BILL PEARL:  MAN AGAINST IRON:  An Interview conducted By Rod Labbe

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Bill Pearl is larger than life, an individual so formidable a Bodybuilding force, that–upon meeting him–one must fight the urge to kneel, eyes downcast, and kiss his ring.

            Those notions thundered through my mind as I approached Bill for a Legends of Bodybuilding interview in 2015. He was a “no-nonsense” fellow and didn’t suffer fools gladly, others had warned. Tread lightly! I heeded their sage advice. Prep work alone left me sweating bullets! Would Bill get into my questioning or treat them like the retreads they undoubtedly were? 

Let’s face it, Bill Pearl has been profiled hundreds of times over the decades. He’s expressed opinions, personal values, and experiences again and again, undoubtedly to worldlier journalists than yours truly.  There was a very real possibility I’d stumble, bringing the entire project to a screeching halt. Responsibility, however, told me to go forward, young voyager. Seek and find. Close your eyes and jump crazily into the Void.

I’m glad I heeded that inner muse; Bill gave me an absolutely great interview…but afterward, finding a proper venue proved difficult. Ten years ago, Bodybuilding magazines began falling by the wayside, victims of newsstand malaise and poor circulation numbers.  Rather than throwing up my hands in frustration, I scouted around and connected with Wayne Gallasch. Nothing else needs to be said.

Bill lived a long and healthy life, passing away at age 91. This world is sadder without him, and certainly Bodybuilding has lost an icon. Here’s to you, Bill. Excelsior!


  1. What was your early life like, Bill? I know your parents owned a restaurant.

BILL: I’m the youngest of three kids; both our parents worked, and we basically raised ourselves. There were the typical disagreements of childhood, as one might expect, but nothing spectacular. Even then, I was a type A personality who wanted to succeed. Whatever endeavor I tried, I’d follow through to the end.     

  1. At ten, you were lifting 100 pound bags of grain in the family-run business…but when did you actually start weight-training?

BILL:  Around 1945, with a York Big 10 special.  It cost $22.95, plus five dollars shipping, a fine investment! I’d made up my mind: here’s my way of escaping this little town. Weight-training’s brought me everything I love and admire. Not bad for such a small amount of money paid.    

  1. Why the need for strength?

BILL:  Survival (laughing)! I bought the barbell set because my older brother pounded on me until I cried.  The old Charles Atlas syndrome! By 17, I could hold my own against anybody.

  1. Your first contest was the ’52 Mr. San Diego.

BILL:  I was in the Navy then and placed third.  Going back to the ship on the bus, with my uniform and my little trophy, I sat next to an old lady and told her how proud I was.

  1. A nice memory.

BILL: It is.

  1. A few months later, you entered the Mr. Oceanside and notched a second win. None too shabby, sir!

BILL: And I beat my training partner, Hugh Cobb, too (laughs)! We continued training together and remained good friends. That win was in 1952.  By 1953, I was Mr. California, Mr. Southern California, Mr. America and Mr. Universe–eight months after the San Diego.

  1. Mr. America and the Universe, back-to-back? Incredible!

BILL: Mr. America was the biggest shock of my life, Rod. I told Leo Stern, people are gonna start asking me questions, so I’d better think of some answers (laughs)! I found myself thrust into the limelight and didn’t know how to handle it. 

  1. Why the Navy?

BILL:  During the summer of 1950, my friend and I were training swimmers at a pool.  The Korean War had just begun, so we checked out the Navy, liked what we saw, and joined.  Dad said, ‘there goes your college education. Do you know how long two years can be?’ And I answered, ‘I signed up for four years!’

  1. Ever make it to college?

BILL: No, unfortunately. Not earning a higher degree is my number one regret. You can’t put a price tag on education. It’s invaluable.   

  1. Bodybuilding eras come and go. In your mind, which one best brought these three integral elements together: health, fitness and public awareness?

BILL: Oh, probably the 1960-1970s.  Physical fitness swept the nation; people were joining gyms and taking up weight-training. Bodybuilding still had a healthy aspect to it…but once drugs became prevalent, that went out the window.

  1. Mass soon clouded Bodybuilding’s competitive scene.

BILL:  And the blind pursuit of stardom, don’t forget that. A word to the wise: fame is fleeting, especially in Bodybuilding.

  1. Would you say this relatively new emphasis on hugeness and the win at all costs attitude originated with Arnold’s era?

BILL: It isn’t Arnold’s fault. Big money has been orchestrating what goes on behind the scenes for decades–promoters and supplement companies, mostly. The real blame falls on their shoulders.

  1. Our sport has evolved into a transient thing.

BILL:  There’s very little longevity, anymore. If you’re killing yourself for a trophy, a long-lasting career simply isn’t in the cards. Contemporary Bodybuilding stars rise up, flare out, and disappear, only to be replaced by the latest flavor of the month. 

  1. As an iron warrior, would you say old school ways are the best?

BILL:  I learned young and understood what worked. That’s not so much old school as it is sensible.

  1. Age hasn’t slowed you down, obviously.

BILL: Not one bit, knock on wood. I train 6 days a week for 1 hour and 45 minutes. The size of my biceps doesn’t concern me, but I am concerned about my arms feeding my face (laughs)! Nobody’s going out the same way they came in.  Growing old is part of life, but it doesn’t mean infirmity. I train with people in their 30s and 40s and hold my own. It’s all about determination and devotion. Weight-training is what I do and what I’ve been doing since 1945.

  1. I wonder, do your fellow lifters call you Mr. Pearl (grinning)?

BILL: To them, and you, I’m Bill. No pretense!    

  1. In a classical sense, your physique represented the ultimate blending of mass and aesthetics. The perfect Bodybuilder.

BILL: I’m genetically blessed, but Leo Stern–my greatest supporter and harshest critic–was cognizant of me not developing one body part over the other. 

  1. What was your most impressive body part?

BILL: Arms, definitely. They were my selling point. 

  1. You looked solid and strong, like a classic bruiser.

BILL:  I admired the old time strong men and wanted to handle heavy weight. Now, it’s part of my nature.

  1. What was your process?

BILL: Nothing outrageous. I’d set a short term goal that would lead me to a longer term goal, realized within a specific period. Muscle density requires years and years of consistent training. Primarily, I wanted to be strong and muscular. Proportioned balance came along later, thanks to Leo’s practiced, professional eye. 

  1. Abdominals usually got short-shrift in the 50s, but yours were particularly impressive.

BILL: Thanks. I spent and still spend an enormous time on my mid-section; I do 25 to 30 minutes of abdominal work a day.  

  1. Earlier, you described yourself as a Type A personality. Gregarious and outgoing?

BILL: No, I’m a loner, in my heart and soul. I’m acquainted with hundreds, and I like a great deal of people, but I’ve very few close friends.

  1. Any who are life-long?

BILL: Yes, and I’m happy for those. We can pick up where we left off, whenever the mood hits us. They’re genuine friends.

  1. Have the years banked your fires, Bill? Or is the furnace roaring?

BILL:  I am more mellow, now–but the fire hasn’t gone out (laughs)!  As realism about age sets in, attitudes change.  Continued health is more important to me than money and fame.

  1. At one point, it seemed as if Bodybuilding was going to achieve legitimacy. But in the last 15 years or so, it’s fallen into a maelstrom of drug-taking, sudden deaths, disease, and health-threatening conditions. Your view?

BILL:  Your analysis is painfully accurate.  Hardcore professional Bodybuilding has dug itself into a sinkhole.  It’s like a circus side show.   

  1. But Bodybuilding, as sport and endeavor, won’t diminish.

BILL: Weight-training for health benefits is an entirely different animal. A world class athlete needs resistance training to promote muscle growth.   

  1. Early Bodybuilding contests were crude affairs, with minimal returns. What keeps you kept slugging away?

BILL:  Personal satisfaction, to prove I could do it.  Through all the years, I’ve competed solely against myself, no one else.

  1. I remember hearing one classic Bodybuilder refer to you as an icon.

BILL: Truthfully, I’m shocked when people say such things.  Bodybuilding has opened doors for me, but I had to stick my foot in there and keep a few from closing (laughs)!  

  1. I’ll bet the word ‘no” isn’t in your vocabulary.

BILL: I possess tenacity and drive. If you love Bodybuilding as much as I do, you keep going and move around the setbacks. It’s my chosen sport.

  1. Hey, are you paying attention, world?

BILL: I can only pass on what I’ve learned as a Bodybuilder. My experience might be different than someone down the street, but it got me where I am today. 

  1. Was there a Bodybuilding circle in the 50s and 60s?

BILL:  There were two: at the beach in Santa Monica–what we called the Pit–and Joe Gold’s gym, also in Santa Monica. Bodybuilders gathered to lift, chat and socialize. Everyone shared a common interest and a warm feeling. In the late 40s and early 50s, Santa Monica became the Bodybuilding Mecca.    

  1. Were you part of their circle?

BILL: No, I was independent and liked operating that way. A lot of guys who’d migrated to California were from NY. Because I was in the Service and from a small town, Yakima, Washington–and my background is American Indian–I didn’t go along with their attitude.  Not that I didn’t like them.  The guys who were there I respected more than they respected me.   

  1. Career-wise, isolation helped you, in my opinion. People wondered about Bill Pearl; they couldn’t read you.

BILL: Astute observation. I’m not a taciturn person, just a Bodybuilder with determination. And having Leo Stern in my corner was another benefit. He was more prone to telling me negatives than positives! Leo could be irascible, but he knew his stuff.  

  1. I loved Leo. He could cut through the bull like a hot knife through butter!

BILL: Leo had my best interests at heart, and I followed his advice. Building muscle is difficult enough, but when you’re trying to establish a competitive career, you need another pair of eyes to study your progress objectively. A true gentleman, Leo was. I miss him tremendously.  

  1. I want to talk about the one movie you did, Voodoo Swamp (1968). How ever did you hook up with such a wacky project?

BILL: Haha! Voodoo Swamp! Not exactly a masterpiece, is it? That was an Arthur Jones project. I had a health club in Sacramento, and one day, who shows up on my doorstep but Arthur.  He said he was from Louisiana and made movies and wanted me to star in one of them. The whole thing seemed off, but he paid me upfront, and we spent 6 weeks doing the movie in Delan, Florida.  Arthur didn’t care if I could act or not.  He had a script and a script girl, but 99% of the time, things were changed as we shot. 

  1. The plot, if that’s what it’s called, is laughable. You’re under the spell of a voodoo priestess, and she’s forcing you to do her evil bidding.

BILL:  I did all the wicked things that she wasn’t capable of doing; she gave me the power!  That whole mentality was Arthur Jones, right down to the nub. I don’t remember half of it. Or maybe, I don’t want to remember (laughs).

  1. Arthur Jones was a unique personality, to say the least.

BILL: Jones liked making people kowtow. I helped him with his Nautilus machine. It was a single piece of equipment, and I suggested he break it up into sections. ‘Sell your equipment and your philosophy,’ I said. He gave me the franchise for the state of California, and I told him he could take his franchise and shove it.  That little comment cost me millions.   

  1. Nonetheless, you’ve still done very well over the decades.

BILL: I was in the health club business for 30 years and worked 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, not including my own weight-training. No one sponsored me; what I earned, I earned.       

  1. Is life good for you, Bill?

BILL:  If it was better, Rod, things would be spooky! We’re financially fit, and my health is excellent. Judy and I have been married for more than 50 years.  No children, but I’ve three from my first marriage.  She’s been as much of a mother to those kids as their real mom.

  1. What do you see as your Bodybuilding legacy?

BILL: Tenacity. A stick-to-it attitude.  Seriously, I doubt there’s anyone in the industry who’s taken as many workouts.  Five a week for the last fifty years? That’s just nuts.  But I do it because I enjoy the challenge of man against iron.   

  1. Bill, you’re an inspiration. More years of health, fitness and longevity to you!

BILL:  Thanks for giving me a call, Rod. I’m also happy we were able to connect. Stay in touch, my friend!    


Bill Pearl: 1930-2022:  A Champion for All Seasons 

Bill has authored:
Three volumes of “Legends of the Iron Game”;

“Beyond the Universe – The Bill Pearl Story” (with Kim Shott);
“Keys to the Inner Universe”; 
“Getting Stronger”.

  • 1953 Mr. Southern California
  • 1953 Mr. California
  • 1953 AAU Mr. America
  • 1953 NABBA Mr. Universe, Amateur
  • 1956 Mr. USA, Professional
  • 1961 NABBA Mr. Universe, Professional
  • 1967 NABBA Mr. Universe, Professional
  • 1971 NABBA Mr. Universe, Professional
  • 1971 WBBG World’s Best Built Man
  • 1978 WBBG Hall Of Fame
  • 1988 Pioneers of Fitness Hall Of Fame
  • 1992 Gold’s Gym Hall Of Fame
  • 1994 Guest of Honor of the Association of Old-Time Barbell & Strongmen 12th Annual Reunion
  • 1994 The Joe Weider Hall Of Fame
  • 1995 Heidenstam Foundation Hall Of Fame
  • 1995 AAU Lifetime Achievement
  • 1996 American Powerlifters Federation Hall of Fame
  • 1997 International Chiropractors Association Sports & Fitness Man of the Year
  • 2000 Spirit of Muscle Beach Award
  • 2001 World Gym Lifetime Achievement Award
  • 2001 Society of Weight-Training Injury Specialists Lifetime Achievement Award 

1953 July Iron Man
1953 August Health and Strength
1953 September Strength and Health
1953 September The Bodybuilder

1954 February Muscle Builder
1954 June The Bodybuilder

1955 January Health and Strength
1955 January Iron Man
1955 April Muscle Power
1955 May Reg Park Journal

1956 March Iron Man
1956 April Muscle Power
1956 June Strength and Health
1956 July Reg Park Journal

1957 January Health and Strength
1957 September Iron Man

1961 February Health and Strength
1961 July Strength and Health
1961 September Muscle Builder
1961 October Health and Strength
1961 October Health and Strength
1961 November Iron Man

1962 April Health and Strength
1962 December Strength and Health

1963 January Health and Strength
1963 June Iron Man

1964 February Muscular Development
1964 May Health and Strength

1965 January Health and Strength
1965 February Strength and Health

1966 April Muscular Development
1966 August Health and Strength

1967 January Health and Strength
1967 March Health and Strength
1967 March Muscle Training Illustrated
1967 July Health and Strength
1967 October Health and Strength
1967 November Health and Strength

1968 January Iron Man
1968 February Health and Strength
1968 March Muscular Development
1968 March Strength and Health

1969 July Iron Man
1969 November Muscular Development

1971 October Health and Strength
1971 November Iron Man

1972 December Muscular Development

1973 June Health and Strength

1977 Muscle Digest

1978 August Muscle Training Illustrated

1982 December Natural Bodybuilding

2002 January Health and Strength

Rod Labbe,
9 Belmont Avenue
Waterville, ME 04901
Tel: (207) 859-3031