Sensational at 70-Plus An Interview With Jim Morris, Mr. America and Bodybuilding Legend by David Young My jaw must have hit the ground when I saw the pictures accompanying this interview. How could this possibly be a 71-year-old man? No friggin’ way! Could it really be? The answer is, yes. The guy puts most 40 year olds to shame. Among dozens and dozens of bodybuilding titles Jim Morris won the 1973 AAU Mr. America and has a contest history that spans from 1959 to 1996. The photo session with Michael Neveux this past January represents Jim’s 47th year of getting in top shape. That kind of longevity in the sport doesn’t come haphazardly. It comes from dedication, knowledge and focus.
What struck me immediately when I talked with Jim is that he is anxious to share his years of wisdom and his enthusiasm for bodybuilding. He’s got some very interesting views on how things are done in bodybuilding, and it may just get you to rethink your own strategy—so get out your notebooks and listen up. Professor Morris is about to start class.
DY: I saw the photos that Mike Neveux took of you in January. You look great! That condition would be good for a guy half your age. How did you get started in bodybuilding?
JM: One of my coworkers at the New York Public Library’s main branch on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street invited me to go to the gym with him. I was 19, and I had never been in any gym other than in school where they did not have weights. It was June and New York was sweltering, so everyone was in Speedo’s. St Mary’s Community Center in the South Bronx was a pretty tough neighborhood, and I was a bit nervous. I had always felt the well-built guys in school were born that way, but at that moment, looking at those well-built guys I realized they had built themselves.
DY: So what happened?
JM: Before that revelation could sink in, a couple of the guys came over and asked me what exercises I did for my chest and arms. At first I thought they were teasing me, but my coworker convinced me they were serious. I had never had that kind of attention before, and I was thrilled to be the center of attention. But it was starting out to be a murderously hot summer, so I determined to start training on Labor Day. The main branch of The New York Library had every Iron Man and Health & Strength (British) and Strength & Health ever published, and over the course of the summer I read every one of them. I preferred the information in Iron Man, as I felt it was more honest. One of the articles talked about setting goals, short term and long term. Another talked about mental attitude and focus.
DY: Did you make good progress right from the get go?
JM: I set a short-term goal of gaining 30 pounds by Thanksgiving. On Labor Day I started training and fell into a trance. On Thanksgiving Day I came out of the trance to find I had gained 35 pounds of pure muscle.
DY: Thirty-five pounds in three months is incredible. That’s a trance a lot of guys would like to be in, Jim. How did you do it?
JM: Unwittingly, by spending the entire summer immersed in magazines and any other writing I could find on exercise, nutrition, motivation and the human body. I had hypnotized myself. It was a matter of all the right circumstances coming together at exactly the same moment. My living situation was perfect. I was still living at home. My job was not physical. I had total control over my diet and lifestyle, and I was obsessed. It was like a sponge that had been waiting all its life for just this stimulation.
DY: Where did your chest and arm development come from? Had you been athletic before that? ALL JM: I was never interested in any kind of sports or athletic activity before that. The chest and arms were natural. Everyone has a couple of bodyparts that are either naturally just there or respond easily. I think the bodybuilders who make it to the top have more than most. I gain easily, especially in my upper body. I was something of a nerd. I even went to a high school for bright students called Stuyvesant in lower Manhattan. I was the kid nobody wanted on their team when they played stickball in the neighborhood. Bodybuilding for me was my version of playing basketball at the neighborhood park. I was good at it, and I enjoyed the attention. There is a line in one of the songs in the musical "Chorus Line" which goes, "Everything was beautiful at the ballet." She is explaining how her otherwise dull life became beautiful at ballet school. In those days gyms were all male enclaves, and I had a pretty body even before I started training. The first day I walked into the gym I was an instant star. I had found my ballet school and everything was beautiful.
DY: That’s a good analogy. Who influenced your training and your routines?
JM: I lived in New York in 1954 when I started training. Lon Hanagan was the first influence, and he really set the structure for what I wanted to look like. Everyone after that helped me to achieve that look. Lon Hanagan was the physique photographer everyone in New York went to. Leroy Colbert, Marvin Eder, both Tom and Tony Sansone, Chris Dickerson, Raul Pacheco, Rico Tomas, George Paine, Art Harris, Bill Cerdas and many others all posed for Lon. The famous Grimek side shot leaning back against the short column is a Lon shot. He did lots of covers for Strength & Health and other bodybuilding mags. Lon and I became great personal friends, and he took an interest in me and in my training. He always emphasized proportion and symmetry, line and form. He told me where I needed to train in order to balance my physique. Lon locked into place my taste in physiques. Lon continued to be the major influence in my training until I moved to Los Angeles in 1969.
DY: I’m familiar with that famous John Grimek photo. I guess from an artistic point of view Lon had a good eye for the aesthetics needed to build a great physique.
JM: Absolutely. Lon had an incredible sense of aesthetics. He also had great personal relationships with many of the bodybuilders who shot with him. We were all friends back in those days. We would compete one day and socialize the next.
For the Mr. New York State contest in 1966 a couple of us decided to save on expenses and we drove up to, I think it was Schenectady, or one of the upstate cities in one car. There was Joe Distinti, Ralph Ruiz, someone else and myself. On the way the car broke down in the middle of nowhere, and we sat there for a couple of hours before a kid came along and went home and brought his father back, who fixed the car. We actually made it on time for the show due to the Olympic lifting dragging on into the wee hours of the morning. I won, and we stopped at every restaurant we could find on the way home to eat.
Lon was part of that social circle. It was because he cared for me as a person that he took the time and effort to help me with my ambition to realize my full potential. None of the other photographers ever expressed any desire to take any time or interest in me. At that point I had no desire to compete; I just wanted to be the best I could be. I did not consider competing until 10 years later.
DY: I think a lot of bodybuilders think that aesthetics are a matter of genetics or happenstance. I know from my own experience in training with champions like Danny Padilla, Samir Bannout and Rory Leidelmeyer that that’s not necessarily true. Aesthetics can be improved or developed with a proper training style.
JM: You are absolutely right. It would be great to be born perfect, but that’s no excuse for not being the best you can be. There is a lot that is under our control in terms of shape, balance and aesthetics. People use genes or bad luck as a way to avoid taking responsibility for their own shortcomings.
DY: Did Lon have a particular choice of exercises or sequence for you that helped you develop those aesthetic lines?
JM: Lon never got into the mechanics of my workout. He would point out a particular spot and show how by developing that area it would look better. He left it up to me to figure out how to develop the muscle. He was very specific about the exact point he wanted worked. He never worked in broad areas. This caused me to find and develop exercises that isolated and developed very small areas which ultimately gave me greater control over my lines. DY: So where did your knowledge of how to isolate those areas and control your lines come from?
JM: I learned the function of the muscles from anatomy books and found or developed exercises which corresponded to those functions. There is an anatomy book I use now to teach my clients called The Anatomy Coloring Book written by Kapit and Elson. I wish I had it when I started. It is the best I have ever seen. As an example I used the low pulleys to develop the upper pec, but it would require a picture to explain.
DY: Tell me about the move to Los Angeles—where did you train and who influenced your training at that point?
JM: When I moved to Los Angeles I started training at Bill Pearl’s Pasadena Health Club. For the next five years Bill made up my workout programs. Although I had won every major title back east, including New York City, New York State, East Coast, Eastern America and Jr. USA, I felt I could learn from Bill. And I did. Bill made up a new program every month. They were versions of whatever he was doing at the moment. Equally important were the posing sessions. I always hated practicing posing but Bill would get me over to his house and grind me through session after session.
DY: I feel that posing—real posing—is a lost art. Few guys out there today practice posing. At least not like in the past. Today we have a few guys who incorporate dance routines and robotics. I think that’s good because it shows innovation and the fact that a bodybuilder can move well, but when I think of true posing mastery, I think of Bill Pearl, Chris Dickerson, Jim Morris, Ed Corney, Lee Labrada, Frances Benfatto, Rory Leidelmeyer, Mohammed Makkawy and Shawn Ray. Do you think today’s pros could increase the popularity of bodybuilding if they focused more on posing as an art?
JM: I don’t think today’s pro physiques lend themselves to any type of artistic posing. Even the language—monsters, freaky, mind-blowing, awesome—does not lend itself to artistic interpretation of the physique. Today’s bodybuilding is a completely different mind-set. Whether that is progress or regress is a whole ’nother article.
DY: Yes, I agree Jim, when the fans today talk about one guy "owning" another, it’s almost always about who’s bigger and nothing else. Did you ever train with Pearl, Gironda or any of the guys who came on the scene before you?
JM: No. Pearl invited me to train with him, but there was no way I was going to get up at 3 a.m. in order to get to the gym and be ready to train by 4 a.m. Arnold invited me to train with him, and I would go over to Gold’s to watch him work out, after which we would sometimes go for breakfast. I was doing so well with Pearl’s routines I felt no need to change.
Once in a while I would visit Gironda’s just to talk diet with him, but he never extended an invitation to train with him. He did give me a lot of exercise advice, some of which I incorporated into my training. The desiccated liver was a Gironda suggestion, and although it was not tasty it did improve my physique. I have heard of the Arnold-Franco training partnership, and I watched Arnold train with Ed Corney, but top bodybuilders rarely are able to benefit from the same routine or subordinate their own ego and progress enough to come to a compromise workout which would benefit both.
DY: Wait a minute, Jim. I know Vince used to advocate desiccated liver quite a bit. It’s almost a forgotten secret. How much desiccated liver did you take?
JM: I’ve never been one to measure anything in my intake—calories, grams, anything. I’m pretty sure it would have been considered a lot. My guess would be about a half-pound a day. At one point I was taking several hands full of liver pills a day. But that was not at the same time I was taking the powder in the drink. DY: You’ve talked about three people who influenced your training. You mentioned that Lon Hanagan taught you how to emphasize you aesthetic lines. You also mentioned that you made steady progress from Bill Pearl’s influence and that you picked up some good tips from Vince Gironda. All of this begs the question’s: What did each of these guys teach you, and what were some of the training routines like? Can you sum it up in a few paragraphs?
JM: Pearl was the only one who made up my routines. Going back to what you said a moment ago about "it’s almost always about who’s bigger and nothing else," Lon taught me that the absolute first law of symmetry is to match the amount of muscle mass to the skeletal framework. Once the muscle mass exceeds the limit imposed by the frame there can be so symmetry.
Gironda taught me how to work with gravity on the free weights. He was able to coax a lot of response using very little weight with his knowledge of how the pulleys and levers of the skeletal muscles work. He taught me to think for myself, to question all of the methods and systems being used and pushed by the magazines and current stars. He was a true maverick. and that was reflected in his physique. His look was unique. He went the opposite of the bigger-is-better attitude of his time. He elevated the importance of diet in my thinking. He taught me to do my own thing.
Pearl made up my actual day-to-day workouts [after I came to California]. Bill’s workouts would change from month to month, moving the exercises around from one area of the same muscle group to another so as to keep the development even over a period of time. They were enjoyable because I never felt overtrained or too sore.
As for the specifics of the workouts, they were the product of what was known at the time along with the equipment available in Bill’s gym, which although obviously adequate as he won the Universe on them, and I won the America, they were mostly unique and very different from what is available today. I know for a fact that if Bill were to make me a program today with all that he has learned in the ensuing years and the modern equipment available, it would be very different. So it would not serve any purpose to even discuss them. What I would prefer would be to talk about what I have learned from the experience.
DY: Those are all wise lessons. Did you have any role models in terms of the type of physique you wanted to build?
JM: I admired the Pearl physique of the mid ’50s and most of the physiques of my beginning years, but it never occurred to me to try to look like anyone else. I think that was the Lon influence. He showed me my lines and pointed out my potential and the pictures he took of me in the ’50s gave me confidence in my own physique.
Remember I started with Lon in 1955. By the time Frank Zane came along, I was pretty confident of my own physique. But if I had wanted a physique to emulate, it would have been his. We are about the same height, around 5’9", but I have a slightly heavier frame than he which allows me to hold a little more weight. At his best Frank weighed between 185 and 190, and I was 210 to 215. I think Frank is the only absolutely perfect physique ever to exist.
DY: Being from Rochester, New York, I was just getting into bodybuilding in the early 1970s when Danny Padilla and Pete Grymkowski were competing. I know that you competed against both of them, isn’t that right?
JM: Yes, I competed against both in the 1972 Mr. America. As you know Pete had placed second for the previous two years and was being pushed by the magazines as the next coming, especially in Muscular Development. Grimek had him all over the place the year before, even on the cover. DY: Did that influence your strategy of how to come in the contest and your preparation?
JM: My strategy, if you want to call it that, was based on my assessment of what I accomplished in ’72 and in the feedback I got from opinions I respected. At the ’72 A I won Best Arms, Back and Abs. Two months later at the Mr. USA in Denver I won Best Back, Chest and Most Muscular along with the title. So I was satisfied with my bodyparts, especially the upper body, having won Best in every category between the two contests, except legs. I repeated arms in ’73 Mr. A and added chest.
In his writeup of the ’72 America Peary Rader wrote of me, "His development is beautifully balanced and he has outstanding definition and his muscle shape is very good." Of the ’72 USA Peary Rader wrote, "Jim has one of the best proportioned physiques in the world. It is perfectly balanced and though he lost out in the Mr. America contest, I believe he has improved since then and will be a hard man to beat this coming year for that title. He does not look as big and bulky as some of the others, but he makes up for it in proportion and shape with good definition." In another issue he wrote, "This beautiful pose by Jim Morris, the new Mr. USA, shows one of the most symmetrical physiques of our time. He is so well proportioned that you would not guess his huge proportions."
Proportion and symmetry were what had gotten me this far, so I did not want to screw around with them. My everlasting thanks to Lon. My calves could come up some and I increased the poundage on those exercises.
Shortly after the ’72 contest I was having dinner with Frank and Christine Zane at their place, (she is a gourmet cook) and he suggested I flex more and showed me how. After a couple of months I could voluntarily cramp and un-cramp every major bodypart. He called it "detailing." It brought out details in the muscles I never knew I had. I was talking to Reg Park’s son Jon Jon a week ago, and he said Reg now does as much flexing as actual lifting. So do I.
DY: I remember that posing practice in and out of the gym was touted as one those famous principles the magazines called Iso-tension. I guess I never realized that it started in the gyms and that the magazine publishers picked it up to write about it. Do you attribute this to helping you win the Mr. America?
JM: Actually, it started with Charles Atlas in his famous kicking-sand-in-the-face advertisement. He called it Dynamic Tension. Anyway, it worked. In fact, the writeup of the ’73 Mr. A in Iron Man said of me, "His general body balance and proportions are excellent, and he has amazing cuts and definition, probably the best of anyone in the contest." So in Peary’s opinion I had held the proportions together and the definition had gone from "outstanding" and "good" to "amazing." Grymkowski had won Most Muscular in ’72, and I feel it was the definition that allowed me to win the Most Muscular in ’73 because I certainly did not match his mass. He must have outweighed me by 40 pounds.
DY: Yes, Pete had amazing mass, and you had classic aesthetics. That contest was a true example where the decision was between herculean mass or aesthetics. Got any stories about the contest?
JM: At one point after the interviews [the AAU use to conduct interviews with each competitor in the Mr. America contest] I sought out a seat in the back of the now empty auditorium to try and gather myself and focus on the evening competition. A short chubby kid—I was 37 at the time, so he seemed like a kid to me—came into the auditorium and sat down next to me. He said his name was Danny (Padilla) and he wanted my opinion of his build and what he needed to do. I hadn’t really paid much attention to him, but I said he had good proportions and needed to get more cut. DY: You’re right about Danny, he had a problem coming in cut. But in 1981 when he did—Wow! Plus, Danny is such a great guy.
JM: I had the great good fortune to get to know Padilla when he was out here in L.A., and he is one of the people whose character I admire most in bodybuilding. He is a genuine good soul. I always enjoyed just spending time with Danny—he was a joy to be around. What you see in Danny’s smile is Danny. I always felt he was not fairly judged.
DY: Yes, Danny is fun to be around. Jim, I noticed that you competed in the Mr. America in 1970 when Chris Dickerson became the first black Mr. America, but you didn’t compete in 1971. Then you came back and placed third in 1972 before winning in 1973. What happened in 1971?
JM: I also competed in the 1968 Mr. America. The ’68 and ’70 contests were purely contests of opportunity and could not have been less serious attempts to win anything. In ’68 I had won New York State and Jr. USA, so I was qualified. I was living in the borough of Queens, and the contest was held there—virtually in my backyard. So I entered just for the hell of it. Since I was going to go see the show anyway, I figured I could see the show up close. Real close.
For the ’70 show I was living in the Hollywood Hills, and the show was held in Culver City, maybe 10 miles away. I had just won the Mr. Cal a couple of weeks before, so I was in relatively good shape. And again, what better way to see the show.
I never really had serious Mr. America ambitions. After returning from winning his fourth Mr. Universe title in September ’71 Pearl said he thought I had the potential to win the Mr. A and should go for it in a serious manner because he was aware of my just-for-fun attitude about competing. Things had come relatively easy for me up until then. When I said no, he said, "You never complete anything you start". The words stunned me because it showed I had a quality he did not respect, and his respect was important to me—important enough, for me to devote the next two years to regain it.
But that happened in October ’71. To answer your question, after the ’70 Mr. A, I spent the months barnstorming the West Cost, entering anything and everything. Contests like Mr. Golden Bear, Mr. Inland Empire, Mr. West Coast and so on, none of which endeared me to the other competitors who felt that I was stepping down in order to grab trophies. Comments like, "What the f— are you doing here?" were not uncommon. But the promoters, who were usually the heads of the local AAU committee and almost all national judges, loved me. It was not unusual for me to give a seminar the next day at the promoter’s gym. I accompanied my training partner Ken Holbert to the Mr. Iron Man in Alliance, Nebraska, in 1972, and he won. I gave an impromptu posing exhibition. Mabel Rader was a judge in the ’73 Mr. A. Five of your 20 points in the Mr. A is for the interview. The interview is where the judges try to get a feel of what kind of Mr. America you would make. It helps if the judge has spent some time with you and what their impression of you is.
DY: I only met Bill once at the IRON MAN Pro/FitExpo a few years ago, but I was very impressed with what a true gentleman he was. He remembered my name all weekend and kept calling my David. It’s funny how many people you meet at Expos who keep calling you "buddy" or "bro." You know it’s because they don’t remember your name. But here was Bill Pearl who is an icon in the industry calling me David over and over. It seems like such a small gesture, but it shows the character of the man. It’s something that I’ll always remember about him. So would you say he was a true coach in the sense that he knew the psychology behind motivating you?
JM: Bill motivated by example. He is legendary for not missing workouts and he gives every workout 100 percent. In that sense, yes, he is keenly aware of his iconic stature and that it was his example that motivated me and everyone around him—not only in our training but in how we acted toward each other in the gym and in the sport. Whenever Bill meets someone, he actually pays attention to that person because he is sincerely interested in them and knows how much that attention means to that person and he cares.
DY: That’s a rare trait today. I remember reading something Chris Dickerson wrote about Bill training him. He said Bill had him doing a lot of ab work almost to the point that Chris thought it was overdone, but he did it anyway out of respect for Bill. JM: Yes, Bill did put a great deal of emphasis on the abdominal area. One of the main reasons for Bill’s business success is his incredible prescience about the sport and business of bodybuilding. In the ’60s and ’70s whenever it became known that you trained with weights the first thing they asked you was, "Show me your arms." Today it’s "Show me your abs." In those days no one had ever heard of your "core." Scanning the magazine rack in the market today every single cover has the word "Ab" or "Abs" on it. Bill was one of the first to realize the importance of that area. The other being Zabo. He also was the first of the hardcore gym owners to actively encourage women to join the gym. His Pasadena Health Club split the hours of the main gym floor evenly between men and women, although he did not allow them to train together. He did though reserve three rooms in the back for the "animals" as he called them to train at all times.
DY: You must have made some tremendous improvements in those two years because you went from placing seventh in 1970 to third in 1972 to winning it all in 1973. Tell us about those two years and the diet and training.
JM: Looking back on my diet now I wonder how I ever won anything. My favorite meal during that period was a pound of ground beef, which I would brown in a large frying pan, add in a large can of Campbell’s Chunky Minestrone Soup, heat and eat. Some days I would have this two or three times. Most of the other meals were KFC buckets of 15 or 20 pieces, extra crispy or BBQ, of which I would just eat until I couldn’t breathe. The tuna drink was health food compared to this. For me contest prep was cutting out the pastries.
DY: That’s incredible.
JM: I had the absolute best training partner of my life during those two years, a guy named Bob May. Bob put up with more s—, never once losing it or even acknowledging it. He was 1000 percent behind me. I think he wanted that win as much as I did. I’m sure of it. Getting to share that experience with Bob is what I will always remember about the Mr. America. The happiest two years of my life.
What made it possible for me to live the life of "elite athlete in training" during those two years was that I never worked. My first job in L.A. was as a cop on LAPD. I hated that job. My first shift out of the academy was "graveyard" midnight to 8 a.m. It would have taken me years, if ever, to adjust to that schedule enough to train for competition. They fired me after a couple of months for "lack of aggressiveness," which was code for, "We think he’s gay." So I got a job as a sales rep for Carnation Co. Grocery Division selling wholesale into the supermarket chains. They gave you a car and you only had to come into the office once a month. As long as they saw the case movement out of Certified Grocers they were happy. All of the store managers and district managers were fans of mine. I would go over to their homes and put them and the wife and kids on workout routines. They even came to see me compete in the L.A. and Cal. So I would call them in the morning, ask them to order in X-number of cases and then go to the gym. The day was mine. The company ended up sending me on a nationwide tour after I won.
The members of the gym gave me a huge "Good Luck" card on the day I left for the ’72 Mr. A There must have been hundreds of signatures on it. I still have it. They had been so supportive I could not wait to get to the gym everyday just for the adulation. Placing third I felt so hurt that I had let them down and was absolutely determined to never let them down again. So those two years were idyllic in every way.