Jack LaLanne Presses On : At 73, the Original High Priest of Exercise Is Anything but Retiring

Times Staff Writer

It’s 5 a.m. and not a creature is stirring when Jack LaLanne drags his physically fit body out of bed and into his home gym to pump iron for two hours.

Little has changed in this daily ritual over the last 50 years, not the lat pulls, not the bench presses, not the stomach crunches, not the dread of the workout itself.

Not even the blue jumpsuit.

At 73, LaLanne is still as fervent about exercise as a fundamentalist minister. Yet he currently has no television show, doesn’t make the rounds of chi-chi parties and doesn’t rank top in the exercise video market. Generations raised on LaLanne exercises are now being coached by movie stars in spandex and beefy bodybuilders with waxed torsos.


But reports of his retirement have been greatly exaggerated. After half a century in the fitness field, LaLanne travels roughly half the year for appearances and speeches, alone and with wife, Elaine, and he yearns to get back to television.

True to his character, he will not admit defeat.

“I never feel like I’ve been pushed back,” he says emphatically. “ Never ! It pushed me ahead! See, the more people got into it, the more it brought up Jack LaLanne. ‘Cause I’m the one who started all the present people. I’m for anything if it will help people get in shape !

“Retirement,” he says with a sigh. “Geez. That’s what Forest Lawn wants. Retire and they get ya! I don’t care how long I live, I want to live while I’m living. Most Americans, hell, they die at 40 and they bury ‘em at 70. Who wants that? I wanna be productive , I wanna be able to help people!”

As proof of his unwavering determination, at 7 a.m. on a recent weekday he is grimacing through leg extensions while big band music wafts from the speakers. He barely breaks concentration to greet two visitors who have joined him in the gym. Elaine LaLanne comes in a few minutes later, wearing a kelly green jumpsuit, and does the talking while her husband does isometric exercises with a towel.

LaLanne’s body is a testament to years of consistent rigorous training. Few men half his age could keep up with his gym routine, two hours of stretching and weight lifting, followed by an hour of swimming and exercises in his pool. His biceps haven’t lost their definition, nor have his thighs or calves. There is no hint of love handles. He looks like a man 20 years younger.

Yet the years have etched lines in his face, made his skin droop some, thinned his hair and threaded it with gray. He walks with a slight stiffness, the result of a head-on car collision in the early ‘80s that left his left knee devoid of cartilage.

Elaine, who admits to being a “junk food junkie” before meeting her husband, has, at 62, the figure of a teen-ager and a similar zeal for the body beautiful. After the sun rises she takes off “dynastriding” (energetic walking) for a mile with Happy, the German shepherd, then joins her husband in the whirlpool. She is the author of “Fitness After 50" and “Dynastride!” and is much in demand on the senior citizens’ circuit, where she leads shopping mall walks.

If there is anything that keeps these two from looking their age, it is a seemingly bottomless supply of energy.

After his three hours of exercise, Jack, dressed in tight-fitting stretchy blue slacks and a zip-neck shirt, fixes breakfast: Nonfat milk, unfiltered apple juice, a banana and three packages of Jack LaLanne-brand strawberry-flavored protein powder, whipped up in a blender. He barely talks while he prepares it, a manifestation of his shyness around strangers.

With the pale pink shake, he gulps down about 100 vitamin and mineral supplements, three or four at a time: kelp, B-complex, C, cod liver, zinc. A quick check of the refrigerator and pantry reveals no secret caches of candy bars or cookies; only juices, milk, Hansen’s natural soda, Evian water, vegetables, fruit, and a few open bottles of wine.

The LaLannes moved to this small fishing village three years ago after selling their Hollywood Hills home. They have been married 29 years and met when Jack appeared on a Bay Area talk show co-hosted by Elaine. They each have children from previous marriages: Elaine’s son Dan Doyle, a 39-year-old photographer living in Los Angeles, and Jack’s daughter, Yvonne, 43, a chiropractor living in Walnut Creek. The LaLannes also have a son, Jon, a 27-year-old bartender and surfer who also makes custom surfboards in Malibu. Elaine had a daughter, Janet, who died 15 years ago at the age of 21.

Their custom-built house in the rural countryside includes a chicken coop, a museum gym where Jack stores his old equipment, several trophies and plaques, a nursery and greenhouse, an unfinished studio and an aviary stocked with exotic parrots.

Neither misses the fast-lane life of Los Angeles, which they left because with no television show, there was little to keep them there. When not on the road they keep up an active social life, work on different projects and play a few rounds of golf at the San Luis Obispo Golf and Country Club.

That’s where Jack heads this morning in his little red Corvette, with Elaine following later in her white Cadillac.

“I’m gonna write a book about golf,” he says, watching a ball sail against the wind down the driving range, past the 150-yard marker. “I’m gonna tell people how they can improve their game 100%. It’ll be a best-seller; mark my words.”

Golfing seems to loosen him up, and in between swings he jokes with the other golfers and makes flirtatious remarks to his two observers. “You’re a cute little thing,” he says, going for a playful pinch. “Are ya married or are ya happy?”

Elaine, dressed in pink knickers, a pink shirt, pink socks and a pink cap, finally catches up with her husband. Impatient for a chance to tee-off behind some slower golfers, they join up with friends already on the course.

Three hours later, having won the round, LaLanne is back at the house, tucked under an afghan on the sofa in the upstairs den watching the “MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour.”. Elaine dashes in, still in her pink ensemble, and asks him if a passage in another fitness book she is writing is too complicated.

“Keep it simple,” he insists, “or people won’t be able to understand it!”

“That’s what I thought,” she says, and trots downstairs.

He talks about bringing his exercise show back to television.

“I should be on right now,” he says, eyes on the set, as if his show was on instead of Robert MacNeil. “We’re trying to find a sponsor. I’d like to get right in prime time, boy. People are so interested in physical fitness and I’ve got so much to tell ‘em. And I’d do it same as I did before. There’d be nothing different. Zero.”

Slaps for Emphasis

What? No glitz and glitter, no cute girls in low-cut leotards?

“No, that’s what wrecks it!” he shouts, slapping the interviewer’s thigh for emphasis. “That’s why these things are going out now, all this jumpin’ around and that aerobic junk. People are wrecking their backs and their legs! (slap) See, I want to keep it one-on-one. I’m not there to entertain them, I’m there to put something in their brains and get them to follow this! (slap) Hell, this is serious stuff!”

“Jack LaLanne and You” was another exercise show that brought the couple back to the small screen from 1981 to 1983 . It ended because “this aerobic thing was coming in,” he says. “And we had done it so long we thought we’d take a sabbatical and collect our thoughts.”

Ask if he misses doing the show and he says, “Nah, I never get sad about anything. I never think about what happened. That’s gone, that’s past. I think about now , this second !”

LaLanne’s first television show, a half-hour syndicated program that ran from 1951 to 1970, was his ticket to stardom, although he was already a successful spa owner in his home town of Oakland when he debuted on the airwaves. The first Jack LaLanne health spa opened in 1936 when muscle-builders were not considered high on the food chain and doctors feared weight lifting would turn women into men and men into muscle-bound brutes.

Nearly Went Broke

LaLanne nearly went broke trying to keep it going until word of mouth brought more business than he could handle. There are now 70 spas on both coasts, but LaLanne only lends his name to the facilities.

The “Jack LaLanne Show” turned him into an institution as he raised the health consciousness of generations of Americans while teaching them to do push-ups on a chair. A friend at the local ABC affiliate in San Francisco told him about a health show out of Los Angeles that needed a host, and LaLanne got the job.

Later in life LaLanne learned the fine art of performing feat-of-strength stunts, like towing 70 boats holding 70 people 1 1/2 miles in the Long Beach harbor to celebrate his 70th birthday.

The stunts, he says, are to “prove to people and to myself that as the years go along, you still can be productive, and to call attention to my profession. It’s a little hype, maybe, but you gotta call attention to what you’re doing!”

His own physical fitness epiphany came at the age of 15 when he attended a health lecture and immediately cut white flour and sugar from his diet.

Blame the Sugar

“Boom!” he shouts. “In a week’s time my life changed! I never had another headache! That’s all I had, sugar, sugar, sugar. I was thinking of suicide, I tried to kill my brother twice! I was demented ! I was psychotic ! It was like a horror movie!

“And after that, I was a whole new human being. I liked people, they liked me. It was like an exorcism, kicking the devil outta me!” he says, kicking an invisible demon.

As a young man he dreamed of being a singer, serenading cows in the pasture when his family moved from Oakland to Bakersfield to farm. A wealthy businessman once heard him sing on Catalina Island and offered to bankroll an opera career, but LaLanne, although tempted, didn’t want to abandon his new spa. He is deathly afraid of singing for audiences, but cut a record several years ago with singer Connie Haines.

Yet there is a shy, sickly kid always lurking.

“I’ve always had a terrific inferiority complex all my life. . . . The toughest thing is meeting new people. I’ve had to work at it. If I didn’t, I’d be a basket case.”

Two Have Become One

It is no longer possible to separate Jack LaLanne and fitness. The two have become one. He can relate being in shape to almost anything.

“I’m convinced,” he says, “that 90% of the young kids on dope today absolutely (slap) stems (slap) from improper nutrition (slap)! Too much sugar ! All these Cokes and soft drinks. It’s worse than alcohol to these kids! They can’t make decisions about life, they’re apprehensive, they’re tired. When you’re tired all the time you’re going to get into trouble!”

But soft drinks and drugs are only the tip of the iceberg. LaLanne also rails against the evils of whole milk.

“Pushing milk. That’s probably one of the worst foods on this earth,” he says. “Name me one creature on earth that uses milk after it’s weaned. Ask your doctor about cholesterol. Cheese--one of the highest sources of calories is cheese. And it all comes from one thing: Whole milk. One of the biggest killers is cigarettes, and look what they do with (health warnings on advertisements). Why don’t they do that with milk?”

He also detests the charlatans spawned by the country’s health trend, but has only gentlemanly things to say about the fitness gurus who followed him.

Jane Fonda: “One of the most terrific human beings I’ve ever met. She is a great lady, boy, I love ‘er. She’s done more for physical fitness than anybody. She told the truth ! And what she didn’t know, she found out.”

Muscleman-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger: “How could you find a better human being? That Arnold, he is something, boy. He’s a sharp cookie. He really practices what he preaches.”

The two met decades ago on Muscle Beach when LaLanne would see who could match his marathon sessions of chin-ups and push-ups.

“Nobody could,” Schwarzenegger recalls. “No one even wanted to try . . . The problem with him was that he was literally 10 to 20 years ahead of his time. Back then I remember he was eating about 100 liver pills a day and doing 200 sit-ups, and that was too much for people sometimes. He wasn’t aware of how he had to ease it into people. But he was right. . . . He’s very loyal and a very good man.”

A Modest Seller

Maybe a little too good. Chuck Burbage helped produce LaLanne’s only exercise video, “Jack LaLanne, Volume I,” in 1984 for his Santa Ana-based Bookshelf Video company.

The tape never took off the way Burbage imagined, selling only 15,000-20,000 copies so far. Burbage battled LaLanne’s unwillingness to plug his own product on television appearances. “We’d book him on shows, and he’d hardly say anything about the tape. Anything that gets people exercising, he’s all for it,” Burbage says. “But then you have to realize that business is business.”

LaLanne confirmed the fact that he wasn’t a super pitchman. “When I go out,” he says, “I never get commercial. They know I’m there. A lot of people go on these shows and say, ‘My book, my book.’ It’s embarrassing to me.”

He pushed products on his own TV show, but “I had to survive,” he explains. “That was a different situation altogether. That’s just the way I am, I don’t know. To each his own.”

Missionary for Health

“Jack’s a missionary for good health,” says Walt Baker, who directed “The Jack LaLanne Show” for two years in the early ‘60s and used to torment the star by eating bear claws and smoking cigarettes behind camera. Despite this the two became friends, and Baker, now vice president of programming for KHJ-TV, brought the show back on the air in 1981.

“Like any totally dedicated missionary,” he adds, “Jack ignored the negative things and just kept telling people what they should do. Eventually people listened to him. He practices what he preaches. I’ve never seen him eat anything like a candy bar. Maybe he does when I’m not there. No, he probably doesn’t, he so believes in the benefits of good health.”

For all of his zeal, though, LaLanne stops short of force-feeding his philosophy on those who want to have their Twinkies and eat them, too.

“One of my best friends weighs about 300 pounds, drinks a quart of booze a day and smokes like a fiend,” he says. “I’ll light someone’s cigarettes for them. This bull about changing people--you never change people! Accept ‘em, accept ‘em, accept ‘em!”