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

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.

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.”

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.