Hercules, Heroic Recovery
Kevin Sorbo portrayed the invincible demigod Hercules onscreen
while enduring the effects of debilitating strokes.
The actor reflects on his rebound to health.
By Allan Richter
Splashed across the left arm of John Pellicano, 23, is a tattoo of the actor Kevin Sorbo in the role of the superhuman hero Hercules. Pellicano, a Staten Island, New York, bookseller, says he has sentimental reason to sport the ink. “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys,” in which Sorbo starred for six seasons, was the first television show Pellicano ever watched and the first and last show he watched with his grandfather.
He also learned a key lesson from many of the “Hercules” plots: “No matter how bad things get,” Pellicano said after getting Sorbo’s autograph at the recent New York Comic Con, a convention of graphic novels, video games and other pop culture, “you can always find strength.”
For Sorbo, that maxim carried significant weight beyond the storylines and the mythological character he was playing. What Pellicano and other viewers of “Hercules” did not know at the time was that Sorbo was digging deep into his own reserves to recover from three debilitating strokes and an aneurysm in his shoulder that had been radiating blood clots throughout his body.
The actor, who had been putting in 14-hour days on set, doing his own stunts and pushing himself hard at the gym, was incapacitated at age 38. Sorbo was unable to put in more than a few hours on set, so “Hercules” producers rewrote scenes around him and used body doubles.
It took Sorbo more than two years to recover. Fifteen years after his illness, Sorbo, now 53, has not fully regained the strength he had before his illness. But he is working—he has half a dozen film projects in the works— and with his actress wife Sam is the parent of three active children. He recently chronicled his illness and recovery in the memoir True Strength (Da Capo). Fit and lean in a blue Nike golf shirt, Sorbo spoke with us as he signed autographs, posed for photos and pressed the flesh at Comic Con in New York’s Javits Center.
Energy Times: It’s been 15 years since your health problems. Are there any residual affects, like vision loss?
Kevin Sorbo: The vision loss is gone because I’ve gotten used to it now. I can make it come back. Like if I put a golf ball right here I can look a certain way and make that golf ball disappear. If I get overly tired, I get wiped out. I tell my wife, “I’ve got those stroke feelings again,” and she knows what that means. It means I’ve got to lie down. My muscles seem to slow down.
But that doesn’t happen too much. I’ve really got to get tired to get to that point now. It’s only if I push it and push it, like going on a movie with three straight weeks of night shoots from 6 p.m. till 8 in the morning with a bunch of running around and physical stuff. I’m not as strong as I used to be, but I’m aware of it. I still work out every day. I built myself back up. I’m not as big as I was in my Hercules days but that was years ago, and I don’t care if I bench 350 pounds anymore.
ET: Your workouts in your early Hollywood days were intense. Once you finished in Gold’s Gym you went for a run on the beach, and from there you did something else physical. It was non-stop. You also describe that, as a kid, you had a drive to get up before breakfast and deliver newspapers. What accounts for that drive?
KS: My dad. He was a schoolteacher who worked on golf courses during the summers. He was a Midwestern boy and instilled a very hard work ethic in all of us. He grew up on farms of Iowa busting his ass and he said you’re going to bust your ass, too: “Dad, I want that sweater.” “Well, go buy it.” He taught us the value of a buck. He taught us the value of hard work, and that stayed with all five kids.
ET: Your fitness regimen before your strokes went beyond hard work.
KS: Oh yeah, but I lifted heavy from my high school days through “Hercules,” until I got sick.
ET: Could that intensity plus the long hours on “Hercules” have been behind your illness?
KS: It could have caused the aneurysm, sure. The strokes, to my mind, were caused by a crack in the neck by a chiropractor. I went to the chiropractor, and I heard an internal voice say, “Don’t let him crack your neck.” Twice. I didn’t listen to that voice. He cracked my neck, and within minutes I had the strokes.
There are quite a few neurologists who believe that crack and the position of where the aneurysm was in my left sub-clavicle [beneath the collarbone] made those clots act like salmon and shoot upstream, because everything should have shot into the arm, which most of them did. This arm was purple. They thought they were going to have to amputate at one time. It was a very scary moment. I thought I was going to die, there’s no question.
I still go to a chiropractor but I don’t let the neck-cracking go on anymore. I believe chiropractors are great for short-term help but I also mix in physiotherapy with that. I still think physiotherapy and stretching, yoga, Pilates and things like that are better for you overall.
ET: Tell me about those two difficult years of recovery. It wasn’t just physical but emotional as well.
KS: There was depression. There was anger. There were all kinds of things. I saw a shrink for the first time in my life because I needed to understand not why this happened to me but how to deal with the things going on in my brain. It was hard for me to admit that my life as I knew it had now ended and I had become a new person, a different person. I had no choice. Someone told me I have to look at this as a gift, and I got angry when he first told me that. How is getting strokes a gift? How does that make you feel better about yourself?
It really came down to me just pushing myself and constantly putting myself in situations that I knew would make me more wiped out. I took it upon myself, once the aneurysm was fixed, so to speak, to not let this beat me. For my recovery the doctors said, “Do this,” and I did it ten times more than they told me to do it—balance exercises, standing with your feet together, throwing a ball and trying to catch it. I couldn’t do that, but I kept pushing myself until I could do them. It was do or die.
ET: Tell me about some of the complementary health treatments, such as acupuncture, that you embraced during your recovery.
KS: Acupuncture was a big part of it. It was sort of a last-minute thing but somebody said it might help me. I was with three different acupuncturists over seven years. I was pretty religious about going once a week. But there was unbelievable pain. All three put the needles in me, saw the way I reacted, and said, “That shouldn’t hurt. Why is that hurting you?” I didn’t know. But I think the repetition helped. By the time I got to the last couple of years with the one I ultimately stayed with the longest, up in Vancouver when I was doing “Andromeda,” it finally stopped hurting.
I think acupuncture helped me more than anything. Yoga helped me. Meditation helped me. Breathing exercises. Yoga goes along with breathing. It was very instrumental in making me relax and focus, and in making me get my mind off my illness and whatever was driving me crazy. I think the mixture of all these different things had something to do with building that wall that I needed to protect myself from my illness.
ET: Had you done any of these things before your illness?
KS: No. I had stretched all the time. I was always an athlete who stretched before and after workouts, but yoga was a step up. About 30% of the stretches I did before were very yoga-like anyway, but there was a lot that I didn’t do that yoga gave me and it was a great workout. You can sweat like a dog with some of this stuff.
I was looking at all kinds of things to help me. The [prescription] drugs I didn’t like. Every drug that they gave me initially I got every side effect you could think of. I would stop within a month. I never took aspirin. When I had a headache, I’d go running. That’s how I took care of it. That’s how I took care of everything.
ET: Before your illness, you used your intense physical workouts to relieve physical ailments, your Hollywood rejections, your frustrations, and now you no longer had that option. Did these alternative treatments give you the same effect in terms of whatever working out intensely gave you beforehand?
KS: Yes, no question. I physically couldn’t do the workouts. I still lifted weights if I could, but it was very light. I mean I still had balance issues for a long time so it was hard for me to sit there and take a big barbell with weights on it and lift it off a rack. I couldn’t do it.
ET: What supplements do you take?
KS: I’ve always been a big vitamin taker: Bs, Cs, Ds, Es. I take all that. I’m a big believer. After my illness I took more vitamin C. I used to take 1,000 mg a day and then I started taking 4,000 mg a day. Vitamin C was helpful. I can’t say one specific thing was what made me better. It took me three years to feel normal again so it wasn’t an overnight thing. I think the combination of all those things was helpful in my recovery. I don’t know what the magic pill was. I do know it took me three years to feel 100%. I was still having relapses during that third year. Strobe lights bothered me. Loud noises like this [at the Comic Con convention hall] bothered me. My brain hit overload. It couldn’t handle it.
ET: How did your diet change after your illness?
KS: If anything, I eat more sweets now. I was always pretty strict. I did a lot of protein. I had pasta and stuff, but if I did carbs I would do it in the mornings. I probably had seven meals a day. Smaller meals. I would break it up. If I got hungry, I ate. Then I’d be done and I would drink a lot of water. It was mostly eggs, chicken and steaks—protein, protein, protein. I would do protein shakes as well. I definitely stayed busy eating all kinds of good foods. A lot of fruit. I wasn’t a big vegetable eater but I do like salads, spinach salads and stuff like that.
I wish I liked asparagus but I don’t. That was another thing I took a lot of vitamins for, hopefully to make up for things I was lacking. Today I still eat a lot of protein but I don’t eat as much red meat as I used to. I eat a lot of fish, a lot of chicken. And I eat a lot of desserts. I mean I’ve earned it. I earned it by not doing it. I still work out every day but I do have a sweet tooth. And with everything I’ve gone through, I feel I’ve got to enjoy life a little bit more than being so rigid about what I’m eating. If I want a good bread pudding or a bowl of ice cream with caramel sauce, damn it I’m going to have it.
ET: You pushed your body intensely before your illness. Have you since come to appreciate moderation?
KS: If I learned anything, I learned compassion for other people. I learned patience for things around me. I learned to not get crazy if things don’t go my way. I learned that John Lennon is right: Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.
So if anything I learned to relax and enjoy life more than I had before. I don’t want people to misread that. I loved what I was doing, but I learned to slow down.
ET: What are your workouts like today?
KS: I do 30 to 45 minutes of cardio a day. I mix that up. I run three miles then I throw in a 100-yard and 40-yard dash. Just short bursts. If you look at the difference between a runner’s body and a sprinter’s body, I think most people would rather have a sprinter’s body. They’re pretty ripped and in pretty good shape. The guys who run marathons look [too thin]. It doesn’t look great. The short bursts help me increase my stamina.
I still lift every other day. I’ll mix it up between shoulders and arms one day, back and shoulders the next day, then legs another day, but I do something every day. But I don’t lift anywhere near what I did on the old “Hercules” days, when I was bench-pressing 300 pounds. It was heavy, heavy lifting back then. If you put that much pressure on your body, when you surge with that much weight, there have got to be blood surges. I’m definitely more careful today.
ET: You’re a big golfer. What’s the appeal?
KS: I play all the time. When I went back to it for the first time [after my illness], I shot a 98 for 9 holes. Well, I used to shoot 75 for 18 holes. That’s because of the balance issue. So it was a learning experience for me to use that as a therapeutic measure. A year later I read in a health magazine that golf is something they tell stroke victims to do, because of the focus on the golf ball, the balance you need to have and all the movement. You still have to go back and hit the ball exactly where it was lined up before. It’s not an easy sport to do.
My dad worked at a golf course in the summers. In between baseball practice when I was in Little League I’d go and smack the ball around and I loved it. I loved the solitude of it. I love the camaraderie of it, if you want it. I love the sun going down and the long shadows. I love the smell of the grass. I love the trees. I find it very therapeutic. And LA is one of the few places you still have the grass and the trees.
Golf is you against yourself. Years ago I played with Sidney Poitier. We were at a country club in LA, and by the third hole Sidney stopped. He looked at me and said, “Kevin. Golf represents self.” And he walked away. And I thought, “Yeah it does.” It’s a good place to find out about what a person is like. It’s a personality test. You find out a lot about a person.
ET: In True Strength you write very movingly about the birth of your son. How did having children help your recovery?
KS: When I did the audio book I actually broke down in a couple of places. They kept telling me, “Read, read,” and I said I don’t want to be crying on the audio book. Having kids made me have a lot more patience and made me relax a lot more. It made me appreciate being alive and being able to have children, because I always wanted kids. I always wanted three kids, and I got it. I even got it in the order I wanted: boy-boy-girl.
ET: As parents we want to pass along the best of ourselves to our children and strive to avoid passing along the less desirable dynamics. What’s the best of yourself that you want to give your kids and what of the way you’ve lived don’t you want them to embrace?
KS: I want them to learn to not be afraid of anything in their lives. I want them to live their lives fearlessly and realize they can be anything they want to be. I’m very blessed to have very energetic, smart, compulsive kids. I want them to explore the world. After living in Europe for three and a half years, I tell everybody I meet to travel. Get out and see the world. Your twenties are the years to make a life for yourself and discover who you are. I think it’s unfair to expect 17- and 18-year-olds when they go to college or are still in high school to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives.
Although I did. Since I was 11 I knew I wanted to be an actor, but a lot of people still don’t know. Use this time. Work. Get a job. Don’t be lazy. We’re promoting this entitlement stuff in our world right now that drives me nuts. Like I said, I grew up with a father who taught us hard work. I’ve got a lot of friends who complain about their bosses, so I say, “Then quit. Start your own company.” But what holds people back is fear. They can moan all they want. I hate the finger-pointing that goes on right now, blaming others for their own shortcomings and failures. Look in the mirror. There’s where your problem is. If you want to change your life, then change it. You can follow your dreams. You can be anything you want to be. You just have to have the [guts] to do it.
ET: And what don’t you want your kids to inherit from you?
KS: Earlier in my life jealousy was a problem in my relationships. I used to really control my girlfriends when I was in college. It wasn’t until I was 22 or 23 that I looked around and realized this was a waste of energy. In any relationship, if you’re going to be that insecure, then you shouldn’t be in the relationship. If you’ve got a woman that guys are checking out, be proud of that. I used to get so jealous, but the reality is that if anybody wants to meet another guy or girl, they can do that.
Jealousy is a wasted emotion just like worry is. Most things we worry about in life don’t happen. Let life go the way it’s going to go. You could certainly manipulate some things in your life, but for the most part it really comes down to if the weather changes, the weather changes. We’re inherently good people. The evil is always there and there’s always temptation but we know the right thing to do.
ET: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from all this?
KS: I learned more than anything that you have to listen to that voice inside of you. A voice told me not to let the chiropractor crack my neck. You can call it a gut feeling. You can call it anything you want. We all have that voice. There’s a reason for it. I learned to listen to that voice.