Thursday, April 23, 2015

A conversation with Van Halen Album cover man, ESPN Bodyshaping star, and legendary bodybuilding champion, Rick Valente. By Dr. Michael Dusa

A conversation with Van Halen Album cover man, ESPN Bodyshaping star, and legendary bodybuilding champion, Rick Valente.
By Dr. Michael Dusa

MD: Hey Rick, great to talk to you!

RV: Thanks Mike.

MD: You know, you are one of the guys who came out of the tiny Nutmeg State of Connecticut, my home state, to make it big on the world scale.

RV: Yup. I was born in New Haven, and I grew up in Ansonia, you know, "The Valley."

MD: Last time I was there, I got knocked out! High school football game against Ansonia High School- a tough batch of youngsters!

RV: Well, yes. You had to be tough if you lived where I grew up. The high school and my home were right near the projects in Ansonia. There were drugs, gangs, motorcycle clubs-you name it.

MD: So, what was it like growing up there?

RV: First, let me tell you, I myself was no angel. I can also say that, without a doubt, lifting weights saved my life. Invariably, if I hadn't gotten involved with the iron at a very early age, I'd be dead today. No way would you and I be having this conversation now.

I started training in my parent's basement at about 12 or 13 years old. You know the story-I mailed out for the Charles Atlas routine. I have to say right now that my parents were the best-they were wonderful people and fully supported me. They let me run with my passion. My father let me drill holes in the walls to construct pulley and spring apparatus. I made a huge "vision board" on the wall.

MD: Before you go on, and not that I would forget, but just where in the world did those "best ever" triceps of yours come from?

RV: (laughs). Thanks Mike. Well, right away, at home, I started dips and reverse dips on two chairs. These were very easy for me to perform-the more I did, the better my bench press got. My triceps just grew! I was also into martial arts. I needed to be able to handle myself and look and be strong. The spectre of fighting always existed when I'd venture out from my house.

I mentioned I was no angel. I also want to say although I was surrounded by a lot of sinister influences and people of ill repute, I knew early that how I handled these influences would delegate my path in life. This was the 70's...yes, there was pot and cocaine...but heroine was very big at the time. I lost many close friends to drugs.

MD: But even though you had a lot of bad examples not to emulate, you must have had some pretty good role models, too.

RV: Oh of course! I worked at a grocery store and I'd always be out in the parking lot gathering and pushing the shopping carriages, and many times, there was big Sherman Backus, and great powerlifter and bodybuilder. He'd had a deadlift record at one time...a HUGE back! I'd see him coming and going and he'd always flex his huge arm for me! He was amazing to me! Too bad he's passed on.

MD: No, Rick. Sherman is alive, well, and still looks great! Just saw him in the gym and had a nice chat. I know him well...suffered defeat to him in the 85 Waterbury show.

RV: That's fantastic! Thank God. I heard wrong then. Such a great guy. When I was 15 I started training in the Ansonia YMCA which was housed in a tiny bolier room. Many of the older guys were good to know and learn from there. It was hardcore-no fluff. And I also went to Mike Katz's World Gym East in Hamden and trained with Mike, Jerry Mastrangelo and Joe Ugolik, who you know was with Mike in Pumping Iron. Joey had a three quarter twisting back double bicep shot that reminded you of Arnold! There was Ronnie Mangum, as well, great Hamden High School Football player and bodybuilder. I went to California to watch him compete in the AAU Mr. America in 1978-he took 6th. Tony Pearson won that year.

One guy who really ultimately made a difference for me was Bob Levine. He was about ten years older than me and joined the Ansonia YMCA. All the guys hated him because he'd smear a ton of Icy Hot all over his body and that's all you'd smell! They wanted to kill him. These guys were killers(laughs)! I befriended Bob. Eventually he moved to Florida, and gave me his card and said to look him up someday. More on him later though.
High school football days

MD: So you played sports in high school?

RV: Oh yes. Football. I was a pretty good player. Three kids who I really looked up to were a couple of years older but were great, great players were Roger Innes, Joey Cardella and Gary Taylor. Innes is a local legend-just an outstanding player. I played linebacker and fullback-I enjoyed hitting people. I also wrestled, but I was a bit small for that.

MD: So no bodybuilding contests for you in high school?

RV: No. That was a bit later. Through high school, and after I graduated-I mean, it was so bad where I lived. One of my earliest memories was me being at an Italian festival at age 8 and seeing two kids beat another so badly he lost consciousness...this was right in front of my mother and I. Another time I was at a house party with a bunch of people and the cops broke it up. Everyone there was arrested except a friend and I. We literally hid under a bed for four hours as the cops were standing right above us. They left and we got away. Mike...I can easily list a dozen guys who I knew who are now dead from drugs. Finally, I remember leaving a theater after watching a Clint Eastwood movie, and out in the parking lot there was, before our eyes, yet another colossal beat-down. That's the first time I recall thinking, "I've gotta get out of here."

I was torn between being Bruce Lee, Arnold, or having the biker life. We all had bikes then. Gangs were prolific. I chose the Arnold path.
First bike

MD: So, off to California.

RV: No. Not then. Bob Levine, who I mentioned earlier, told me to look him up if I ever cared to. This was the best thing I ever did. Bob had moved to Florida and lived in a condo on the beach. I moved there upon his invitation and got jobs as a lifeguard on the beach by day, and as a bouncer in a night club for evenings. At the club, we'd always get in fights. There were drunk college kids, drunk sailors in town-they were looking to fight. 

So we accommodated them (laughs)! We had a big crew of 14 guys on staff-Chris Duffy, a great bodybuilder, James Sisco. We'd all have each other's backs.

This club held the first bodybuilding show I'd ever entered, it was 1978 or 79, the "Mr. Summers" contest. I won, and I was hooked on competing. Competing was a whole new world for me. I was like a kid in a candy store. I won the Mr. Golden Glades and the Mr. Gold Coast shows. Soon, I knew I had to move to where the true action was-California.
Winning the Mr. Gold Coast show in 1981 before
moving to California
MD: Your goal as a bodybuilder at this point?

RV: Oh, I definitely wanted to be Mr. Olympia. I moved to LA with $500 in my pocket. I had no car, and initially stayed in a hotel. But, I was blessed. I tell you someone has always watched over me. Tim Kimber, Ed Conners and Pete Grymkowski took a liking to me and watched over me. They were great to me. They'd use me as a model in advertisements. At the time, Gold's had a motion picture department run by a guy named Derek Barton. Through him, I got a ton of commercial work.

Rick in one of his first ads
My whole life was training. I had a single room unit on the beach. Hot plate, sleeping bag. It was great. I was around the best. Pat Hayes, Charles Glass, Mike Christian, Tom Platz. Platz? He was on another planet. I swear he'd do leg curls, and you'd be spotting him, helping him do negatives. On the downward motion you'd PUSH down as hard as possible against his resistance. YOUR triceps would be spent doing this! He'd do 315 pounds squat for 50 reps to the floor. He was an animal. I'm not saying this was good, but we'd train so hard that we'd tear muscles from the bone. It was the Mecca, Gold's! There were wrestlers, athletes, bodybuilders and an assortment of freaks.

Gold's was just one big room. You'd have Viator, Pillow, Teagan Clive. These kids on Youtube now...they bench three change and think that's special. What do they want? A cookie? Look, we'd INCLINE 400 pounds for 10-15 reps. Everyone seemed to be doing dumbbell curls with 100's. This was the norm.

MD: Yes. The younger generation. They just don't know, many of them. Do they?

Rick's brother from
another planet
RV: Look Mike, guys like you and I have been around for decades. It's prudent and gracious to let someone else tell you how great you are. If you have got to blow your own horn, well, it's rather easy to figure out, now, isn't it? You are driven by arrogance, ego, fear. There's symbolism, and then there is substance. These kids now don't know who Mike Katz is. Are you kidding me? If it weren't for these guys, none of us would be lifting weights now.

Guys like Jack Lalanne. How could you possibly not know him or discount him? He was a friend. He was so on point. You know he said, "If God didn't make it-then don't eat it." I originally met him at a health and fitness expo and HE told Me that he was my fan! He knew me from Bodyshaping. I was beyond flattered.

MD: Man, I always wish I'd met Jack.

Autographed picture from
fitness icon Jack Lalanne
RV: I am blessed to have known him. So I continued competing in California. I won the Mr. Gold Coast in LA, and then was absolutely on cloud nine when I won the LA bodybuilding championships.

MD: That's a huge one. I remember back then the guys who would annex the LA and California shows were very likely to win the Mr. America, too.

RV: Exactly. It's like my original vision board that I had formulated in my parent's basement-it was all coming true for me. Backstage at the LA, Rick Wayne approached me and said he wanted to put me on the cover of Flex Magazine. I was shocked!

MD: You know, recently I read on the net that the Flex cover of you-you are curling a dumbbell from the side-was one of the most popular bodybuilding covers ever. You've done many covers, I've seen.

RV: Really? I didn't know that. Yes, I've appeared on 50 magazine covers. Around this time is when I started doing television commercials. I was on the beach and an assistant director approached me and asked me if I wanted to be in a television commercial. He walked me over to the Pit on Venice Beach, and they filmed me doing some curls. And there it was-I was in a Pepsi commercial. I met a commercial producer at a party named Joe Pitka, and I got many jobs through him. I did 15 commercials with Joe, in total I appeared in 47 television commercials. You know, everything in life comes down to relationships. Good ones lead you to where you want to go, who you want to be. It helped that I constantly stayed in good shape, and, frankly, when I'd go on a casting call, I'd usually get the job.
One of the most popular bodybuilding
magazine covers ever

MD: I recall a commercial with Bo Jackson...

RV: Yes! Bo was a great, great guy. One day during shooting he asked me my shoe size. A couple of weeks later a box arrived at my house and it was filled with Nike gear. He was a class act.

MD: No movies for you?

RV: I did a few scenes in movies, but I was not really attracted to the prospects of a movie career. I still wanted to pursue my competitive bodybuilding career. I was training very hard in 1987, and I recall Cameo Kneur, Cory Everson's sister, was spotting me on bench press. In the midst of the movement, my pec "locked" and the sound it made was like that of a piece of plywood being torn in half. The pectoral muscle belly was ripped completely in half. Lyle Alzado was there and he took me to the hospital, but, with me not having health insurance at the time, they turned me away. Lyle hooked me up with the surgeon for the Raiders and he did the surgical repair for me. I remember being in the hospital bed following the surgery, and two doctors saw me, one older, the other much younger. The younger guy emphasized that my tear was "the worst I've ever seen." The older doctor who came in later said I'd be fine, to stay positive. I want to stress here, right now, that for anybody reading this, it is very important to think about what comes out of your mouth before you say it.

Pumping arms on the sets
Of course, the older doctor was right, but, the simple truth at this point for me was that my dream of chasing the Mr. Olympia title was over. I must mention that Joe Pitka left me an envelope in my hospital room which held five thousand dollars in cash in it. I was astounded. To this day, he wont let me pay him back. Instead, I try to give back to others.

MD: A very bad injury indeed. Were you laid up for a long time?

RV: I couldn't really train as I'd have liked to for about a year. I had my arm in a sling for about eight weeks. I was reduced to using a two pound weight in physical therapy.

MD: Humbling. But you did of course get back into fantastic shape...and then ESPN's Bodyshaping came along...

RV: Well, remember what I said about relationships being key? I ended up having some words and a disagreement with one gentlemen. Around this time, I walked in to audition for Bodyshaping...and who was the owner of the show? Yes, the guy I had had words with. Right there, I pretty much said, "Okay, I'll just be on my way..." He told me to stay, and he gave me a second chance. I got the part as you know, and it was life changing for me. We shot for 10 years, and the show itself ran for 16 years. We shot all over the world. We'd do 100 shows a year, shooting five shows a day in two, ten day periods. I worked with the most wonderful people-Kiana Tom, Debbie Kruk, Boyer Coe, Sal the old timer. I ended up learning a lot about the technical aspects of production-lights, camera, positioning. I got so much out of the whole experience.

We all had to get certified in personal training every year. We had to answer fan mail, and, as you know, everyone is different. There is NO universal, cookie-cutter solution. We'd have to give the "safe" answer to the public. The only time I'd answer a question is if I tried it myself or researched it.

MD: So, tell me about Van Halen.

RV: Yes. There was a casting call for this opportunity at Gold's Gym. Derek Barton called me and told me to come on down and try out for it. There was a line of guys around the building trying out. I got the assignment. My mother taught me as a kid, if my grandmother or someone gave me some money or a gift for my birthday, always call them and thank them. If someone would give me a job, I'd always call and let them know of my appreciation. Derek Barton-he helped me get so many jobs. I ended up giving him a Movado watch as thanks.

I hung out with the guys from Van Halen for three days, we had a blast! They were all very cool. This was the time Sammy Hagar was with them. When the album came out, I could not believe it was only me on the cover!

MD: Have you trained any celebrities?

RV: Oh yes. Remember, in the late seventies and early eighties, personal training as we know it today really didn't exist. Gregory Hines, a wonderful person and a big, big bodybuilding fan, approached me in Gold's one day-he actually knew who I was. He asked me to train him. I wasn't really sure what to charge him, so I suggested $40 per hour. He said no, how about $75 and hour? I trained him for years. I trained him for his role in 'Tap,' 'Jelly's Last Jam,' I was a guest at his home many times. When he died, so young, it broke my heart.

MD: He appeared at one of my events I promoted. He didn't want an appearance fee or anything.

RV: You know, adversity introduces you to you. I buried my mom, my dad, and my brother, all within a two year time frame. The day my brother got killed was the same day my mother fell and broke her hip, which was the beginning of the end for her. I trained Tony Danza, and when his mother died, I could not relate to or feel his pain. When my mother died, it simply smashed me. Now, with the holidays, there is no childhood home to come back to. Everyone is gone.

It's sad to say, but the last thing you will do for your parents is choose their tomb stones. I've learned, at this point of my life, to wake up with gratitude and just be happy that I am alive.

I have a rich, diverse life. Look at Frank Zane. He's evolved into music, writing, other things other than bodybuilding. These bodybuilders today should not cheat themselves out of opportunities and experiences outside of the realm of physique. Face it. You are never, ever going to look like you did when you were 25. Some of these guys, they talk about making a comeback. Why on earth would they want to do this in their 50's? Their minds are simply not open to anything new.

MD: Agreed. I am a student of Zane. He talks of using "right speech."

RV: Exactly. Your thoughts make you who you are. I don't use certain words. I won't say "hate." Why would I let anything cause me to hate it? I walk away from toxicity. I'm always mindful of being responsible for the positive energy I bring into a room.

MD: So, how far would have you gone in bodybuilding had your path not taken the turns it did?

RV: Well, you know, I never did do human growth hormone. My legs could have been bigger. I had good upper body size. They are certainly not looking for my type of physique today. You know, you'd see Lee Haney and say, "Hey, I'd like to look like that." Today? No. Big blocky guys with their guts hanging out? Bodybuilding has changed, and not at all for the good. I was blessed that I was around in the days of Bob Paris and Matt Mendenhall. If I didn't have the pec tear? I'm really not sure how far I'd have gone.

MD: Joe Weider and Arnold?

RV: Joe-I loved him. He was great to me. I'd go to his office, he'd personally attend to the photo shoots. He gave me a contract, and he didn't give many of those out. It wasn't much money, but he was respectful of me and did open doors for me. He saw in me my marketability. Arnold I know but am not in his inner circle. He's always been nice to me, and has always reinvented himself. He's doing that even now.

MD: Rick, what is training like for you now?

RV: I do each body part once per week. I incorporate a little cardio, not too much of that. Like anyone at this for so many years, I train smarter now. There is arthritis, the old pec tear, my neck is jacked up. You know this doc-you are only as healthy as your spine lets you be. I am much kinder to myself now. I mean, back in the day, we'd train like a pack of caged animals. We'd pound the weights. Not good for the joints.

MD: So where are you at with things now?

RV: Well, I'm not rich, but I am in a position where I am free to pursue my passions. Freedom is key. Most of us don't know it, but that is what we are all struggling for. I feel I am in the fourth quarter of life now, and I want the coach to give me the ball. I don't always know how, but I will get to the goal line. I am writing a book on my life, my journey, my passions and motivations. I work a lot in photography. I have a friend dying currently from pancreatic cancer, and I'm there for him to help make his remaining days as good as possible.

MD: Rick, I'm happy to see that along with all of your success you are also happy and your path is unfettered by needless interruption. Thanks so much for your time my friend.

RV: Mike, I thank you. I just want to say that if you are positive, grateful, and pursue your passion, then happiness is sure to come.

Thank you Dr. Michael Dusa and Rick Valente for this fantastic interview
Best regards from
©,2015. Bodybuilding Mauritius. Any reprinting in any type of media is prohibited. Interview article published with permission from Dr. Michael Dusa (North Haven, Connecticut). 
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