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

Bill’s biceps fascinated Joe Weider, who reported that they measured 23¼ inches (Schwarzenegger’s topped out at 22 inches; Ferrigno’s, at 23). But the rest of him wasn’t as colossal or as symmetrically pleasing. Unlike Schwarzenegger and the other elite competitors, who broke down the human anatomy into separate parts and worked each muscle with maximum effort, Bill concentrated almost exclusively on his biceps and triceps, sometimes up to six hours a day. He was as top-heavy as Angelyne. Nowadays he says he was “stupid” to obsess over his arms.

“If it was a question of personality, Bill would have won every contest,” says journalist Jerry Brainum, who writes extensively on the “iron game.” “Everybody loved him. But he was like a specialty bodybuilder. His arms overshadowed the rest of him.”

“Posing is an art,” says Bill Grant, a former Mr. World and Mr. America champ. “You can have the package, but you have to know how to display it. Bill wasn’t a great poser. He didn’t take the time to practice.”

He also failed to utilize another component that gave elite bodybuilders the edge in competitions: steroids. According to Drasin, the most successful competitors gobbled the anabolic steroid Dianabol, which they called the “Breakfast of Champions.” Many supplemented Dianabol with cadaver-derived human-growth hormone and testosterone to achieve ultimate hugeness. Schwarzenegger has admitted taking steroids, though under a doctor’s supervision. Bill said he experimented with Dianabol pills once. “They were no good,” he told me. “I threw ’em out.”

“He lived off the Olympics and ‘the biggest arms in the world’ rep for years,” a longtime friend says. “Bill didn’t want to work hard enough or expand his horizons.”

Bill never won a major contest, never achieved the Mr. Universe or Mr. Olympia status that often led to paid appearances at bodybuilding shows or endorsements of weight-training equipment and supplements. He did not have the acuity or the financial backing to become a private fitness trainer or to open his own gym, common career moves for bodybuilders of that era.

“Bill didn’t have the money to eat right and take care of all the details,” says Drasin, who joined the pro wrestling circuit for extra income. “He was a competitor in the gym but not onstage. It’s a different deal there, with all the politics involved.” Instead Bill supported himself by moving pianos and working as a bouncer at Hollywood clubs. He says he once served as a bodyguard for Bob Dylan. When the money ran low, Bill slept in a friend’s car or in a lifeguard tower. His rewards were more basic. “I had, like, ten girlfriends,” Bill says. “I said, ‘Jane, you’re Tuesday; Sally, you’re Wednesday.’ We were like kings.”

As Schwarzenegger was transitioning from physical freak to Hollywood fixture, Peter Ueberroth was organizing the 1984 Olympics. He wanted the Games to be as culturally memorable as the sports being showcased, and he appointed Cal­Arts president Robert Fitzpatrick to curate the Olympic Arts Festival. One idea was to commission a series of fine-art posters, which had been done with success for the 1972 Munich Olympics. Fitzpatrick invited 16 artists—including David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, John Baldessari, Carlos Almaraz, and Garry Winogrand—to participate. Fitzpatrick’s instructions were minimal: “It is the Olympic Games, they are taking place in Los Angeles, and the year is 1984.”

Winogrand had just moved to L.A. and was a regular visitor to Venice, often accompanied by his daughter Melissa. He shot at a frenetic pace during this period, taking thousands of rolls of film that were undeveloped at his death. Photographs do not have “narrative ability,” he once told Bill Moyers in an interview. “They do not tell stories. They show you what something looks like—to a camera.”

According to Fitzpatrick, Winogrand “liked the sense of found people as opposed to a fashion photographer, where everything is posed perfectly. With the weight lifter, Garry captured a real person in a real moment.” Winogrand’s widow, Eileen Hale, says her husband selected Pettis for the poster “partly because the weight lifter had a very sweet expression. Garry was drawn to sweetness in men, and the combination of lifting weights and being sweet appealed to him in its unexpectedness.”

The 15 posters for the Olympics (two artists collaborated on one work) were unveiled at the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery in 1983. A signed limited-edition poster cost $250; unsigned versions went for $30. Each artist was paid $5,000.

The public was initially confused by the series, Fitzpatrick says, because “they were expecting to see something more sportsy, more LeRoy Neiman-type. Garry’s piece was probably the most literally connected to the Olympics.”

Pettis does not recall meeting Winogrand, nor does he remember being photographed. He does describe the poster as the highlight of his life. So many people wanted his autograph, he says, that his girlfriend at the time worried he would run off with another woman. He received $1 for the use of his likeness. (The profits from the 1984 Olympics totaled about $250 million.) When I asked him if he was disappointed that he hadn’t made more money, he replied, “Like I told them, ‘You made me famous, but you didn’t make me rich.’ But you know, more money, more problems.”

The image used for the 1984 Olympics poster.
The image used for the 1984 Olympics poster.

Photograph courtesy The estate of Garry Winograd/courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

In 1970, Gold decided to return to the Merchant Marines, selling his eponymous creation a few years before Pumping Iron took bodybuilding mainstream and the Gold’s Gym T-shirt became ubiquitous. By the end of the decade Gold was back in the business, launching World Gym not far from his original place. Schwarzenegger, Pettis, and other loyalists followed. After Gold moved World to a building near the intersection of Washington and Lincoln boulevards, he provided the man he dubbed “Captain Billy” with the post of watching the parking lot. Pettis worked out whenever he wanted free of charge and, when needed, slept inside the gym. Schwarzenegger gave him money and clothes as well as a job on the film Last Action Hero. Any personal troubles that Pettis was experiencing—friends noticed that he was not training as intensely—were handled by Gold. Pettis stayed in this comfort zone until 2004, when Gold died at 82. “I cried for three days,” Pettis says. “He was like my second father.”

The job disappeared, and Pettis lost his moorings. He drank heavily and, friends say, was emotionally devastated. “Once he started drinking, forget it,” one Venice regular says. “I told Bill, ‘You used to be the man. You were the best. Now you’re pissing on yourself, and you ain’t keeping your body together.’ It’s sad.”

Bill became homeless, a subject he doesn’t discuss. A YouTube video that shows him looking disheveled and seemingly disoriented caused much angst in the bodybuilding community. “He lived off the Olympics and ‘the biggest arms in the world’ rep for years,” a longtime friend says. “Bill didn’t want to work hard enough or expand his horizons.”

On a weekend afternoon at Muscle Beach, the weather is Southern California brilliant. A potpourri of scents—ocean, sunscreen, grilled sausage, sweat, reefer—wafts overhead. Colorfully clad tourists parade themselves like it’s Mardi Gras morning alongside Venice regulars: dreadlocked skateboarders, street artists and performers, homeless kids with pit bull puppies, basketball junkies, the dude with the white turban and guitar balancing on a pair of roller skates and playing the same riffs.

Venice is still a haven for those with little means but a big need to defy convention. What had started as Abbot Kinney’s utopian vision in 1905 had descended into a dangerous slum by the 1950s, but that only charmed poets like Charles Bukowski and Kate Braverman, artists from Dennis Hopper to Chris Burden, and musicians like Jim Morrison and Perry Farrell. The town has gentrified since then—to a point. For every chic boutique there’s a ramshackle bungalow. For every wealthy restaurant patron there’s someone who’s living in a cardboard box. The original Gold’s Gym is now a million-dollar residence. Each weekend a pageant of sorts unfolds, and among its chief players is Bill. One has to wonder how many forgotten icons, how many untold stories, wander through.

Now 68, Bill lives on Social Security and whatever money he can cadge on the boardwalk. He lodges at a board-and-care facility in Ladera Heights run by a sheriff’s department chaplain. He complains that his roommate is a “crazy person” who pounds the walls and keeps him up at night. To stay healthy he lifts gallon jugs filled with water and ingests ginseng and fish oil supplements. He takes the bus daily to the boardwalk, where he listens to the radio and banters with an Egyptian bodybuilder named Bishoy Hanna, a personal trainer who goes by “Mr. Ruggedd Mann,” and an attractive young woman soliciting patients for medical marijuana. Twin brother Bobby, who moved back to the area in 2003, regularly checks up on him.

A few years ago Bill got into a dispute with the organizer of the local bodybuilding contests at Muscle Beach, which are held on major summer holidays (Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day) in the outdoor amphitheater near the weight-lifting cage. Bill wanted to enter the over-60 category, but he was told he couldn’t because of his drinking and unkempt appearance. He is banned from the weight pen. His name does not appear on the Hall of Fame markers that encircle the compound.

When I ask Bill why he continues to hang out there, he is incredulous. Venice is the most beautiful place on earth, he says, because people are free to be themselves. He is sipping Steel Reserve malt liquor from an orange juice carton, and he lifts his hands overhead to encompass the scene. “My life is good, man,” he says. “My only regret is, I didn’t take care of my teeth. I should’ve taken care of my teeth.” Still, I am puzzled why he chooses to appear in public so exposed, in such an unflattering getup. One day I overhear a kid bundled up in a towel ask his mother, “What’s his problem?” The mom selects her words carefully: “Well, the man just likes to listen to music in his”—long pause—“Speedo.”

The less I try to reconcile the image of Bill on the Olympic poster—the behemoth model in his physical prime—with the drooping version I know today, the more I come to realize that he is perfectly comfortable with his body regardless of the shape it’s in. It took him to L.A., to Gold’s Gym at its apex, to friendships with people like Arnold Schwarzenegger. It boasted the biggest arms in the world and was immortalized by Garry Winogrand. Why not flaunt it? It is, however imperfect, the canvas of his life.

I watch from a bench as Bill is photographed with cell phone cameras by sneering young men in backward baseball caps. He’s in almost the same spot where one of the greatest street photographers captured him 30-odd years ago and turned him into a poster child for the 1984 Olympics. Bill’s radio is tuned to an oldies station, and he sways to the sounds of the funk hit from the group Lakeside mixing with the clanging of barbells: Come along and ride on a fantastic voyage.

This feature appears in the May 2015 issue of Los Angeles magazine

David Davis is the author of  Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku, to be published in October by the University of Nebraska Press. He wrote about fitness pioneers in the January 2013 issue.

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