Actor, producer, director, model, author – Kevin Sorbo has done it all and then some. Best known for his role as Hercules in the award-winning TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys – which rocketed him to international stardom – he has hundreds of other television and film credits on a list that continues to grow.
Even avid fans of Hercules may not be aware that Sorbo experienced a life-threatening health crisis at the height of the show’s popularity when he suffered a series of strokes at just 38 years of age. He candidly recounts that illness and the arduous road to recovery in his book, “True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal – and How Nearly Dying Saved My Life.” It’s a compelling read that points up the paradox of portraying a demigod on TV while struggling to perform basic activities of daily living in real life.
Since 1997, Kevin has served as the celebrity spokesperson for “A World Fit For Kids,” a nonprofit that encourages healthy behaviors in kids, leading to obesity reduction, increased high school graduation rates, and work readiness. And, in 2011, he won a Grace Award for “Most Inspiring Performance” for his role in the movie What If.
Q. When you were growing up, you were quite an athlete and competed in a lot of sports while also pursuing acting. Did you feel torn between being an athlete and an actor and what finally pulled you in the direction of show business?
A. I knew since I was 11 years old that I wanted to be an actor, so that was never an issue. The biggest issue I had throughout junior high and high school was being an athlete, being a jock, we kind of made fun of people in the drama department. I had to come out of the closet, so to speak [laughs]. It wasn’t until I got into college, where I majored in marketing and advertising.
I find college is an interesting place for people to move on to after they graduate from high school, because it enables people to enter a whole new environment with very few people that the know and they can start being themselves, really. [In high school] you get involved in all the cliques and they can be hard to break out of – you know, if you’re in the jock world dating cheerleaders and stuff like that. I’m still a sports fanatic nut, but I got the acting bug early and I made that promise to myself that when the time came, that was the career I was going to pursue, and that’s really how it happened. I just said, “This is it. I’m going after it.”
Q. You made that decision and moved to California, but you did some modeling and traveled abroad and auditioned for lots of roles. Tell me about auditioning for the role of Superman in Lois & Clark and especially how you dealt with the disappointment of not getting the role after coming so close.
A. Just to backtrack a little bit, that L.A. trip was kind of put on hold for a while, because I started dating this girl who’d been modeling for years and she’s the one who talked me into moving. We went down to Dallas, Texas together and from there we went to Europe for three and a half years. The modeling is something I would never, ever have thought of doing. I don’t think I have that look. I’m much taller and bigger than most of these guys. A lot of them are 5’10 to 6 feet and I’m over 6’3. I put my life on hold for about four years and then I said it’s time to move to L.A. When I got here, I actually booked the very first commercial audition I got and that brought me to spend another half a year in Australia – I just went down there and shot the commercial and I still had the travel bug, so I stayed.
I didn’t move to L.A. until I was 27 – five years after college. I just kept traveling the world. I honestly think that prepared me more for the lifestyle of L.A. – after living in Paris and Munich and Milan and Sydney – living in all these place on my own and making money when I could make it. It made me grow up a lot and it took the intimidation factor out of going someplace new and not knowing anybody when I moved to L.A. I always remembered a friend’s advice. He said, “Remember, it’s called show business, not show show.” I applied my marketing and advertising degree more as a business guy to market and advertise myself.
Fast forwarding six years of having doors slammed in my face, taking acting classes all that time, and I did a couple of pilots that didn’t get picked up, and then getting down to the last two people on Lois and Clark – the last audition I had was at the old Lorimar Studios – the people who started Friends also started Lois and Clark. At the final audition, I was in the room with Dean Cain, who’s become a friend ever since. I was driving home and I got a call from my manager, who said I got the part. I was over the moon! It was a big network show on ABC. Less than 12 hours later, they called and said, “No, we’re going to go with Dean Cain.” I went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in a 12-hour period.
It’s brutal. This business is all about rejection. At any given time, if you take every single person who’s got that Screen Actors Guild card, 97 percent of those people are not working; they’re unemployed. It’s a tough business to make a living in, to make a career in. But I was undeterred and I just said, “I’m not going to let this stop me.” I was obviously very upset and I probably went straight to Gold’s Gym and worked out and did a 20-mile bike ride afterwards. That was my way of dealing with a lot of stress in my life. Just three months later, the whole Hercules thing happened. As I always kid Dean, your show went three years and got canceled, mine went seven and was the most-watched TV show in the world [laughs]. It worked out all right.
Q. You’re best known for Hercules and I know from reading your book that you had some tremendous setbacks during the series. Can you talk about what you went through during that time and what you learned from it?
A. It sure wasn’t a fun period of my life. It was the last couple of years on the series, which was very frustrating, because I loved it. I worked long hours, anywhere from 14-16 hours a day door-to-door, working out heavy all the time. We laughed so much on that set and that became my family. I was there for almost seven years and the studio wanted to go three more years on it, but the physicality of the show – I was still having some balance issues – and the last two years were a grind for me. I still had fun on the set, but it wasn’t the same. That was frustrating for me. Then I got the offer for Andromeda, so that kind of made things easier for me to move on and try something new, because I didn’t want to be stuck in the [Hercules] role the rest of my life and known only for that.
My stroke certainly hurt my career. I had just shot Kull the Conqueror the year before and I was supposed to do another big picture for Universal that I had to drop out of. They were gearing me up basically to take over for Arnold [Schwarzenegger], to be the next action guy. Once I had the illness, that hurt me big time. Studios shut their doors on me. And, look, Hollywood does that. It’s hard to work your way back up to that again. The whole business is very strange. But, it is what it is.
Q. One thing that came through very strongly in the book was your frustration with the medical profession. It sounds like, especially early in your care, they really messed up your diagnosis.
A. They did save my life. There’s no question they saved my life. Without the things they did – without sealing off my aneurysm, without the blood thinners and all that stuff – I certainly would have died. I just think it was ridiculous to try to send me back to work as quickly as they did when I was having huge balance issues, dizziness, vertigo, buzzing in my ears and all these different things going on, and they’re like, “Oh, you’re fine. You’re Hercules.” Even they got caught up in the whole bullsh*t of Hollywood.
Q. I gather that writing the book was very therapeutic for you and that it was a way to let people know how you learned to cope with such a devastating illness.
A. My wife said, “Look, you’re known around the world. Write this book. It will save people’s lives. It will motivate people.” She bugged me for years to do it and I finally did it and she was very prophetic and right. The book has reached a lot of people. I do about five or six of these autograph shows a year and some of these people are crying – people out there are car crash survivors, heart attack survivors, cancer, whatever it may be – they don’t have to be stroke survivors like myself – it’s just that they’re saying, “You know what? I’m not going to let this hold me back.”
It’s so easy to get down and to let other people set limitations. I wasn’t about to sit there in my thirties and have this be the end of my life and my career. I just said, “I refuse to let this happen to me.” I know my age and my physicality at the time were very beneficial in helping my recovery.
Q. Since Andromeda wrapped in 2005, you’ve done a lot of movies and it seems like you really want to do family-friendly and faith-based programming. One of my favorite movies, which will be on TV again soon, is The Santa Suit.
A. Well, thank you. That movie was actually very tough to shoot. Normally, for Hallmark movies, they used to give you five weeks to shoot them. Now, they’ve cut it down to three or three and a half weeks, but that one, in particular, they made us shoot a 110-page script in 11 days. That’s insane. The director was great and we sat down every day and said, “Okay, what do we need to cut out of the script?” There was no way we could shoot everything. For an 11-day shoot, I think that they did a really good job on that movie. They’ll start airing it again this Christmas and people really seem to like that movie.
Q. You hear a lot about actors saying they have chemistry with other actors on screen, or critics saying that two actors lacked chemistry. Is ‘chemistry’ something tangible or is it something you learn to portray as you study the craft of acting?
A. I think it’s like in real life, when you see someone across a room and all of a sudden your heart starts fluttering and that person catches your eye and you meet. You have to have chemistry with actors, sort of in that way, where you get along. I’ve been very fortunate, in all the things I’ve done, there were only two actors – I’m not going to name names – that were complete jerks to work with. I’ve been very fortunate that there were only two out of all of the hundreds of hours that I’ve worked on.
I like having a loose set, a fun set, if you’re going to work long hours and long days. We’re lucky to be working. I keep reminding people of that. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve never had to work another job other than being an actor for over 30 years. I’ve been very fortunate and I understand that. Granted, I wish I had a bigger movie career. I’m shooting a lot of movies – I’ve shot five already this year and I’ve got a few more lined up – but they’re small, they’re low budget, and unless people are fans of Hallmark or Lifetime or straight-to-DVD movies so they can find me, these movies don’t get a lot of promotion.
Q. What projects are you working on right now?
A. Storm Rider just came out on DVD and I’ve been doing press on it. It’s a very nice family movie. I play a veterinarian, a horse doctor in the mountains. I would put it in the comedy-drama category. I’ve got a book out now that I co-authored for Chicken Soup for the Soul, and I just finished a movie called Survivor – it’s a sci-fi movie – but that won’t be out for another year or so. I’ve got another movie called God’s Not Dead, which will be in theaters March 7. It is a low-budget movie, less than a million dollars, but it’s such a great story that a studio picked it up and we’re going to get 1100 screens, so it’s a theatrical release – that’s very rare in today’s world. We’ll be doing a lot of PR on that. The trailer is already out and I’ve had a lot of people comment on it. I’m staying busy. I have two more movies lined up this year and I’m just plugging along.
Q. You’ve set an example as someone who came from a small town in Minnesota and ended up being a world-famous celebrity, and that happened mainly through your own hard work and perseverance. If you were talking to young people today, whether they’re going into show business or another field, what would your best career advice be for them?
A. Don’t set your limitations. And, as corny as it sounds, follow your dreams. Go after your dreams. There’s nothing wrong with that. FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and that’s what most people do. They fear. Look at all the things we worry about in our lives and most of it never happens.
I think people need to get out there and work harder. We praise kids for doing ‘okay’ work. There’s no pushing them. Competition is a good thing. I like to talk about Tiger Woods coming into the PGA. The first thing Phil Mickelson said was that this young 22-year-old kid is going to make all of them better, and he did. They all worked harder. Michael Jordan did it in basketball. Competition is a good thing. Sometimes you’re going to win and sometimes you’re going to lose, but that’s life. Get over it. I had many years of doors being shut in my face in Hollywood. I was too young, too old, too tall, too short – there was always something. Everything was negative. And all I had to do was say I voted for Reagan and they hated me. Hollywood is weird.
Q. Hollywood is also very youth oriented. Do you find yourself having to make a transition these days from being a young actor and a leading man to maybe doing more mature roles?
A. It sucks to get older [laughs]. I’m like the oldest guy on most of these sets now with all the 20-somethings and 30-somethings. It’s part of life I guess. The alternative is not a good choice. But that hasn’t been the easiest thing, I have to say.
I did a pilot for ABC back in 2005 when Andromeda finished. To me, that was going to be my last really big hit TV show, and the ABC studio president at the time didn’t pick it up, even though it tested number one of all the new pilots that year – 28 new pilots – and it tested number one. This guy was fired years ago by ABC because he was the same guy who said no to CSI and called American Idol a stupid idea. This happens all the time with these studio guys. People have no idea it comes down to one guy at each one of these networks that decides what the rest of the world gets to look at. And they’re wrong 80 percent of the time. My show tested number one and they didn’t pick it up. They bought it from me for five years so they could put it on a shelf and let it die, because they didn’t want me to take it somewhere else. And his last three years at ABC, he banned me from ever getting an ABC show! That’s how petty and insecure [he was]. Hollywood operates on insecurity, anger, hatred, jealousy, envy – everything that’s bad for people? – that’s what Hollywood operates on.
Q. It doesn’t sound like a great business to get into.
A. I wouldn’t recommend it to people. It’s a drug for me, unfortunately. I love getting on a set, I love the creativeness of it. I love meeting with creative people. But when you get to the studios and the networks? It’s an interesting place. You get a lot of these guys that were actors, that didn’t have a career as actors, but they were smart enough and savvy enough to get into the business part of it and they hate actors that work. Yet, they need them. It’s a strange dichotomy.
Q. Despite all the struggles and the frustrations, you’ve had a great career and I am sure you will continue to succeed at whatever you set your mind to do.
A. Perseverance is what it is. It’s only going to get tougher out there for everybody, no matter what career they want to go after. The world is so much smaller now with all the communications we have. It’s tough, but people have to get tougher themselves instead of giving up so easily.