Personal Best: Mind Over Matter

UPDATED: May 24, 2023
PUBLISHED: April 29, 2011

Lou Ferrigno could have easily gone down the path of self-pity. Instead, he chose weightlifting to build his self-confidence, ultimately launching a career playing a TV superhero and transforming himself into a real-life role model.

“I was basically the Hulk my whole life,” says Ferrigno, a former champion bodybuilder best known for his role as Dr. David Banner’s alter ego in the 1970s television show, The Incredible Hulk. Like the character he played, Ferrigno discovered he could transform himself into a man of great strength—outside and inside—by confronting his fears and harnessing what he calls his personal power to obliterate obstacles in his way. “You can’t be afraid to take risks in your life,” he says. “You can’t be afraid to fail.”

As an infant, Ferrigno suffered an ear infection resulting in an 85 percent hearing loss that went undiagnosed until he was about three. His parents gave him little encouragement, and neighborhood kids taunted him. “They would call me ‘Deaf Louie,’ ” he says.

Ferrigno recalls feeling isolated. He grew introverted, retreating to the fantasy world of comic books. “I was a real-life Walter Mitty,” he says.

The turning point came when he was 12 or 13. He went to buy a comic book but came across a bodybuilding magazine. He was fascinated. Starting with a set of dumbbells from an uncle, Ferrigno set his sights on becoming a world-class body builder. “I knew this was the springboard to my success,” he says. “It was the only way for me to survive.”

He discovered that achieving his goals hinged on working harder than anyone else and on proving others wrong when they challenged him. “I had a father who told me I would never amount to anything,” Ferrigno says. “Everything I was told I couldn’t do, I’ve done. It comes down to having to take actions for yourself.” In 1973, when he was 21, Ferrigno entered and won the Mr. Universe competition, setting a Guinness world record as the youngest person to win the title. The next year he was back on the podium after capturing the title for a second time. He was, and still is, the only competitor to win the title two years in a row. “Winning the competition helped me realize that I could achieve anything I put my mind to,” he says.

His first appearance on film came in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, which also introduced the world to Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film follows the two bodybuilders, along with a third, Franco Columbu, as they compete in the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition.

Schwarzenegger went on to win the competition but Ferrigno won something that proved to be far more valuable for him—the chance to play the Hulk on television throughout the show’s run from 1977 to 1982. Most importantly, the role opened doors that even the Hulk might not have been able to muscle through.

Concentrating on his acting, and making intensive efforts to improve his diction and lip-reading skills, Ferrigno followed The Incredible Hulk with roles in stage productions of Requiem for a Heavyweight and Of Mice and Men. In recent years, Ferrigno has had a recurring role on The King of Queens playing himself as a neighbor to the show’s main characters, Doug and Carrie.

Ferrigno remains an advocate for fitness, continuing a personal-training business he has operated over the last 30 years with clients from around the world. He also runs Ferrigno Fitness Equipment, an online store offering everything from dumbbell sets to complete home gyms.

Throughout it all, Ferrigno has made it a point to stay close to his family and to focus on what he can achieve, not on the obstacles in his way. “I never wanted to feel sorry for myself.”

And the role Ferrigno seems to take the most pride in is that of role model. Today, the skinny kid from Brooklyn also is a sought-after public speaker, who finds time to inspire young people with his life story and serves as a volunteer reserve deputy for the Los Angeles County Sheriff ’s Department. During visits to schools on behalf of the Sheriff’s Department and at other speaking engagements, Ferrigno is keenly aware of the impact he can have on young people. “That’s why I’m doing what I do today,” he says. “If I had met someone like myself, it would have made a big difference.”

Whether he is traveling around the world on motivational speaking tours or just talking to kids in his backyard, Ferrigno’s message is simple: “You have to follow your own path and maximize your own personal power.”