FLEX speaks to a legend of the iron game, Bill Pearl, as he looks back on bodybuildingís golden age.
A case could be made by some purists that bodybuilding has lost its mojo in the past few decades. Mention the word "bodybuilder" in a crowded room these days, and youíre likely to elicit a mass scrunching of noses and hear a chorus of groans as your audience likely imagines oily musclemen in sparkly posing trunks.
It wasnít always this way, though. In fact, in the not-so-distant past, bodybuilders represented a masculine ideal to the public at large. Think back to when Charles Atlas stood as a towering example of both inner and outer strength to 97-pound weaklings the world over. Consider the time when Steve Reeves elicited "oohs" and "aahs" from countless moviegoers as he battled brutes and tore down temples in a toga and sandals. Bodybuilders then werenít viewed as preening misfits, but as icons of manliness.
Among these avatars of the Y chromosome was a man who could have kicked sand in Atlasí face had he so chosen. This guy was tougher than tough, as strong as he was massive and ready to mix it up at a momentís notice. A navy man, he was capable of tearing license plates in half and bending 10-penny nails between his fingers, which he often did just because he could. No-nonsense to the core and still a gentlemen through and through, he knew how to treat a lady and garner respect from a man.
In this exclusive FLEX interview, we talk with three-time Mr. Universe winner Bill Pearl about his amazing bodybuilding career, his near-miss movie stardom and the last thing heíd like to be doing before meeting his maker.
FLEX: A lot of guys discovered bodybuilding by way of sports-specific training or magazine photos that inspired them. You had a different impetus.
BILL PEARL: Well, my brother Harold, whoís three years older than I am, was the real reason. You remember the old Charles Atlas ad where the skinny guy gets sand kicked in his face? Well, that happened to me every day at the hands of my brother. I figured I had to make myself stronger so that I could handle the guy. I was 11 and my brother was 14.
You guys really fought?
Oh, Christ, we would go at it tooth and nail, right up into our 40s. I mean blow-to-blow fistfighting right up into our 40s. It was ridiculous. It finally got to a point that I said, "I donít care what you do, Iím never gonna lay a hand on you again." I had to stop it. We both did. It was terrible.
You started lifting at 11?
Well, not lifting. Back then I didnít have much in the way of access to a gym. I lived up in the little town of Yakima, Washington. They had a YMCA with some crude equipment, but I mostly had to rely on calisthenics and manual labor for exercise. I would do manual labor - digging a well or piling wood or anything that felt like I was making my muscles stronger.
When I was 13 years old, a few years after the start of World War II, a friend of mine brought a copy of Strength & Health magazine to the house and it had an ad for the Big 10 Special for $22.95. I worked the entire summer to get the $22.95, but when the weights came, I didnít have enough for the shipping. So I asked the friend who brought the magazine over if he could cover the freight. He did, and we became training partners in my basement, and I havenít stopped training since.
What was your first contest?
My first contest was the Mr. San Diego, back in 1952. I placed third. Then I won the Mr. Oceanside contest. Then the Mr. Southern California, Mr. America and Mr. Universe Amateur all the following year.
Was that the contest in which Sean Connery competed?
Yes it was.
Did you guys talk?
No. At the time he was just a milkman from Scotland and I was in the service, and we were just young kids. Of course, he did a heck of a lot better in his life than I did. I met him a lot later on and we shared some good laughs over that. At one time, he had mentioned that he competed in the Mr. Universe in 1953 and that this black guy by the name of Bill Pearl beat him. I had a good tan and he had a Scottish pallor, so I guess he figured anyone from America whoís that dark must be black (laughs).
Throughout your competitive career you would sometimes take seven-year breaks between competitions. Did you still train during those breaks or was weight training more a side project for you?
Weight training has never been a side project for me. Never. Since I was 12 or 13 years old, I knew that it was a way to get beyond limitations in my life. It has been a part of my life for most of it and it always will be. I think in some respects Dave Draper is that way, too. Zabo Koszewski is the same way. It provided us a chance to create new opportunities for ourselves. It was a way to get out the door.
I still see Zabo training at Goldís Venice.
Letís talk about your diet. Youíre actually vegetarian?
My wife, Judy, and I have been lacto-ovo vegetarians for the last 42 years, since I turned 37. Neither of us have knowingly eaten any red meat, fish or fowl since then. We may have unknowingly, but we couldnít have done anything about that.
What motivated you to eschew meat?
At the time, I was a personal trainer for the North American division of Rockwell International and my job was to keep all the executives in condition, along with several of the astronauts. They were constantly running tests on these guys, and so I became part of these tests. One day I got called into the office by this doctor, Harold Morrison, and he said, "Your cholesterol is sky-high. Itís over 300 and your triglycerides are sky-high. Of all the people weíre working with in this fitness program, Bill, youíre in the worst condition of the whole bunch!"
He went on to say, "Iíd hate like hell to can you, but I donít want you dropping dead in front of all these guys when youíre supposed to be the epitome of health. Youíd better see a medical doctor." Fortunately, a friend of mine, Dr. Harold Bailey, who was a Seventh-day Adventist, said, "We could probably change this through medication - if thatís what you want - but if you could change your eating habits, youíll probably be OK." So, for a period of a year or two, Judy made the transition. First the red meat went, then the chicken went and then the fish went, until we got to where we are today and we have not deviated from that diet.
Did your cholesterol decrease?
It did drop down, yes, but itís still relatively high - just under 200. I believe that some people just have higher cholesterol levels than others. Itís genetic. No matter what you do youíre not going to get away from it.
You served in the military as a young man. How did that influence you?
That was another turning point in my life. I was born and raised on an Indian reservation in Oregon [with the Nez Perce Indians on the Warm Springs reservation outside of Prineville]. I spent my first seven years in Indian schools, and from there I went to public schools. But I was from a very small town and ungodly naÔve, so I think going into the service opened my eyes to the world around me and to what I could do in this life.
I also learned that no matter what you want to do, thereís always going to be a certain amount of people who are going to try to dominate you. Being in the service you learn that quickly. You donít talk back to someone of a higher rank, because there will be a problem. I learned that if I wanted anything in my life, if I wanted to improve my life, it was up to me to do so. Fortunately, I then met Leo Stern and he became my mentor. If it hadnít been for Leo Stern, there would have been no Bill Pearl the bodybuilder.
What year was that?
It was 1950. I was in San Diego for boot camp and had trained there a couple of times. Then, two years later, I was back in San Diego, stationed on a submarine down there and I joined Leo Sternís gym and my life has never been the same since.
Describe Leo Stern for the readers.
Leo was a smart guy. When we first met, he wrote out a couple of programs for me. I was just some young kid and he didnít know what my intentions were. I was one of 300-400 members there. After a while, he began to recognize that I had certain attributes that may have been even better than his own when it came to weight training, so rather than train me, he would critique my physique. He might say, "Your traps are getting too big, so whatever youíre doing for your traps you need to stop." He never told me what to do, but he would tell me what I should not do. He left the rest up to me.
Did you recognize your own gifts at the time?
No, I did not. When I won the Mr. America contest in 1953, I was the most surprised individual on that stage. I didnít even have a clue I would place in the top five or 10. Thatís when I got serious about it, because I said to myself, "My God, I just became Mr. America and I donít know anything about this sport or anything about what Iím doing!" I started getting all these phone calls from people asking me all of these questions and I didnít have a clue what they were talking about. I just went from being a novice to the top rung at that particular time and I didnít have a clue what to do with it!
By the 1960s, you were arguably the best bodybuilder around. Other guys, like Larry Scott, Gordon Mitchell and Dave Draper, appeared in some movies at the time, whether they were beach blanket films or heroic movies. Did you consider pursuing that route?
I did do one film that Arthur Jones produced. Then I auditioned for all those other films that Larry and the other guys tried out for, but for some reason or other Iíd get mad about something and walk off the stage. As an example, at one particular audition - I think it might have been Muscle Beach Party or Donít Make Waves - they had a part that was a physique contest and they wanted this other guy to win the contest and I told them, "Hell, Iím Mr. America and I beat this guy! If Iím going to be in this contest then Iíve gotta win!" Well, he took a look at me - and I wasnít as handsome as the other guy - and he said, "No." So I sad, "Well thatís it," gave him the bird and walked off the stage. Stupid stuff like that. It bothered me that bodybuilding wasnít getting the fair treatment it deserved.
There was a period in the í60s when you grew a thick mustache and went around performing strongman stunts in leopard-print trunks. Was that your ode to strongmen of yore?
Yes. When I was growing up, I idolized guys like John Grimek and read all I could on Eugen Sandow and was totally fascinated by the history of the sport. So I attempted to emulate what these old-time strongmen did. But what I learned while giving these exhibitions around the world was that I couldnít always bench press 400 pounds if I was tired, but I could bend a spike or I could blow up a hot-water bottle and get the same impact because it was visual. People donít have any concept of what itís like to lift a 500-pound barbell, but they can relate when they see you blowing up a hot-water bottle and bursting it.
Donít get me wrong, there was a certain amount of strength involved. When youíre bending 70-penny spikes and horseshoes that takes strength. But my main concern was the visual appeal, and I like having things that I could carry on and off of the stage with me.
What are some of your best lifts?
At a bodyweight of 218 pounds, I was full squatting 550 pounds with no belt, no wraps, no nothing. At the time, that was very, very close to the world record. That was the kind of weight [Doug] Hepburn and those guys were doing.
After 1953 you competed sporadically, taking off three to five years at a time between contests. How come?
I had to feed my family and I was trying to make a business succeed. One thing you have to remember is that I never competed against anyone else, only myself. So if you ask me, "Did you compete against this guy, this guy and this guy?" Iím probably going to tell you, "I donít remember," because as far as I was concerned, I was only competing against Bill Pearl. Sean Connery is an example. I was simply too focused on me to remember much about Sean Connery.
So I didnít really know too much about who my competitors were, but when a new crop of bodybuilders would come up Iíd think, "Well, letís see how I do against these guys." If Iím not mistaken, I competed in a total of 14 physique contests during my career.
Possibly your most memorable contest was your last, the 1971 Mr. Universe, at which you defeated Sergio Oliva and Reg Park. Itís said that you challenged all of bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger included, to take one last crack at you.
I did do that, but that was only because Arnold first challenged me. Arnold started that, I didnít. I was 41 years old and Arnold was 17 years younger and I wasnít taking any anabolic steroids at the time. I was about as clean as you could possibly be.
So when I decided to come back at 41, I knew that would be the last for me. I could feel that it was getting time to hang it up, so I let everyone know. A week before the contest, Arnold pulls out, saying that he was under contract with Weider and that Joe wouldnít let him compete, but the following week he was in Paris competing in the Mr. Olympia.
Now, I donít doubt that had it not been for his contract, Arnold would have competed. But I think Joe felt it was too risky for him to possibly get knocked off and he was too smart of a businessman to let his young star get blown away by an old man.
What did you think of Oliva when you saw him at the Ď71 Universe?
He was somewhat of an unknown quantity in London, and so he was getting tremendous publicity leading up to the show. Although Sergio was in good condition, he wasnít hard enough. Iím not knocking him at all, but he had been backstage pumping up for 45 minutes, and as he stood onstage he began shrinking. He lost his pump and started flattening out.
Sergio and Frank Zane were upset with the outcome. Only Reg Park came up to me afterward and congratulated me, and told me I deserved to win. No one else said a word. Reg was a gentleman. Now, Iím not saying Frank wasnít a gentleman, but I think the younger guys had a little more to lose, whereas Reg was a little older than me and we were both hanging on by our teeth. I retired after that show. That was as far as I could possibly go. I couldnít have gotten any better than that. That was all this old body had left in it.
So, here we are in the 21st century and bodybuilding is quite a different animal from the sport in which you competed. Do you follow it still?
Not really. Not the competitive aspect. I canít relate to these physiques. Although I am still in the gym six days a week at 4 in the morning.
Four in the morning? Why?
I conditioned myself to do that when I was a personal trainer. I wanted to make sure I trained myself first, before any of my clients, so Iíd get up at 3 AM and be training by 4 AM.
Do you get much sleep?
Six hours. Sometimes five and a half.
And thatís enough?
No, but itís all I can get.
Your book Keys to the Inner Universe was incredibly impressive in both size and scope. How long did it take you to write it?
Five years. That was originally supposed to be a brochure; it kept growing and growing until it was over 500 pages. It was an incredible amount of work. And now Iím working on another book titled Legends of the Iron Game, which is a comprehensive history of physical culture - it goes all the way back to ancient Greece. Weíre just about finished with it.
Youíre in your late 70s now. Do you ever look ahead?
Of course. Iím getting to a point in my life now that I donít fear death, but I do fear how Iím going to die. I donít want to linger on from cancer or a stroke. Ben Weider went into the hospital for low blood pressure and he didnít come back. Iíll take that. I just donít want to lay around in a bed having somebody wipe my rear end for 10 years. If I could just go to bed, watch a good John Wayne movie, go to sleep and not wake up, I would just love that.
On the 1980 Mr. Olympia
Yet you did stay in competition shape for years to come. In fact, in photos of you dressed in a suit at the 1980 Olympia, you looked as big as the competitors.
Yes, and there were those who said that had I competed in that show, I could possibly have won it.
You were originally the head judge in that contest, but you recused yourself from that role.
I did. I was training with my good friend Chris Dickerson at the time, who was competing in the contest, and I didnít feel I could fairly judge him.
You also had a difference of opinion regarding the outcome of that show.
I had Arnold fifth.
How did you have the top four?
That was so long ago I donít really remember the order in which I had them. I know Chris looked terrific and so did Boyer [Coe], [Mike] Mentzer and Zane. [Top five in the 1980 Olympia were Schwarzenegger, Dickerson, Zane, Coe and Mentzer.]
More pics at:
Similar Bodybuilding Threads: