The Rise and Fall of Bill Pettis, the Man With “The Biggest Arms in the World”

His biceps once trumped Arnold’s. As other Gold’s Gym icons parlayed their physiques into fame and fortune, Bill Pettis took a different route—one that landed him on the Venice Boardwalk
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I first encountered the man with the biggest arms in the world five years ago at my friend Amy’s curio shop in Highland Park. On a poster by acclaimed photographer Garry Winogrand was a portrait of an African American weight lifter, his tank top ridiculously skimpy on his thick torso. His left hand rested lovingly on an imposing set of barbells. Winogrand photographed him looking down, away from the lens, with a shy smile. The image commemorated the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, but it didn’t scream “Just Do It” or any other sports-talk blather. It cost me ten bucks. I decided to have the poster framed. The saleswoman assisting me asked, “Who is he?” and I answered, “Garry Winogrand.” It occurred to me later that she wasn’t asking who’d shot the photo but rather the name of the subject. I studied the face under the glass: Who is he, I wondered, and what is he doing now? I Googled combinations of “Garry Winogrand,” “1984 Olympics,” and “bodybuilder.” Numerous links to sales of the poster on eBay appeared. I checked the archives of the Los Angeles Times. Articles leading up to the Games mentioned the poster, but none identified the man beyond “a black weight lifter.” Winogrand died in 1984 at age 56, a few months before the opening ceremonies. I contacted the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, where his collection is stored. All the staff there knew was that the picture had been taken in Venice around 1982. Finally a clue. I drove from my home in Northeast L.A. to Muscle Beach. I combed the crowd of bodybuilders pumping iron inside a chain-link compound just steps from the sand. None looked familiar. At the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks shack next to the basketball courts, I explained that I was looking for the bodybuilder who’d been featured on an Olympics poster. “You mean Bill?” the attendant said. “That’s him right there.” I couldn’t believe my luck until I saw the man he was pointing at. He was standing in the middle of the boardwalk wearing a faded fluorescent Speedo that covered his butt—barely—and a pair of well-worn high-top sneakers that were unlaced. He held a battered radio to his ear and occasionally dipped his knees to the music. Around his neck were black beads and a key on a string. The muscles of his once taut, gargantuan chest, which dominated the center of Winogrand’s photo and was as solid as the weights themselves, sagged from his shoulders like a turkey’s wattle.

He looked like a homeless person, another lost soul in the carnival that is Venice. Most passersby ignored him. Others nudged their companions, smirked, and aimed their cell phone cameras at him. If he caught them taking his picture, he’d raise both arms in the classic “pump it” pose and flex his muscles. I walked over and introduced myself and asked whether he was the man from the 1984 poster. He said yes and launched into a speech that was nearly unintelligible. I asked him to spell his name letter by letter: B-i-l-l P-e-t-t-i-s. He muttered that he had worked out with Arnold Schwarzenegger at Gold’s Gym. “I had the biggest arms in the world,” he said. “The biggest,” he repeated softly. Then he asked me for a couple of bucks. I gave him the money. He slipped the bills into his briefs like a stripper.

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A photo published in Iron Man in the early 1970s.

Photograph courtesy Weider Health & Fitness

In the broader time line of American culture, our obsession with massive biceps and pectorals, thighs and calves, is a recent blip. In the first half of the 20th century, most athletes, backed by coaches and doctors, believed that excessive weight lifting hindered athletic performance, rendering the muscles ineffective. The practice of bodybuilding—the development of pronounced musculature for appearance’s sake—was held in low esteem. So-called muscleheads were derided as narcissists or homosexuals, though strongmen like Eugen Sandow and Charles Atlas had their fans. One of the more prominent pockets of outliers gathered at the original Muscle Beach, south of the Santa Monica Pier. Beginning in the mid-1930s, Harold Zinkin, Vic and Armand Tanny, Les and “Pudgy” Stockton, and Jack LaLanne wowed onlookers with displays of acrobatics and gymnastics that showed off their firm physiques.

Two brothers in Montreal, Joe and Ben Weider, formed the International Federation of Bodybuilders in 1946. Their publications, which included titles like Muscle & Fitness and Flex, were chockablock with photos of gleaming bodies. The message: If you worked out long enough and hard enough, you could beat up the bully and win the girl. “I lived through the magazines,” Lou “The Hulk” Ferrigno says. “I wanted to be like bodybuilding champions Steve Reeves and Sergio Oliva. They were men; they could take any ridicule and it would bounce off their chest.”

Nowhere would this new pastime take off more dramatically than at Venice Beach, specifically, inside a squat building at 1006 Pacific Avenue. Gold’s Gym was founded by Joe Gold, a Boyle Heights native who had served as eye candy in Mae West’s nightclub act. He had been part of the original Muscle Beach crew in Santa Monica until it disbanded in the late 1950s. In 1965, Gold constructed his cinder-block sanctuary for strongmen.

At the time few exercise gyms existed, and only one catered to serious lifters. Vince’s Gym in Studio City was run by bodybuilder Vince Gironda, who became a personal trainer to Hollywood stars like James Garner and Clint Eastwood. The original Gold’s Gym had skylights, oversize mirrors, concrete floors covered by rubber mats, and no heat. An upstairs area had just enough room for a shower and a toilet. The walls were lined with racks upon racks of barbells and rough machinery that Gold himself crafted after teaching himself to weld. “The equipment that Joe made was cutting-edge,” says Frank Zane, a three-time Mr. Olympia. “The leg-extension machine gave you great quadriceps. Even the barbells were great—they were nicely balanced.” Just as important as the equipment was the camaraderie, with members swapping advice about workout regimens that were being developed on the fly. Annual dues: $60.

By the mid-1970s, Gold’s would no longer be known only to a small circle of men. It would become synonymous globally with a growing cadre of real-life Herculean figures led by an Austrian with an unpronounceable name.

Pettis lives in Ladera Heights but goes to the beach almost daily.
Pettis lives in Ladera Heights but goes to the beach almost daily.

Photograph by Gregg Segal

Over the next two years I visited Bill every time I was in the neighborhood. He doesn’t own a phone, but he was never hard to find. He stationed himself in the same spot every day—across from the outdoor weight-lifting pen—and was always in the same bathing suit.

It took me a while to understand his garbled speech. He’s missing many teeth beneath his bushy mustache, and he refused my entreaties to visit a low-cost dental clinic. He speaks quietly, with an occasional stutter. But he has a sly sense of humor and enjoys discussing current events: ISIS, President Obama, the Dodgers and Lakers. He regaled me with stories about people winning the lottery.

What he doesn’t like to talk about is himself. Whenever I steered the conversation that way, he gave cursory answers or changed the subject. But he granted me permission to seek out family members, friends, and Gold’s Gym alumni. Bill was born two days after Christmas in 1946 and raised in Oberlin, Pennsylvania, outside of Harrisburg. He and his twin brother, Bobby, were the youngest of seven children. Their father, Collier, came from South Carolina and worked in the Bethlehem Steel mill. Their mother, Ora, had a job at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Bill excelled at sports, particularly football. “He was very quick, very tough,” says Ron DeMelfi, his coach at Central Dauphin High School. “But he was not real smart.” The “Gold Dust Twins” started on both offense and defense—Bill was “middle guard Pettis” and Bobby was “linebacker Pettis”—and they received offers to play collegiate ball. They enrolled at Maryland State College, a predominantly African American school that produced future NFL stars Emerson Boozer and Art Shell. The brothers dropped out during their freshman year because of financial constraints. They signed on with a semipro team, the Cumberland Colts, in nearby Carlisle.

Bill found a passion for the weight room through an innovative trainer, George “Speed” Ebersole, at Central Dauphin High, where the brothers did hours of bench presses, dips, tricep curls, and push-ups every school day. They rigged up equipment at home, putting 25-pound cinder blocks on the ends of an iron bar. “Bill was very, very dedicated,” says DeMelfi, “and he got very, very strong. He had those big biceps.” Older brother Ronald remembers coming home after a stint in the Marine Corps and seeing Bill on the porch. “I didn’t recognize him,” Ronald says. “His arms and his chest were so big.” Bill began entering amateur physique contests, using the symmetrical muscularity of black superstars Oliva and Leroy Colbert as his models.

Around that time the Weiders shifted their publishing operation from Canada to Southern California. They had agreed to sponsor a young Austrian phenom. When Arnold Schwarz­enegger arrived in L.A. in 1968, he was 21. He ensconced himself at Gold’s and molded his body into a V-shaped mass of muscle, with a thick, wide back, a narrow waist, and ripped pectorals that would captivate the world in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron. In the afternoons Schwarzenegger and his fellow strongmen left the gym for workouts at Muscle Beach. “We were a family,” weight lifter-wrestler Ric Drasin says. “We did everything together. We were the freaks on the beach. We’d walk into a restaurant and people would turn around and gape, ‘Look at those guys!’ ”

The Weiders’ publications enchanted the Pettis twins—especially, says Bill, the spreads that showcased Southern California’s sun-splashed beaches. The brothers moved to Los Angeles in 1973; the trip from Pennsylvania on the Greyhound bus took four days. Bobby would soon return to Oberlin and the embrace of family. Bill stayed, becoming a regular at Gold’s, where he stood out for his punishing upper-body workouts, cranking out 3,000 push-ups daily, in sets of 300. He did tricep curls—with the barbell positioned behind his head and then curled upward—with more than 400 pounds. His nutrition was basic: 20 eggs in the morning and 20 at night. He eventually reached about 300 pounds. “No one I encountered could sport a pair of arms that displayed more size,” says fellow lifter Steve “Strong” Cepello. “The density and vascularity—they were more granitelike than the pumped symmetrical mode of the day.”

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