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Gallery of Ironmen: Mark Forest

Muscles to Vocals. Mark Forest went from gladiator-movie roles to opera.

Like many others, Mark Forest used bodybuilding as a springboard to success. Thanks to his shapely physique, a career in films opened up for him. Forest did 12 lavish films in the 1960s, but then he did something even more extraordinary than becoming a star: He stepped away from his cinematic career and began another as an operatic singer.

Forest was born Lou Degni in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. Inspired by muscle magazines, he began bodybuilding at the age of 13. After building an impressive physique, he started competing in bodybuilding events. Thanks to his handsome face and impressive form, his image appeared on the cover of a small publication called Men and Art; later he opened a gym on Long Island. Fortunately, a movie agent saw his picture and invited him to Hollywood to audition for the role of Tarzan. Although he didn’t get the part, the young bodybuilder eventually found work with Mae West’s troupe of pre-Chippendales hunks. He also found time to enter several bodybuilding contests, including Mr. Muscle Beach, which he won.

While working with West, Forest was tapped for a new venture in the movies. Steve Reeves had a huge success in ‘Hercules’ in 1959, and moviemakers were busily searching for rival musclemen. After a quick audition, he was signed to a three-picture contract almost on the spot. He soon found himself on the way to Italy, where he was to co-star with Broderick Crawford in ‘Goliath and the Dragon.’ Along the way, he shed his given name and acquired the one that has brought him great fame ever since: Mark Forest.

Forest was the second American actor to be recruited by Italian producers to make gladiator films, and thanks to his natural grace and ease before the cameras, he was a popular star with both filmmakers and fans. The good-looking, chesty actor made a dozen films in Italy and reportedly had a good time doing so. Eventually, however, it was time to move on. Moviemaking was fun and profitable but not what he wanted to do forever. It was singing that had long fascinated him, so he turned his attention to opera. He sang the tenor lead in many important operas, but when he returned to the U.S., Mark became one of the most popular voice coaches in Hollywood. Many celebrities have sought him out to improve their voices and their stage presence. Today, Forest continues to improve his students’ techniques and vocal chords in Southern California.

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