the acting world's gain.

Proving that he is much more than just a musclebound "hulk", as Lou's acting career progressed, a journey that included 81 episodes of the original Hulk series, so too did his ability to play diverse roles, the King of Queens, where he played himself, being a prime example of this.

And unlike many series actors, Lou has remained true to his roots, evidenced by his commitment to helping ensure the 2008 Incredible Hulk movie, in which he was consulted for and has a role in, become a major success. And, for us bodybuilding fans and competitors, Lou is additionally inspirational in that he has always remained true to his iron roots and credits bodybuilding for helping him to become one of the worlds most recognizable men.

In the following interview, Lou speaks out about his acting career - to date - and provides a never before heard account of his life as the Hulk and his road to acting stardom.


What can we expect from the latest Incredible Hulk movie?

In the new movie I have a good scene, a good part. Also three weeks ago I did the voice for the Hulk. The Hulk movie is going to be more like the TV series this time because the Hulk is CGI and will be nine feet tall instead of 40 feet tall (as he was on the last movie - the 2003 version) and there will be more action.

The character will be more sympathetic compared to the last one, which was too much like King Kong. The director [Louis Leterrier] had directed the movie The Transporter so he is bringing a whole new look to the Hulk movie.

What will the Hulk look like this time around?

He will be ripped to the bone. He has a lot of my body dimensions: the size, the arms, the back and all the striations.

And your role in this movie will be what exactly?

Well it will be interesting to see and I do have a good part, but right now I am contractually not able to say what the part will entail. But I do have a very good scene with Edward Norton.

What adjustments, if any, did you have to make to your training to prepare for the filming of the 1978 Hulk series?

Well it was one of the hardest things I have done because when I had the makeup done it was 4:00 or 5:00 o'clock in the morning and we would film for almost 11 or 12 hours. So the biggest adjustment was my training. I either had to train very early in the morning or in the afternoon. Once I was in the makeup I was basically immobilized.

What I would do is train on the weekends and two or three days during the week. And I would train very hard, very intense, because I knew that once I was on the screen I wanted the Hulk to look like I was in Mr. Olympia shape and with the conditioning expected of a top ranked Olympia competitor.

Did you have to bulk up much more for your Hulk role than you already had done at the time of your 1975 Mr. Olympia showing?

When I came back and did the Return of the Hulk in 1987, '88, '89, I was at my biggest because I had put more on more mass and also the fact that what had bothered me (in the first series) was that the makeup really covered a lot of the definition. I wanted to compensate for this with more size and cuts.

When I was first picked for the Hulk, it was about seven weeks before the Mr. Olympia competition and I was in the best shape of my life.

I went to Joe Weider and told Joe, "Listen I got a problem. They offered me the part of the Hulk and I would love to do it but don't know what I should do with the Olympia coming up." Joe said, "Come back (to compete) next year, because you could easily win this year."

Lou Ferrigno at the 1994 IFBB Masters Olympia
Watch The Video - 01:29

But after the screen test I was actually asked to begin filming the next day, because I had to replace Richard Kiel who was supposed to be the Hulk before me. He was the guy that played Jaws on James Bond.

Why did the director choose you over Richard Kiel?

The director came on the set one day and he had his son with him, and the son said, "Daddy, he doesn't look like the Hulk." The Hulk had to look like the comic books with the big massive muscles, so they did a nationwide search and they found me by coincidence and I was the best bodybuilder available at that point, perfect to play the role. And I was in the best shape of my life as well.

Did you gradually put on more size after you got the Hulk role?

Yes I put more size on for the second one; another 10 to 15 pounds. But for the entire Hulk series I knew that I might occasionally suffer because I figured it would be hard to keep the definition. So I actually trained like I was training for a contest all year round because we were filming 22 episodes a year.

It was brutal because you sit in the trailer wearing the makeup, and I couldn't sweat at this time, so as soon as I finished work I went straight to the gym, no matter how tired I was. If it was 2:00 o'clock in the morning I would go straight to the gym and have a one-hour workout to get the pump.

Today I still train hard all the time; I weigh 265 pounds and keep the same look I had years ago. I just don't have the same bulk, which I don't need anyway. But I still train like a bodybuilder, like in the old days in the '70s.

Getting back to the Hulk makeup you used, just how badly did it cover up your definition?

Well they usually used a special makeup, which was applied real thick, and this covered my definition. But sometimes they used grease makeup during the water scenes and you could really see a big difference in the definition. Like when I did The King of the Beach (a season four episode which aired on February 6, 1981) it really did show a difference; I used it there because I wanted to be in contest shape for that one and this makeup gave me the appearance of being more cut.

What exactly is the difference between these two kinds of makeup?

The thicker makeup they used on the body is mixed with water and it is like clay that they rub on, but the grease makeup that they use on the face has oil in it and it is shiny looking.

Why didn't they apply this grease makeup on your body in all of the episodes to enhance your definition?

Well they only used that when I did a sequence with water because it won't run, but they won't usually use it because of the fact that you perspire and it is extremely difficult to remove from the body; it takes about and hour and a half (to remove).

when filming the Hulk, if it wasn't for the makeup you would have looked much bigger and cut?

Oh yeah, by far, by far. It would have been scary.

How were you able to maintain your low body fat levels while filming The Hulk?

I watched what I ate. I made sure that I kept my fat intake low and that I didn't eat too many carbohydrates. I ate protein four or five times a day and kept the carbs light.

So while filming The Hulk you were also on what could be considered a pre-contest diet year-round?

Yes, and it was also hot with the makeup on so I was still burning calories; that was along with all the physical stuff so it was almost like doing a little bit of cardio as well.

It is incredible that you were able to maintain your massive size under those conditions. I'm guessing a lot of people would have dropped the size quite quickly under such circumstances

Yes, but I realized that the show was a hit and as much as I loved that character and as much as I needed that show to be successful, I knew that if my physique failed, it would hurt the show, and it would hurt the ratings. So I had to sacrifice.

If I had to play a part without makeup, like I did for Hercules, it would have been a piece of cake. Most people don't realize that with the makeup you cannot simply remove it and go and train and then go back and do another three-hour makeup session; it was just too difficult.

Were you ever injured while filming the Hulk?

There was always the possibility of injury because I did all the stunts myself. But if there was anything with extreme heights then they would use someone else. I was very lucky, I was never injured on the set.

When you were chosen for the Hulk, Were there any other attributes that caught the director's eye?

When I went down for the audition, I did a screen test (the second time around) and they asked me to show my emotions, and I won the part on the spot. It was the perfect time and place because I said to myself that I really wanted to play this character and nobody else could.

So your drive to want the part also influenced your being selected?

Yes because I loved the Hulk my whole life and when the audition came along I knew that I would nail the part.

What where they looking for in terms of how the Hulk's personality would be portrayed?

Well they wanted something that wouldn't simply be a monster because when they saw the sensitivity I showed that's what convinced them that I would be the guy to handle it. They didn't just want a guy with big muscles who couldn't act. I was able to show pantomime at the time, meaning acting without speaking. And I just knew how to deliver what they wanted for the character, so they immediately hired me the next day.

The Hulk had more subtle qualities and was often quite compassionate in many scenes.

Yes and that was because of the sensitivity, and that is what made the world love the Hulk, especially children and kids all over, from every culture and race in the world.

In public were children more receptive to you rather than being scared because of your size and the fact you were, in their minds, 'really' the Hulk?

Not really, they weren't scared because they immediately recognized me and they would actually say how much they loved me as the Hulk. A big surprise was when I was doing the Hulk series, I remember on the set when I had the makeup on, kids would look at me and get scared and run. Then they would turn back and say how much they liked me. They just knew there was a sensitive creature under the makeup. It was amazing and it surprised me.

Just how heavy did you get at your biggest as The Hulk in the period between 1978 and 1982?

I would say about 280 to 290 (pounds). Then when I came back in '87 and '89 it was closer to 300 pounds.

What was the reason for such a large jump in weight between the two Hulk series'?

More maturity, continuous training and more complete training with back work and legwork. And it was especially because I never had the desire to live with my past success; I have always searched for superior development. And I knew that one day, in my heart, I was going to come back to competition.

So even when filming those early Hulk episodes you had an eye on returning to bodybuilding?

Yes, because I have always trained with that passion. I knew that when I did the Hulk series I had left bodybuilding, but I promised myself that someday, even though I had left competition, I would return.

Even though I did two TV series' and over 30 films, I still trained my upper body as much as I could because I knew if I came back to competition I didn't want to start from scratch. But I always had a passion to train like a bodybuilder. I didn't want to reduce my size to please other people so basically this was my persona regardless.

When interviewed, Arnold Schwarzenegger often says that he is still a bodybuilder at heart and that he owes what he has achieved in large part to the sport of bodybuilding. Do you feel the same way?

Oh sure, because that is where he (Arnold) came from and he will never forget that. And even though he is Governor he still knows that; it made him who he is. And we both developed that discipline to be successful because it was the only way for us: we were young and we had nothing else from which to survive and make it in this world.

So today, even though you have become very successful in other areas, you always come back to the fact you are and always will be a bodybuilder?

Yes, even today. My two sons are training and are both bodybuilders themselves and I'm proud because I'm 56 years old now. When I look at people 50 years ago from the '50s they didn't take care of themselves and they just let themselves go. That is why people like Bill Pearl and Reg Park influenced me a lot. After seeing them, I knew that I could continue training as long as I had the same passion for bodybuilding.

What did you enjoy most about starring in the Hulk series?

I loved the character. I love how he separates good from evil and how much he protects people and how he reacts to all of the adversity against him, especially the fact that he is not really a monster.

People come to perceive him as a good guy. When you are working in the different episodes with different people, they all begin thinking about the Hulk in this way. Also the transition: getting into character. When I was sitting in makeup, I would often just look in the mirror and think how much I love playing that character.

Any other aspects of filming you enjoyed? Did you get along well with your fellow actors?

Oh sure, we had many different actors, including Cary Grant. A lot of people have been on the show. That is the thing that impresses me most: a lot of actors have done a TV series and they just stay away, but with me the legacy continues, even 30 years later; I'm still the same as I was many years ago and I am still involved.

physique wise, You are still in good condition

Right, and that had a lot to do with bodybuilding, because the Hulk was the first character to come on the scene. Before, other than Steve Reeves and Reg Park, the public had never really seen a bodybuilder with more than just big muscles. I was the first one to come along and act, yet show the freaky look of a bodybuilder.

Do you feel your role as the Hulk opened directors' minds to the possibility of using muscular actors like yourself more often?

Yes, because back in the day, when I did the Hulk it was really hard for them to show me the best way to present my muscles onscreen, because it was ahead of its time. Then after the Hulk they saw the potential such a look could have.

In your view, why did the Hulk series become so popular?

Yes even today, and that is why people are excited about the new movie. Every generation learns about the Hulk because of the fact that it is about power and kids love power.

Comic books can have a very positive influence on people because they provide fantasy and entertainment. And that is why people, and especially kids, are attracted to the Hulk character.

Is there a particular Hulk episode you liked better than the others?

When I did King of the Beach I was playing the role of myself along with the Hulk and I had all of my friends on the show, all of the bodybuilders: Samir Bannout and Ken Waller included. And I was very excited because I was sharing my movie life with the other bodybuilders from the gym, so my bodybuilding and acting was incorporated into the same show.

Were you in fact more muscular for this film or was it the due to you not needing to wear makeup?

When I came back to act in the Return of the Hulk I was much bigger because I specialized more in heavy dumbbell training, especially for my chest: and that gave me a lot more thickness.

In Hercules I would say I was more cut because I trained for Hercules like I was training for the Mr. Olympia, because I knew that there wouldn't be the green makeup. And when you do a feature film you usually film for 90 days or more.

So my goal was to be in great condition from the first day of filming to the end. Sometimes when you shoot the different scenes, the critics can tell the difference between how the body looked on the big screen at different stages of the filming process. And what you do on flim is permanent; you can't go back into the past and change it. But I knew that with that film, although I knew it wasn't an overwhelmingly big budget movie, I wanted to be the best onscreen Hercules ever.

As you were growing up, whom in the acting world did you admire most?

I would say growing up as a kid I looked up to Steve Reeves and Sean Connery.

What you admire about Sean Connery?

The passion of his acting and the fact he was a real man, a real hero. I was impressed with how, as James Bond, he was able to capture all the women and he was so charismatic. And he was able to do everything with his mind and body. He also competed in the NABBA 1953 Mr. Universe (he placed 3rd) so he was a bodybuilder too.

And what did you admire most about Steve Reeves as an actor?

His symmetry and the fact he was as strong as he looked. He was able to lift 220 pounds off the floor with his teeth. Also the fact that when he played Hercules he displayed great masculinity and that influenced me more than anything to go into bodybuilding and weight training.

It was the first time I had ever seen a man on the screen that had muscle. When I saw Steve Reeves I knew that was what I wanted to do because he was the epitome of symmetry and perfection.

in your opinion is bodybuilding today any better or worse than it was 30 years ago?

Back in those days those guys came from nothing and had to do the best they could with their symmetry and natural talent, but now it is all about being the biggest and heaviest onstage. And what is suffering today is the symmetry. But when you compare (bodybuilding) 30 years later you have different equipment, different ways of dieting so that makes a big difference.

I much prefer and miss the old days because back then it had a lot to do with the personalities and the camaraderie, and everyone had a story about themselves and we were all unique. And back then there was no money involved.

Do you think the days of the real masculine super hero-type actors are gone?

Well in those days when Arnold, for example, did Commando and did all those scenes, and with Sylvester Stallone when he did Rambo, and got into his best shape, you believed what they were doing. What bothers me about the action heroes of today is that they use cables and wires and when watching it I don't really believe it.

Tom Cruise may be a good actor, but when I watched Mission Impossible I couldn't believe all the physical stuff he did. You want it to be believable. That is the difference when you have special effects and cables.

The same thing with the original Hulk: when you saw the muscle, people really believed he was strong because it was real. But when you incorporate CGI into the action movies of today, it is very different, and special effects are dominating everything. When you see the original Hercules and you see Steve Reeves picking up the tree and fighting in the arena, to me that is exciting because that is Hercules. That is believable.

At the beginning of your career, did you ever believe you would become as big as you have become as an actor?

Well, when I first started I dreamed of going into show business but I didn't really talk about it. But it was my aspiration. As a bodybuilder growing up, that was ambition, but I knew I had to start somewhere. And I knew the Hulk was good opportunity.

Why did you like acting, initially?

Ever since I began competing I just loved being onstage and I just knew how much I would affect people, because where I have come from and the kind of life I have lived I have always liked to entertain and motivate people. And make people laugh. I was always a quiet person personality-wise but I started to become exposed to more people as a world champion bodybuilder and that is when I knew that (acting) is what I wanted to do. And I just fell in love with it.

Would it be accurate to say that Pumping Iron is what gave you your start as an actor?

Yes and its funny you should say that because Pumping Iron was the first reality show ever made. And that's why when I got in front of the camera when they were filming it, it came naturally for me, because I just loved being there.

Even though I was in the situation of flying to Africa and we were going through the whole contest preparation process, I just felt very comfortable in front of the camera and I thought that that is what I wanted to do in the future besides bodybuilding.

It must have been a very stressful time in your life, yet you were still able to enjoy it in some respects

Oh yeah, especially with the tension going on, and then being relaxed - just being able to show different emotions at different times. And then seeing the reactions from the people: it was instant gratification.

Was there a particular scene from Pumping Iron that you enjoyed doing most?

I would say that the scene at the after party, after the Mr. Olympia, when everyone was singing and Arnold was singing: because at this point it was a very relaxed environment.

When we arrived in South Africa we were dieting so hard and they did not have the right food for us so we were out trying to buy tuna fish and water. We were suffering. But the best part was after the contest: I don't care about the fact that I came third. I was just having a great time and hanging out with my friends.

And you just wanted to eat your cake


Part 1 | Part 2
    Ferrigno, L. & Kent Hall, D. (1982). The incredible Lou Ferrigno. Simon and Schuster: USA.