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He leaps up and strikes an oldtime life-drawing-class pose, his arms cocked up and his biceps bulging sinfully. "Look, Mom," he says, "I've become an institution."
It is all a form of gentle insanity, brought on by excess energy. On the off-chance that there was still someone out there who hadn't heard about the virtues of diet and exercise, LaLanne launched his once-a-year series of astounding, amazing feats. Well, all right, all right. What they were, really, were goofball stunts pulled off somewhere near the date of his birthday, which is Sept. 26. Before his birthday or after, it didn't matter.
Birthday Feats: At 40, he swam the Golden Gate underwater, wearing 140 pounds of scuba gear. The water was cold, 55°, and he covered the two miles in 45 minutes, 10 to 15 feet down, with his progress marked by a red balloon bobbing along on the surface. At 41, LaLanne swam the two-plus miles from Alcatraz to San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf—this time wearing handcuffs. What's more, he lurched up out of the water, threw himself down and did 30 push-ups. At 42, LaLanne pumped off a world-record 1,033 pushups in 23 minutes on a TV show.
And so on until, at 60, he repeated the Alcatraz swim, this time handcuffed and shackled at the ankles—and towing a 1,000-pound boat. At 62, he invoked the Bicentennial Spirit of '76 with a 1½-mile swim in Long Beach Harbor, handcuffed, shackled and towing 13 boats—the 13 original colonies, get it, kid?—containing 76 waving and screaming YMCA youngsters in life jackets. The weight of this armada was estimated at 25,000 pounds. LaLanne made it in 1:18.24 in the exaggerated frog-kick style that is regulation form for manacled swimmers, and at the finish his pulse was a mere 76 against a normal pulse of 60. "That's what this is all about," he chortles. "Strength is energy, see?"
And even with his TV revival in full swing, he's still restless. Life is more than pumping iron, rising at 4:30 a.m. daily to exercise. It's the feats that are fun, the stuff that gets you on the nightly television news, which is much better than the old Fox Movietone newsreels. "I'll tell ya, it has to be something big this year," he says. "It'll come to me suddenly someday and I'll just up and do it with maybe no advance notice. Something that'll show how we feel about a physically fit America. And, ya know, our society is getting older; there has been a steady increase in Americans who are over 90. I've got to do something that old folks can identify with. Something that will give them new hope and courage to carry on."
This is clearly a very special moment. LaLanne has been fidgeting while sitting at a poolside table at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. Now, explosively, he jumps to his feet, looking toward the bowered entryway. "There he is," he murmurs.
And there he is, indeed: The gentleman approaching is wearing a classic panama hat, a soft sports shirt, casual slacks and loafers. He walks gracefully, with the ease of an old athlete. The jaw-line is firm and his tanned face is deeply cragged and seamed around the thin gray mustache.
This is Gilbert Roland, the former Luis Alonso, son of a Mexican bullfighter, at 75 years of age. Lured by the bright lights of Hollywood early in the '20s, Roland was once indisputably the handsomest leading man of the silver screen, offering a profile as chiseled as profiles ever get. In 1927 he wowed the nation as Armand Duval in Camille, with Norma Talmadge. Then, over the years, his roles eased gradually into character parts; a series of films as the Cisco Kid in the 1940s; a matador in 1951's The Bullfighter and the Lady; in 1977, a boat captain in Islands in the Stream. Roland is still working, and he still has the 28-inch waist of his youth.
"It's because, at Jack's urging, I still do his exercises every morning," Roland says, with a slight bow toward LaLanne. He explains that he does about an hour of heavy LaLanne workout and then, just as the sun rises over Beverly Hills, he sits quietly and meditates. Sometimes this is followed by tennis at the club, more often by hard-fought bridge games at the club, but always, always, there is lunch at the club—at this, Mr. Roland's poolside table, in these, Mr. Roland's favorite deck chairs.
Roland and LaLanne tell stories to each other over their tossed salads; they're clearly old pals. Then Roland leans forward and lightly rests his fingertips on his friend's muscular forearm. "And what will you do for your birthday stunt this year?" he asks.