Deaf Sports Stars8th December 2013

Lou Ferrigno - Shaping Up to Play the Hulk

Lou Ferrigno became Deaf early in his life, he went on to carve a great body building and acting career

by David Hughes

In today's society, health and fitness has become a multi million pound industry and more and more people are realising the benefits of shedding the pounds and leading a more active lifestyle. Body building and weight-training is one of the more popular ways to exercise and look and feel good, however, this has not always been the case. In fact, until the body building explosion of the 1970s, it was looked at as a niche area of fitness used by strange fanatics who just wanted to pose and show their muscles.

‚ÄčOne of the key people to change the public's perception of body building is Lou Ferrigno, who many will know as the man who played The Incredible Hulk in the popular TV series from the late 70s and early 80s. What you may not know though is Lou became deaf as an infant and it is because of this that he developed the drive to succeed and become a legend in the world of body building.

When Lou was a toddler he suffered a series of ear infections which damaged the nerves and hairs of his inner ears leaving him with an 80% hearing loss. This was not discovered until he was 3 years old and he did not start to wear hearing aids until the age of 5. The fact that Lou kept quiet and did not communicate very much also left him with speech problems which he fought to conquer all the way until adulthood. His father was a police officer and Lou had a love/hate relationship with him. He believed his father had a difficult time accepting Lou's deafness and forced him to work hard and not feel sorry for himself. As a child that felt like tough love but it did mean Lou grew up with a determination to succeed.

Lou had to attend lip reading classes but he found these difficult and led him to become a very introverted child. His first hearing aid was a large box that Lou had to wear on his chest with the wires going up to his ears. Like many deaf children at that time, this was a cause of much teasing at school.

" When I was a kid my friends called me names like Tin Ear and Deaf Lou," he explained. "They would shout, here comes the deaf-mute. They would prod at the box on my chest causing feedback that hurt my ears." 

Lou tried to spend as much time as he could away from other people, hiding in his room reading books or playing with toys. One day his father bought Lou some comics which included, The Hulk and Spiderman. Lou became mesmorised by the physique of the characters and decided that was how he wanted to look. This was his way into body building.

Lou first began training with weights as a teenager and was soon spending every moment of his spare time lifting weights that had been set up in his basement. He gained muscle quickly and also shot up to stand 6 foot, 5 inches. A renowned hard worker in the gym, Lou decided he wanted to compete professionally and be the first 300 pound champion as well as the tallest. However, Lou's training almost came to a halt during school due to difficulties caused by his deafness.

Due to his shyness and lack of confidence, Lou did not always tell his teachers that he was deaf. He recalls that whilst in fifth grade his geography teacher sat him at the back of the classroom. No one had explained to her that he was deaf and he couldn't find the courage to tell her that he needed to be at the front so that he could lip read, as he thought it would make him seem inferior to his class mates. His grades began to plummet and as a result he was taking home bad reports. His father became furious and locked the door to his basement weight room telling Lou it would only be unlocked when his grades improved.

Needless to say, the motivation to get back the only thing that mattered in Lou's life made him speak up more about his deafness and with improvements in school he was able to resume training. It wasn't only in the classroom where problems arose as Lou recollects how he forgot the batteries for his hearing aid during a body building contest.

" I was terrified. A friend gave me a shove when the announcer called me onstage. When the lights went down I had no idea what was happening, I couldn't hear the music I posed to, so had no idea of the timing. I completed my routine and heard no applause so figured I'd blown it. It was only when the lights came back on that I saw everyone clapping and cheering. From that moment on I always had a big supply of batteries with me!"

During Lou's competitive body building career, he won Mr America once and Mr Universe on two occasions, as well as finishing second in Mr Olympia and the Olympia Masters in 1994 aged 43. His competitive weight usually stayed at around 285lbs, a little over 20 stone and at 6'5" his muscle bound torso made for an arresting sight.

In 1977 Lou was approached by film makers Universal to play the part of the Hulk in a new television series. Originally the role was to be played by another actor but the son of one of the Universal Executives said that actor was too small and that for the Hulk to be more intimidating to kids, he needed real muscle. Due to Lou's massive physique he became Bruce Banner's alter-ego.

The skinny deaf kid is school, had suddenly become one of the biggest characters on world television!

In playing the Hulk, Lou believed this was another situation in which his deafness could help him. He felt able to convey the emotions needed without the Hulk talking because of his years of reading people's lips and responding to their expressions in order to know how they felt. For his role as The Hulk, Lou simply reversed that situation to make it work. A long standing successful career was to follow with the Incredible Hulk achieving cult status.

In 2012 Lou became one of the first people in the United States to undergo pioneering ear surgery. A device was implanted into his ears which acts as a prosthetic cochlea stimulator, a microchip which has no wires or speakers and takes over from the damaged nerves and hairs in his inner ear.

Now, Lou says he has, "natural hearing and can hear things he has never heard before or could have ever hoped to hear."  Birds chirping, rain on his roof, his alarm clock in the morning ("scares the heck out of him," he says laughing), the tiniest sounds of his fingers moving together, the refrigerator's quiet motor, but most importantly, the ability to hear people in everyday conversation, even in a noisy environment, like a restaurant. "Everything is so loud and so clear," he explains, although he is still getting used to some new, never before heard sounds.

Nowadays, Lou is not afraid to speak up about being deaf and uses his experiences to motivate and help others.

"I think that if I wasn't hard of hearing, I wouldn't be where I am now. Early on, as a youngster it was difficult, but I’m not ashamed to talk about it because many people have misconceptions about hearing loss; like who has hearing loss and what it’s like not to hear, so I do talk about it. I think my hearing loss helped create a determination within me to be all that I can be, and gave me a certain strength of character too. Anytime I do a movie or a TV show, I make them aware of my hearing loss at the beginning, and that makes it much easier for all of us to communicate and get the job done."

At 61 years of age, Lou's first love is still fitness and weight training and he works out every day. He has a dedicated website, which offers training advice as well as motivational tips.

Article by David Hughes

posted in Deaf Sport / Deaf Sports Stars

8th December 2013