St. George resident, former Mr. Universe has spent his life building bodies and chasing dreams

St. George resident and Former Mr. Universe Bill Cunningham at his home, Jan. 30, 2019. Inset photos of Cunningham with Ken Norton (top) and Regis Philbin, (bottom) | Photo by Andrew Pinckney, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — He has been crowned Mr. Universe three times since turning 50, inducted into the Bodybuilding Hall of Fame in 2013 and had his name permanently etched in history in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Just a few of the hundreds of awards famed bodybuilder Bill Cunningham earned during his six decades in the sport, St. George, Utah, Jan. 30, 2019 | Photo by Andrew Pinckney, St. George News

Still not enough? Maybe for some, but not for 83-year-old fitness guru Bill Cunningham.

As a husband, grandfather, stuntman, actor, fitness trainer to Hollywood movie stars like Steve McQueen, Kurt Russell and Roger Moore and once known for being the muscles at Annette Funicello’s famous “Muscle Beach Party,” some people might assume Cunningham would be thinking about slowing things down, but as he recently told St. George News, he’s not quite ready yet.

Being 83 years old does have its limitations, and a few shoulder injuries have put the pause button on some things in the fitness side of Cunningham’s life, but as a recording artist, his dreams are just getting started.

“I always wanted to be singer,” he said with an ever slight Irish brogue. He spoke of his father, a vaudevillian in Northern Ireland whom he idolized as a child. From the age of 6, the younger Cunningham carried his father’s top hat and shoes to all his shows as a stand-up comic, singer and dancer, until one day, it was time to take the stage on his own.

“I started singing as a teenager. My family didn’t know about it, but I knew about it,” he said, adding it has been a consuming passion ever since. With the help of his family, he recently published a website and wants to share his deep brewing love with the world as much as possible.

“I think the old guy here must have some warble in his voice still, I don’t know.”

A new world

Although being an internationally known fitness trainer and bodybuilder brought him success professionally, his early days as an immigrant to Canada from Belfast in 1956 were not so easy.

“You name it, I’ve done it,” he said. “It was a rough, rough time trying to get work.”

He did everything to keep going, from selling encyclopedias to washing pots and pans to plumbing and being a carpenter’s helper. From the time he finally reached Los Angeles until 1962, he had worked 48 different occupations, with none bringing much success. Then one day, the lights of Hollywood came calling.

Trophies from Hollywood trainer Bill Cunningham’s career that included over 200 wins including Mr. Universe, Jan. 30, 2019 | Photo by Andrew Pinckney, St. George News

MGM, Paramount, Columbia, all the major movie studios were calling on Cunningham to be a stuntman and personal trainer to the stars, and before he knew it, he was gaining a reputation as one of the best body sculptors in town.

“Before they would venture into a movie, they (movie stars) wanted to be in shape.”

Well, actually the agents handling them wanted them to be their best, he said, and that’s where he really got to know the ins and outs of the Hollywood game. 

“I had a relationship with directors and actors and it built in to the point where when they were working, they were happy campers – but it’s a tough business.”

He got to know many stars over the years, including Rock Hudson, Anthony Francioso, Paul Lynde, comedian Don Rickles – a “nutcase” who once told him “the only thing the Irish are good for are parades” – and Steve McQueen, the actor he doubled for in the classic action movie “Bullitt,” where Cunningham said the pair became good friends.

“I remember the car. They had to take the wheels off the car, and they placed on smaller wheels to make it look faster,” he said. 

But friendships aside, Cunningham said the Hollywood life is unpredictable.

It’s a crazy, crazy world because you’re working one month, make a lot of money and you may not work for another year.”

One thing that remained constant, however, was his passion for staying in top physical condition. An all-natural bodybuilder, he said he’s never been about the meathead look and has no time for steroids. For him, it is all about being healthy and having a good attitude toward life.

“It’s been more than just lifting weights, more than just showing a body,” he said. “The first and best thing to give yourself is good health. To me, I would put it as number one.”

Cunningham competed in nearly 200 bodybuilding shows, made the U.S. Olympic team eight times and developed into one of the best body posers in the world.

A new adventure

Besides body building, Cunningham said another constant has been singing and its influence on his stage presence, and it is now one of his greatest hobbies and outlets in retirement.

It had been over 60 years since Cunningham first realized he must be a pretty good singer after being booked with a good friend in gigs all over Toronto, a man he just reconnected with last year.

“Here I’m looking at a man – opening the door to me at 82 years of age and I left him 60 years before. All I can say it was probably one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” he said, adding that it was made even more special now that he has returned to singing.

Just three months ago, he finished recording his second music video with his wife, daughter Lorraine and two granddaughters for his remake of “I’ve Got the World on a String.

It was a true family affair, directed by his son Colin Cunningham, also a producer and actor known for dozens of roles, including “Stargate SG-1,” Steven Speilberg’s “Falling Skies,” “Preacher” and “Blood Drive.”

Working with his family has been one of the greatest blessings of this new direction and return to the stage, Bill Cunningham said.

They’re talented kids, I love them dearly. They’re like my life you know.”

Cunningham had previously collaborated with his son on the 1998 movie “Zacharia,” which Colin wrote, as well as the pair’s debut music video shot three years ago on the red rocks of St. George for the Tony Bennett song “This Is All I Ask.”

For their new video, Cunningham said they were able to include some nice shots of St. George and spend two fun days taping in Las Vegas and recording the soundtrack at a beautiful recording studio once used by Beyonce and Jay-Z.

“That was very enjoyable,” he said. “I had fun with that. We’re now thinking if this one goes down then we’ll probably do a third one.”

Cunningham said it’s “extremely difficult” to break into the music business in a small town. For now, he’s content with booking as many new singing opportunities as possible, spending time with his grandchildren, training when he can and doing as much charity work as possible to help others reach their dreams.

“It gives me that understanding of ‘Hey, that’s where I was at one time.’ I like to be able to give a helping hand wherever I can in all matters,” he said. “It all comes down to not being selfish but adding something to somebody else’s life. It’s not all about you and me.”

Cunningham said if he’s at the gym and helping someone, he’s only thinking of what he can do for them. He knows that if he can give good advice, people will find a way to help themselves.

“A handout is different than a hand up. I will give you a hand up not a handout. I do it because of that first time that I was shown a weight 60 years ago, from someone that may be dead and gone,” he said, adding that the man probably never found out what a success in bodybuilding he became.

“We’re all different, but it all comes down to the one thing: How can I help you? How can I make you a better person?”

Email: apinckney@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews | @andrewjpinckney

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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