Decades before Jane Fonda, Kathy Smith or Richard Simmons would hawk aerobic exercise to lazy television viewers, there was Jack LaLanne.
Whether he was towing boats with his teeth, breaking world records doing push-ups or scolding an audience for being sugar addicts, the jump-suited LaLanne was diligently instructing home viewers of “The Jack LaLanne Show” to eat raw food, do face exercises and squeeze their own juice.
Sometimes he shared the spotlight with his dog, Happy, who stole the show with every appearance.
This oft-dubbed “Godfather of Exercise,” whose television fitness programs spanned four decades, was popular not just because he was a fitness and nutrition authority. He was popular because he had been that 99-pound weakling, addicted to sugar and junk food, before being educated by a nutritionist.
The diminutive LaLanne, a modest five-six and 150 pounds soaking wet, talked to the audience (“Hello to all the boys and girls”) as if friends were watching, never chastising or condescending.
This guy was media savvy before Q Scores were even invented.
If Happy wandered on set while he was demonstrating a floor exercise, then Happy became a focal point. And dog lovers must have been thrilled to hear this ad lib quip after Happy decided to lie across LaLanne’s chest, interrupting a bicep curl. “Right in the mouth with the foot he’s putting,” LaLanne said. How could you not love a guy with that kind of un-self-conscious banter?
He then rattled off items in Happy’s diet. Four pounds of ground beef, two pounds of liver, minerals, egg yolk, cod liver oil and bone meal. “And he’s house-broken, too,” LaLanne said. “He’s broken every room in the house.”
By now, you know the 96-year-old LaLanne, who had first been labeled a crackpot health fanatic, touted the “you are what you eat” philosophy years before diet books would prove a bookseller’s goldmine.
“If it tastes good, spit it out,” he famously said.
His television patter was so down-to-earth you almost didn’t notice his odd-looking jumpsuit, which showed off his sinewy, muscular build.
He would have easily won Festivus’ “Feats of Strength” ritual had he wanted to compete.
After all, this was a guy who swam the length of the Golden Gate Bridge while lugging 140 pounds of equipment.
This body-builder, motivational speaker and juice-lover even encouraged women to lift weights, a shocking thing to espouse in the Twiggy-dominated 1960s.
“The Jack LaLanne Show” was the longest running exercise show not just because it was a guiding force for health-conscious denizens, but because LaLanne was earnest and down-to-earth and he liked dogs!
Yes, he was inducted in the California Hall of Fame, had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, built gyms and pulled real heavy stuff with his teeth. But he was also a mensch who defied the aging process. “I can’t die,” he said. “It would ruin my image.”
His image has nothing to worry about.