This week, host Shari Eberts is joined by fitness icon, Lou Ferrigno. While he is best known for his role in the TV series, The Incredible Hulk, Ferrigno has also for years been an inspiration to many in the hard of hearing community. In 2021, Lou underwent cochlear implant surgery, and it completely changed his life.
In this interview, Lou talks about how his experience as a child with hearing loss and being bullied help shape his life and career. Having to work harder in the face of adversity ultimately led Lou to a successful career in bodybuilding and later as an actor.
Shari Eberts 0:00
All right, well welcome to This Week in Hearing I’m Shari Eberts author along with Gael Hannan of Hear & Beyond live skillfully with hearing loss, and I’ll be your host for this episode. Today we have a terrific guest and one I’m very excited to talk with Lou Ferrigno. Lou Ferrigno is a fitness icon, motivational speaker and co founder of Ferrigno fit, but he’s probably best known for his portrayal of The Incredible Hulk in the 1970s and 80s. Like every good comic book hero lose origin story begins in the face of adversity. As an infant, Lou suffered a series of air infections and lost 80% of his hearing, although he didn’t really get diagnosed fully until he was three years old. This circumstance led to bullying both in school and at home. And 2021, he received a cochlear implant and his life changed, the world of communication opened up for him. And he’s now dedicating himself to helping others understand the benefits of this modern miracle. So thank you, Lou, for being here to talk about that experience, and to share what you’ve learned with other people with hearing loss.
Lou Ferrigno 1:22
You’re welcome that was a wonderful speech
Shari Eberts 1:24
Well, let’s start off with talking about your hearing loss and its impact on your early childhood, maybe you can share some of your earliest memories of your hearing loss.
Lou Ferrigno 1:36
Well, at the age of about three or four, my parents would clap their hand my parents would clap their hands I hadn’t responded to they took me to a ear nose and throat doctor I was diagnosed with hearing loss you just mentioned like 80-85%. But back in those days, the hearing aid they had was the old fashioned hearing aid, they gave me the hearing aid the strap to the chest, and then you have the wire with the with the buttons sticking out of the ear of the old fashioned hearing aid. So it made me feel like a Martian freak, very noticeable, you know, children do not have the psychological defenses the defenses failed. So I was kind of ridiculed when I was in school because the fact I was more like an outcast. And it made me like kind of like a very introverted person it because the same time I had a severe speech impediment, so had to grow up grow up with that. But what’s funny is that to escape that pain, I used to read a lot of comic books like Superman, old comic books, because I was obsessed with power. At the time, I realized the power thing that gave me the self confidence I needed because, you know, living with rejection, not able to hear well and able to conduct myself in a speech pattern. So that’s how I grew up, I’m very introverted. And, you know, back then, in the 50s, it wasn’t as popular as now because people didn’t understand what I’m really a hearing aid was, because now we have the BTE. In those days. I mean, it’s just obvious. Sometimes kids would just punch me in the chest just to be mean to break the hearing aid. And I would go home, and I would tell my father that bad and my father would give me a beatin, he said, Don’t come home if you can’t find your own battle. So I grew up in a tough neighborhood. So that’s what I had to deal with at the time.
Wow, that does sound really tough, actually. And I mean, I had hearing loss mine didn’t start until my mid 20s. And I dealt just a lot with hearing loss stigma when I first developed it, trying to hide it. I mean, did you battle stigma in any way? Or was it just something that you had to accept?
No, I did have to battle but I had to work harder than the average person see because, you know, nobody’s going to pat me on the back. I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself, I got to a point that I wanted to function like everybody else. Because a long time ago, when I was in fifth grade, the teacher was talking to my father’s they listened, they should put me into public school because the parochial school at the time were too difficult for me. So I remembered I would play some parochial school. And then the teacher would talk to me, I would turn around looks at the kids behind me. And because I thought the teacher was talking to the kids behind me. Anyway, again, they call my father, they said they should put me in the school for the deaf. And I’m not deaf at the time, though, what happened I ended up being taken back to the parochial school. And then I had to be requested to be told how to sit in the first row in the class because this way, I will be able to hear the teacher because at the time, I didn’t want to tell anybody I had a hearing loss. I pretended I heard everything. And the difficult thing to meet with the teacher stands at the Blackboard to conduct the class. I would never absorb the information. That’s why I always I would never score high on the examination. So but then eventually when I was in the first row, that helped me tremendously because I made more people where they had any problem. So it’s okay because back then when you try to hide from it, like you said, you ended up shooting yourself in the foot
Shari Eberts 4:57
100% It’s so important to be upfront. about it, but it’s so hard for people to, I guess, overcome that barrier, usually with themselves, really. So talk a little bit about your hearing loss and how it impacted your career. You obviously had a very successful bodybuilding career and also as an actor, but how did your hearing loss play into that?
Lou Ferrigno 5:20
Well, like I said before, it could be all these different comics. And I remember one time I went to a comic book store to try a comic book for other comic book. And I saw a magazine said muscle power, there’s a blond haired guy named David Gray, but on the coverage that Mr. America Mr. Universe, and I always used to watch when I was young, like Miss. American pageant, and on TV, because I used to love when the girls come on stage, that’s what they do the interview, and the presentation, that was scary for me, because, you know, I had a difficult time speaking to what I discovered bodybuilding, and I’d be like that I want to work out with weights, because I know it can be self admiration, self respect, because I knew there was a connection for me. So that gave me a lot of self confidence because I learned to work on my body. At the same time, you know, deal with the healing issue. At the time, my father, I had what you call one healing. At the time, my father didn’t want buy two didn’t want to buy two hearing aids, though, what happened to our total weird hearing aids, 6 months right ear six months of the left ear, then switch. If I haven’t done that, I will not be able to wait two hearing aids like over the years. So I basically he didnt want to spend the extra money. So I just had just laden with a one hearing aid, I had to understand conversation, it was kind of tough, because, you know, when you go to the gym to work out, I had to take the hearing aid out because it wasn’t able to handle the perspiration. So most of the time, I was like in a very silent deaf world. But the thing is that growing up, we reading this in magazine gave me the ability that I found out is my passion. The every one of us has a passion. So for me, that was my passion, I embraced that passion, because I knew that was my way to survive. If I had gone a different direction, I wouldn’t be here today. Because other people, my situation probably resort to drugs, alcohol, because they want to just get that false sense of security. But for me, I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself, because when I was born, I didn’t have perfect hearing. So my father rejected me because I was not the perfect son. So I had to carry his pain. But at the same time, it became what you call, I would say, like a warrior, which is how to fight harder than the average person to succeed. I didn’t want to get left back in school. But I had to do what I had to do to take the path, my path, my examination to succeed and find some kind of a career for myself growing up back in those days was kind of rough, because you had to deal with a lot of the, the abuse, and then and then people would say, to me, I could never have a city job, you have to have perfect hearing maybe you could drive a taxi someday. I didn’t want to hear what the comments because I felt better than that, because my father was a police officer. And I knew when I was that young, I could not be a police officer, because in my hearing situation, so I had to be sorts of different things.
Shari Eberts 8:01
Good for you for having that internal strength in that stamina. It’s it’s very challenging. And like you said, Some people can sort of get off on the wrong direction, and you were able to find something to really exert energy against and had success. And that’s, that’s tremendous. So what was that like to, you know, have one hearing aid in one ear for half the time? I mean, you because you really hear with your brain, right? Not necessarily with your ears. So I can’t imagine what your brain was going through in terms of trying to process the sound from, you know, a new side of your head every six months. Do you remember having that beat a challenge for you?
Lou Ferrigno 8:43
Yeah, because I remember at the time my left ear was worse than the right ear because my left ear is 115 decibel loss, my right ear is 110. So its hard for me to talk over the phone with the left ear, because most of the time I like to talk over the phone with the right hearing aid. But it was interesting when I moved to California when I was 26. The best thing I did for myself, I’d bought two hearing aids, I said I’m gonna try with two hearing aids because I can hear it better. Because I was able to afford it so I bought two hearing aids. that hooked me up a lot of taking me to the second level, but grown up switching hearing aids, I kind of resented because the fact that one better than the other. But I was told at the time, I should be doing that. Because if I don’t if I haven’t done it, then just wore just one hearing aid that later in life, the left ear would always reject any kind of hearing aid anything so at least I was able to do that. That’s why the implant works to me because if I hadn’t watched the hearing aid the left ear or my whole life, it could have been the kind of negative.
Shari Eberts 9:39
Well, that’s really interesting. I guess it kept the nerve connections working. That’s great. So you’ve said I’ve heard you say before that you used to hide your hearing loss when you were going for acting jobs, you were worried maybe that would prevent you from getting the acting jobs. But what made you decide to sort of be more public about About your hearing loss now.
Lou Ferrigno 10:02
Well, when I first began doing the whole series, I never talked about my hearing loss. So anytime I did interview, people would think I was drunk, because I never talked about the hearing loss because my speech wasn’t the way I speak now. So I just started how to come out openly and talk about it, because hiding it, I was only cheating myself. But I was amazed to receive so many different compliments that people respect to me for because my father, when I was raised, always told me that because you have a hearing loss and hearing aid. You call me a misfit, he would call me deaf mute he was a very abusive father. So that that gave me a lot of different scars. So if I had put the clock back, if I talk openly about I think would have been much different than I expected with back then. But the thing is that once I was able to talk to the public open about my hearing loss, and they kind of accepted it, because it’s definitely because when I did the Hulk series, it was a non speaking part. But I figured it was a platform for me, because a lot of people related to the fact that I’m doing the Hulk because I couldn’t speak I couldn’t hear, but I did it because it was a great training platform for me. And funny since then, I’ve done over 45 films and five TV series. But there are now in Hollywood now Hollywood has accepted diversity, especially when it comes to handicap physically, emotionally, or it has to do with race. But in my time when I started in the 70s, a lot of agents would say to me, I can’t handle it because you have a speech impediment, and how you’re going to hear the director far with like taking directions, stuff like that. So I never gave up, I just kept doing it kept fighting kept fighting, because I didn’t know someday that I was going to find the light at the end of the tunnel.
Shari Eberts 11:42
Good for you. I love that attitude. It’s really inspiring, I’m sure for a lot of people that are struggling with different things as well. So what made you decide to move forward with a cochlear implant? Right, so you used hearing aids for your whole life? What what was sort of the impetus to try something different?
Lou Ferrigno 12:01
Well I knew, because when I wore hearing aids, and you have a lot to do with volume, and I was able to hear different sound different noises at a high volume level, but it was hard to as a way to differentiate the sound to my own speech or hearing other people speaking, because sometimes they’ll whine with each other. So a friend of mine, he lost his hearing, perfect hearing before he did a lot of research and he decided to have a cochlear implant. So I saw the impact that it had had on him how much it changed his life, he was able to hear almost like he heard before almost like perfect hearing, that gave me the incentive to do it. Because my right hearing right now have started to lose my natural hearing because I’m 70 years old. But I didn’t want to feel like to the point that I have to isolate myself again and just live with just for hearing aids. But I thought this would give me hope. That’s why I decided to take the chance to have the implant because I just knew from the friend of mine who explained to me he said how much that it had changed him. I’m glad I did it because of course I was nervous before I had the surgery. You know, your biggest fear is that am I ever going to hear again, because anything could happen. But the thing is that it was a life changing experience for me, because they helped me to appreciate hearing the sound and never heard before and especially in conversation, especially my own articulation when I talk to people.
Shari Eberts 13:20
Yeah, it probably helped you hear your own your own voice, like you said, right. So yeah, that’s wonderful. So is there a special sound that you were able to hear with the cochlear implants that you had never heard before? Was there some like surprising sound to you that that was opened up to you because of the cochlear implants,
Lou Ferrigno 13:40
probably a lot of the different machines in the house, like, for example, like the air conditioner. for example I could hear my phone texting 100 feet away. Like one day I said to my wife, I was 50 feet away. And I said to my wife, I’m taking the hearing aid out into just with the beginning stage of the implant. And then to talk very low, whisper something I was able to hear what she had to say that was 50 feet away. Wow. Yeah, huge, because with a hearing aid, it’s volume. You don’t get the clarity that they could see where you’re looking for it. It’s the clarity, that’s huge, because the best hearing aid in the world is not going to give you the clarity like the cochlear implant is.
Shari Eberts 14:18
Right. That’s terrific. So a cochlear implants have been a little bit more prominent, I think in the mainstream media in the past few years, which is great, right? People are starting to know what a cochlear implant is. But some of at least in my opinion, it’s some of this media coverage has been a little inaccurate. You know, for example, in sound of metal, the popular movie from last year. I don’t know if you have any thoughts on the way that cochlear implants are portrayed in the media.
Lou Ferrigno 14:50
Well I would say I was diappointed because when I saw that film, they had the guy he had his head shaved and you could see a huge scar and looked like a like a Frankenstein kind of surgery and there’s a, there’s a lot of things that could have changed the film, especially if he lost his hearing, and he’s still having a conversation. And even though he’s completely deaf, a deaf person, when you have no hearing, you have to rely more on reading lips especially, you know, enunciate it to activate the speech. But then once he got the implant, the head part, but I think that if I was involved directing that movie, I would have given a different approach. But I think gathering a lot of negativity with people with people gets the impression that it’s a major surgery, but only a minimum of surgery. So I think that’s why now, what what we’re doing now with cochlear to raise the awareness, other people understand that what I’ve been through what I, what I’ve gone through, when I talk about it, it’s not as dramatic, as you know, as dangerous, as you think it could be, there’s really a minimum surgery, and it’s the fact that you have no pain to it. It’s only an incision they make, it’s not as did not, you’re not cutting over the head to put the implant under the skin. I mean, the implant is so small. But the amazing thing is that I wear what you call the Kanso on the outside. And over the years, I noticed that the it’s more than one size, because 20 years ago, I had just seen people wear like a canister the size of a hockey puck. But with interesting that when I talk to these people in person, they were able to conduct a conversation, they were able to hear better than I was hearing at the time with the hearing aids. That said, I said to myself, This is amazing, because, you know, it’s these people were deaf before they hear it better than I’ve been hearing. And that’s something I should be thinking about.
Shari Eberts 16:35
Yeah, it’s really is sort of a miracle technology, right? I mean, it’s like off/on, you know, my friends who have cochlear implants, they say, like, take it off. I’m totally deaf, I put it on. And it’s like a miracle that, you know, you can hear the world just sort of opens up. So it’s very exciting.
Lou Ferrigno 16:51
But the good thing is I don’t think you have to worry about losing any of your hearing with a cochlear implant, because have to do with the brainwaves and the brain connection because a hearing aid. You see, I think, because my whole life, I depend so much on volume, I think that was very detrimental to my natural hearing. I think that affected my hearing because the hearing aid I’m wearing now they put two receivers in it and because I just need that power with the volume. But you know, once you have so much volume, your sacrifice clarity. Right.
Shari Eberts 17:20
So do you think about getting another cochlear implant? Is that something you? Yeah. So that’s a yes. Or you’re thinking about? Yeah, okay, that’s great.
Lou Ferrigno 17:31
Yeah, they could, life changing for me. Could you imagine with two? yeah, yeah.
Shari Eberts 17:39
So I know, you recently met with some people at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and you are trying to really urge them to make cochlear implants more available for aging adults who might benefit from that. What was your discussion with them? Like, is there something you want to share about about that was to our viewers
Lou Ferrigno 18:01
ya know, especially when you get older, you’re covered by Medicare, and Medicare covers the surgery because, you know, instead of spending 30 40,000 dollars, if you have Medicare, let’s say provide that that’s it this way you feel like that 50 50% of the battle, like you said, it’s not the money situation have to do with a situation that you could be a candidate and you can get a cochlear implant, it can help you with Medicare, because but then Medicare, then some people can’t afford it.
Shari Eberts 18:27
Right? So what was their reaction? Did they seem amenable?
Lou Ferrigno 18:33
Over the past year, I’ve done a lot of different speaking, different conventions, a lot of people came up to me and complimented complimented me on it, and telling me how many people they know that they want to get a cochlear implant, and they see what happened to me, they feel like it’s not, it’s not gonna be a bigger challenge. There’s a challenge, they expect it. So they gave them your stents. And why not Lou’s done it, I can do the same thing. Because much has helped me, especially having a profound hearing loss because a lot of people before they were questioning about it, being nervous about it, because they’re afraid they want to sacrifice any more hearing of what they have left, which I understand their fears.
Shari Eberts 19:09
Oh, 100%. But it’s great that you can be such a role model for people. I love that. So if you had, you know, different organizations or resources that you could recommend to people like someone who’s watching this who might be considering getting a cochlear implant, what would you advise them to do? And how would they learn more about the process?
Lou Ferrigno 19:32
Well, I would say, don’t wait. I mean, don’t wait to the point that that you’re in desperation, because you know, there’s a website called www.hearingaidcheck.com And I think anybody that had the hearing loss and they feel that they’re going to lose more of their hearing, then jump on the bandwagon get involved with a cochlear implant to find out you could be a candidate because, you know, you losing valuable time, like myself, I wish I had I couldn’t have done it 10 years ago. But you know, it it’s just And now I understand when we’re going through it, because before I have to kind of nervous about it because I was told years ago, they say to me, once you have a cochlear implant, it’s just going to canal, you can never go back to hearing aid, yeah, again, that scares the hell out of me that I say, it frustrates me doesn’t work, I can never go back to here. And you know, a lot of people have a fear. But today with technology, the fact that do a extensive test getting tested by the water test, and you’ll qualify the candidate and you have like a 99% success rate.
Shari Eberts 20:31
That’s great. Well, and I think usually they just do one to one side at a time as well. So God forbid, you know, something is really doesn’t go well, at least you sort of have that other side remaining.
Lou Ferrigno 20:43
To my worst side. Right,
Shari Eberts 20:45
right. So tell me what’s new for you in terms of your acting career? Do you have something exciting coming up on the horizon? What’s your latest project?
Lou Ferrigno 20:55
Well, I’m filming a horror movie in Syracuse in August. And yeah, yeah. And I never been involved in the horror space before. The film like Frankenstein like to actor, but something has a has a substantial effect on people. So that’s where I’m going to be because I’m gonna have long hair and have a beard. And I’m kind of like playing in a trench with a character like a Hannibal Lecter in The Woods. Oh, yeah. And it got and you know, it’s got a great plot. So they just they just announced it at Cannes France. But that’s something that I’m looking forward to because I like to play different characters. But the nice thing is the fact that in Hollywood now, over the years, do you have people that played hard of hearing characters normal people play deaf characters, but it changed now because like Marlee Matlin, and there’s different other actresses, actors, they can be able to play just different characters, like myself now, like, for example, before I get to the movie, or the TV series to offer, we all had to get together on the computer or 60-70 actors, and they had explained that because of diversity. Now you can make any comments about race, nothing about handicap nothing about speech, nothing about everything else, and more respectable. That’s why when I was on the set filming the TV series The Offer I talked openly about the implant because at the time, everybody on this table wearing a mask, and I would say hey, listen, your voice being muffled. Please pull down your max. They had to because the fact that it’s being respected and to diversity, they both set a wonderful experience because I was hearing so many different sounds, hear different conversation, able to hear the dialogue better. They constantly have to stare at the person in the face, and waited they finished the last word that means to deliver my sentence.
Shari Eberts 22:40
Oh, this is great. Well, I’m excited to see that. Horror movies always scare me. But this one sounds like
Lou Ferrigno 22:47
this one. You have to close your eyes. Yeah, exactly.
Shari Eberts 22:50
So that’s great. So I see that we are getting close to time. I don’t know if you have any other final thoughts that you want to share with the viewers today about your cochlear implant or anything about your hearing loss.
Lou Ferrigno 23:05
I would say if anybody’s thinking about it, just go for it because now they have it down like a science because it’s been around for over 50 years. Now with the development and the beauty about the cochlear implant, you can see your own audiologist now with your iPhone because you can monitor the likes of bass or to tempo, did understand that also, you could also now with a sound and a direct conversation or direct on one person or on a wider broadband base. And also the nice thing about it the fact that even now sometimes I just practice my cochlear, I use an app to listen to conversation. They have an app that you listen to different conversation the apps go through, they asked you three different question relates to the conversation like yes or no answers. And that’s a great remedy, especially for the cochlear implant to keep tuning in. But that’s funny when I first started from the beginning, I heard bells and banging sound but now I got to the point of which has nature it’s gone from like I would say maybe 21% up to probably the 80% It’s a bad ear alone. That’s just the left ear. I think with the second implant that probably would be the public takes next level probably hear better I’ve ever heard my whole life.
Shari Eberts 24:18
Wow. That’s I mean, that alone is life changing. improvement. So that’s fabulous. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining me. This is a terrific discussion. I learned a lot. And I think people are really going to appreciate learning about your experiences, and really be inspired to check out and learn more about cochlear implants. So I wish you lots of continued success in your hearing loss journey and thank you so much for being here.
Lou Ferrigno 24:45
Thank you. My pleasure.
About the Panel
Lou Ferrigno is a Fitness Icon, Motivational Speaker, and Co- Founder of Ferrigno FIT. Like every good comic book hero, Lou’s origin story begins in the face of adversity. As an infant, Lou suffered a series of ear infections and lost 80% of his hearing (though his condition was not diagnosed until he was three years old). This circumstance led to bullying both in school and at home. Lost and unhappy, Lou turned to larger-than-life figures like actor/body-builder Steve Reeves and Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk for inspiration. These two icons would dictate who he would become and how he would live his life.
Undeterred by what some may have perceived as a disadvantage, Lou threw himself into athletics at age 13 (predominantly weightlifting and bodybuilding). By age 21, Lou won his first major titles: Mr. America and Mr. Universe. At 22, he came in second at his first attempt at the Mr. Olympia title. His second attempt at the title was documented the following year in the film Pumping Iron. The re-lease of this film helped gain the attention of television producer Kenneth Johnson (Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman), who was seeking the right person to portray the larger-than-life comic book superhero, The Incredible Hulk. With his 6ft 5in, 285 lb. frame, Lou was the biggest professional bodybuilder at the time and was cast. The success of this series catapulted Lou into the mainstream, making him a fitness legend and a pop culture icon. He would go on to be featured in CBS’ King of Queens, DreamWorks’ I Love You, Man and NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice.
Lou continues to symbolize the limitless giant, being the only per-son ever to have played the fan-favorite. Lou also still makes health and fitness a priority in his life but has turned his focus to teaching others his key to happiness.
Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a popular blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss, (co-authored with Gael Hannan) is the ultimate survival guide to living well with hearing loss. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.