Terry Robinson, a bodybuilding denizen of Muscle Beach in the late 1940s who became a fitness trainer for Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable and Mario Lanza, died May 19 at his home in West Los Angeles. He was 98.
His death from kidney failure was confirmed by Lanza's daughter, Ellisa Lanza Bregman, who was raised by Robinson along with her siblings after her parents died.
Robinson was a weightlifter in high school who was named Mr. New York in 1948. That year he moved to California, heading straight for Santa Monica where he joined the gymnasts, acrobats and other exercise fanatics who congregated at the area known as Muscle Beach, often called the birthplace of the physical-fitness boom of the 20th century.
By then Robinson had already appeared on the covers of bodybuilding magazines like Strength & Health and Iron Man. At Muscle Beach, he worked out and gained a following massaging the kinks out of many of the regulars.
He was working in a chiropractic office when he was summoned to MGM to treat a very important stiff neck — that of studio chief Louis B. Mayer.
"The Lord must have been looking down that day," Robinson said in "Remembering Muscle Beach," a 1999 book by champion bodybuilder Harold Zinkin. "When I touched him, he popped into place."
Mayer was so impressed by Robinson that he put him on MGM's payroll to work with some of the studio's biggest stars, including Gable, Spencer Tracy, Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power. Robinson kept his fitness advice simple: "Eat less," he said, "exercise more."
One of his biggest challenges was Lanza, a notorious binge eater and drinker who was under orders from Mayer to lose about 25 pounds before making his movie debut in "That Midnight Kiss" (1949).
"The first place I took Mario was to Muscle Beach in Santa Monica and he loved it there … and he lost the weight" within a month, Robinson told Lanza biographer Derek Mannering in the book "Singing to the Gods."
The two men became such close friends that Robinson became a legal co-guardian to Lanza's four children after the singer died in Rome in 1959 at age 38 of a possible heart attack and his 36-year-old wife, Betty, died five months later after a short illness. Robinson also co-wrote a book with Raymond Strait, "Mario Lanza, His Tragic Life."
Robinson was born in New York City on March 9, 1916, one of five sons in an athletics-minded family. His father was a member of the New York State Boxing Commission and his mother was a competitive swimmer. At 18 Robinson won a Golden Gloves featherweight title.
During World War II he was a combat instructor in the South Pacific and helped rehabilitate wounded soldiers through weight training and swimming.
In the years after the war, he established himself in Los Angeles as a trainer to Hollywood celebrities, business moguls, politicians and others. During the 1970s he ran a gym in Century City.
In later years he was the dean of trainers at Sports Club/L.A., rising before dawn to open the facility every day until well into his 90s.
"He had a ball there," Bregman said. "He would go at 3 or 4 in the morning, open up the club and greet everyone at 5. He would leave at 10 and go swimming."
He might have been the only nonagenarian trainer who painted and sketched in his spare time and spouted poetry and Greek philosophy.
"I never got wealthy," he told Associated Press in 2001, "but I made a living, and my wealth is my health."
In addition to Bregman, Robinson is survived by his wife, Silvia Richard Robinson; a daughter from a previous marriage, Madelyn Appel; a stepson, Guy Richard; and grandchildren.