Mr. America has bulk -- three decades after winning the title

Times Staff Writer

Mr. America of 1973 stood in a Marina del Rey gym of 2007, exhorting a new pupil to hold a little longer on the leg extension machine despite that torturous burning sensation in the quads.

"Just get that contraction as intense as you can," he counseled.

Jim Morris, who turned 72 on Friday, wears a loose-fitting gray sweatshirt when he trains clients. Although he entered his final bodybuilding competition at age 61 -- he won -- and plans to stay a personal trainer as long as there's rent to pay, Morris is now shy about the very thing that brought him fame: showing off his physique.

He still has a bodybuilder's obsession with physical perfection and frets that he's far from contest shape. Nor, he contends, is he in the shape on display in the October issue of Iron Man magazine. Those photos of his glossy, bulbous muscles were taken months ago -- and only after months of intensive training, he said.

But when he finally doffed his shirt, Morris appeared startlingly fit. Although he no longer is the size of the Herculean bodybuilders seen in muscle magazines, he possesses ballooning biceps and a sleek waist that most men half his age don't.

"He's a legend in bodybuilding," said Michael Reeves, 45, the owner of Boditron Fitness Academy where Morris trains his clients. "You would not believe the kind of shape this guy is in. Most bodybuilders -- they're the kind of people who like to show their body: 'Look at me, look at me.' Jim is so humble, he puts on big T-shirts. Even when I see him, I think, Oh, my God, I've got to work out harder."

Morris was lured from New York by a fantasy of Southern California life as part beach culture, part burgeoning bodybuilding mecca. Morris flourished as one of those chiseled muscle men of the '70s and '80s who not only helped transform an eccentric pursuit into a popular sport but also helped make weightlifting in gyms as common as jogging.

"I was thinking the other day how many young bodybuilders I've seen come [and] try to make their mark, become part of the whole L.A. thing," Morris said. "They're all gone. That whole fantasy I had about coming out here and making it -- I've been very fortunate."

His success is even more significant considering he's black and openly gay and was competing at a time when it was rare to find such a combination. At age 37, Morris became the second black to win Mr. America.

"In the 1970s, he was one of the very first to break the color line," said Bill Pearl, a well-known former competitor and gym owner who became Morris' mentor. Before that, Pearl said, "if you were black and had the greatest physique in the world at that time, you were not going to win a major physique contest."

Morris' peers have either left the area or left the sport. Pearl now lives in Oregon. Chris Dickerson, who became the first black man to win Mr. America in 1970 and later won Mr. Olympia, lives in Florida. Franco Columbu has left muscle contests behind to focus on his career as a chiropractor.

Others, like gym legend Joe Gold, have died. After his death three years ago, Morris adopted one of Gold's dogs, a longhaired female mix with a limp.

"I think there isn't a day when we don't get a phone call about someone dying," said Pearl, who at 77 writes books and continues to work out.

Even the Mr. America contest that gave Morris his greatest win no longer exists and came to be overshadowed by other contests such as Mr. Olympia -- which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won several times -- and Mr. Universe.

But Morris still revels in the L.A. sun and wouldn't dream of leaving his wild garden of grass, bamboo, planters and trees so full and lush they provide a canopy of shade across his yard. He lives in Venice, a community dotted with landmarks of the bodybuilding culture -- Gold's Gym, Muscle Beach, the cafes where he occasionally breakfasted with a young Schwarzenegger and his entourage.

For 15 years, Morris has rented a small, neat bungalow nestled behind a high fence on one of Venice's prized walk streets. His expanse of greenery was a stop on the annual Venice Garden and Home Tour in May.

Like septuagenarian surfing legends who still indulge in their sport, riding the waves and shaping boards, Morris still weightlifts six times a week. His last contest was the Mr. Olympia Masters. He won in the over-60 category.

Morris believes his austere diet helps keep him fit and healthy. He eats beans, nuts, vegetables, fruit -- and that's about it. No animal products, no processed anything, not even oatmeal. No cheese. No butter.

"God, no," he said with a hint of disgust in his voice at the last item.

Morris comes from hardy stock. His mother, who lives in Georgia, is 92. He also takes testosterone regularly under a doctor's supervision, as do many men and women. "It keeps my fat level down, it keeps my energy up, my libido up," he said.

Like most successful bodybuilders, Morris had the right physical symmetry, the perfect combination of leanness and musculature -- and discovered so in 1954 at age 19. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, he graduated from the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan yet never had any interest in college. He was working as a clerk at the main branch of the New York Public Library when a colleague persuaded him to start weightlifting at a gym in the South Bronx.

"I just loved it. I had never been athletic. Never played any sports. But that first workout was just such a thrill. My body felt so good. I liked being in there. The guys were all friendly. I had sort of found my place," he said.

And he discovered a new way of looking at himself.

"When I was a child I figured there were the pretty ones, they were born that way," he said. "When I walked into the gym that day it dawned on me these people had created themselves. That pretty body was of their own making. I could be pretty if I wanted to. That was one of the great revelations."

In 1961, he went into the Air Force -- where he was asked to oversee a fitness program -- and by 1966 he was competing in contests on the East Coast. He then worked as a firefighter in New York City, still competing in his spare time. On vacation in L.A. in 1969, Morris decided to make a permanent move. He got a job with the Los Angeles Police Department and started training seriously at the now-defunct Pasadena Health Club, which was owned by his mentor, Pearl.

The LAPD job barely lasted four months because he wasn't as eager as his colleagues to cite people for minor violations, Morris said.

After a night shift in a patrol car, "everyone would have 15 citations. I had two. The watch commander said, 'If you can't see what's going on, you should look for another job.' The next week, they let me go. They said I wasn't aggressive enough. . . . They were right. It wasn't the job for me."

But bodybuilding was the sport for him, and Morris thrived, working out in Pasadena and occasionally venturing to Venice.

"I used to go over to Gold's and just hang out," he said. A photo of Morris with Schwarzenegger and other bodybuilders at Gold's is on Morris' website, www.gymmorris.com.

"I thought the guys in Pasadena knew more about working out -- plus I was a big fish in the Pasadena pond," he said with a chuckle. "Why give that up to be also-ran to Arnold?"

Morris takes a certain pride in considering himself untouched by racism. "I have never had a problem because of my race," he said. "In fact, I think it helped that I started competing in the '60s. There was the whole civil rights movement. I think judges bent over backward."

Pearl has a slightly different view of what Morris went through, recalling that he had to work with Morris on not casting his eyes downward while onstage "like he had a defeatist attitude. He knew because of his color he wasn't going to do well."

Morris remembers that time. "I don't know if it was my color or my lack of confidence in my body," he said.

But Pearl knew Morris' physique was so superior that the judges had no choice but to notice him. Still, Pearl worked on all aspects of Morris' presentation.

"I left nothing to chance that anyone could sit there and rag on him for," Pearl said. "He was more articulate than anyone onstage, and he presented himself better than anyone else."

But Morris' Mr. America win in 1973 propelled him into the Hollywood whirl. "I was living by the Hollywood sign, I was known in the gay community, I was invited to all the A-list parties," he said.

Morris, who worked as a Carnation food company sales representative until 1974, went on to do a variety of jobs: He was a bodyguard for Elton John; he had a small movie career (his various characters include a gymnast in the Mae West movie "Sextette"); and he opened his own gym with his companion of 20 years, Jimmy Brown.

The gym closed in 1985. His partner died of AIDS 15 years ago. And Morris has been a personal trainer since the mid-'80s, working at World Gym in the Marina for years. After its recent closure, he found a new home at Boditron.

He has nine clients whom he trains regularly. "At my age, I don't want to put in eight-hour days. I only want baby-boomers. I don't want any muscle heads."

When he's not at the gym, Morris tends his garden. "In this house, in particular, is the most content I've ever been," he said.

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carla.hall@latimes.com

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