After a string of lackluster films that started in 1969 with Hercules in New York, 1983 saw Arnold Schwarzenegger well into his meteoric rise to super stardom with the smash success of Conan the Barbarian the previous year. Arnold, seven-time Mr. Olympia, three-time Mr. Universe, and future governor of California, the practical joker with the thick Austrian accent, into whom I bumped on many a morning at World Gym, was now a really, really (really) big deal.
And he would only get bigger.
He knew it too. Sometimes a little too much. Arnold was not only a star on the big screen, but he was ever more so at the gym. Especially among his late morning, tightly knit, crew of sycophants, observed ever obsequious, which was overdone to an almost unmanly readiness to fall in with the will of the Oak. Yup, at 10 AM at World Gym in Santa Monica, Arnold was the undisputed heavyweight king.
And that was pretty cool if you were one of the few regulars of that hour like me, who knew Arnold before he shot up to where the air is too thin for mere mortals. I was there before Arnold was bigger than big, so it was really no big deal to see him. I was part of the early 80s World Gym ethos, provable by the nickname given to me by the venerable Joe Gold, the cranky old founder of the modern gym movement. If Joe gave you a nickname, you were in. Hence, I was at times included in the morning shenanigans orchestrated almost always by Arnold and usually homophobic. I didn’t really pay too much attention though, especially since one of Arnold’s crew was nick-named “Alice.” While they toyed with each other’s sexual insecurities, I was a pretty “serious bodybuilder” back then and thought such incessant teasing about ones implied sexual preference was either quite sophomoric or a sign that someone was trying too hard to hide something.
Besides, Arnold wasn’t my bodybuilding hero; Ferrigno was.
Of the three bodybuilders who played Hercules, only Steve Reeves made a real go of it. But, that didn’t dissuade Louie Ferrigno, who had just gotten back from Italy where he stared in what was supposed to match the Conan movie. That should have meant he’d be knee-high in blood and guts and nudity and sex. But, instead of an R-rated blend of adventure and erotica about how a lonely Hercules wanders around until he finally meets up with a power-hungry manipulative queen, who seduces him and tricks him into using his strength to conquer other kingdoms, that ends with her fighting Hercules to the death, we got a bad case of G-rated fairytale theater. But, because, as Louie told Muscle & Fitness magazine in 1983, “Hercules is a film I want all the kids, everybody, to go see and not be able to walk out saying, ‘He could have done better.’ I want them to walk out and feel fulfilled,” he got me believing there would be a sequel, just like the sequel to Conan that Arnold was about to film. And, because there was talk of the sequel being called Son of Hercules,” and because I too was rocking a full beard and the tight curly Guido doo just like Louie, and had muscles and am Italian and bore whatever resemblance to Lou as any other built younger Italian dude with a beard and black curly hair, I might have had a shot at playing the role of Louie’s son.
At least that’s what I thought. I mean come on, it was '80s LA, anything was possible.
Anyway, Lou and I - both Italians from Brooklyn - were more friendly toward one another than I was with Arnold. We would both train either at World or Gold’s and saw each other enough to just kind of fall in together. I knew Louie was deaf and had to read lips and I was always very careful to make sure I spoke so that he could easily see what I was saying. I know he always appreciated that. Arnold only trained at World, I wasn’t in his crew and his circle was tight. And, even though Louie and Arnold had played opposite each other in Pumping Iron and traveled and competed together in the Olympia, there was still a distance between them through which you could drive a huge dump truck. Arnold was superior. He was Conan on the big screen. Louie was a growling green monster on TV. While Arnold was never outwardly mean or condescending toward Louie there was never a moment when his superiority wasn’t self evident.
Okay, now on to my story… I was getting ready for a show and probably three or four weeks out and I was a little behind in my prep. I was stressing out about it and Louie offered to take a look at me and maybe give me some advise. I was very appreciative since I was like nobody and here’s a guy who wins the Universe two years in a row, a TV star, my bodybuilding hero, offering me help.
Back then, World Gym had probably five female members. It was a man’s gym. There wasn’t even a door on the men’s locker room downstairs. You could see right into the showers when you walked past from the garage. So it was no big deal to peel off right there in the gym, down to your undies, and hit few shots in the mirror while your buddies looked on, which I did. I hit a front lat spread, then a side chest, while Louie studied what I was showing him. Then Arnold walked over.
Remember, despite the fact that I was now flanked by two famous actors with no less than five Universe and seven Olympia titles between them, I was still dieting like a guy diets when he knows he’s behind schedule and my mood was not the best. In fact, I was more miserable than anytime in my life and I really wasn’t in the mood to be the brunt of one of Arnold’s famous putdowns.
I came out of the side chest pose and transitioned into a front double biceps. I looked in the mirror at Louie and I saw Arnold resting his elbow on Louie’s shoulder studying me too. I relaxed and turned around and before Louie could say anything Arnold piped up and said,“your ahhmz are too szmall, your chezt iz too flat and your shtuhmack iz too fat.”
Yeah, that was nice. Just what a guy wants to hear when he knows he’s off. So, I looked over at Arnold, shook my head and said, “damn, you queens get picky in your old age.”
Well, everyone in earshot cracked up. Even his tight knit crew of obsequious homophobes, and even Alice. And Arnold? He just walked away. Yup, I’m one of the few who zinged him. He’s probably not reading this, but in case he is, <wink>.