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The Strongman: Steel Arms, Warm Heart : Performance: Action-film actor Rick Zumwalt brings his feats of strength to Cirque du Soleil at the Santa Monica Pier.

November 05, 1994|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rick Zumwalt, Cirque du Soleil's first strongman, is what you might call a minimalist. His professional photo lists, "Height: tall, weight: heavy."

If you insist on numbers, how about these?: He's 6 foot 4 inches tall, down to a "slim-trim" 310 pounds, and his chest is 5 feet around, his biceps, 2 feet.

"I used to tease the little guys at the gym who were trying to get to 19, 20 and 21 (inches)," says Zumwalt, the muscleman of "Alegria," Cirque du Soleil's eighth production, which is running at the Santa Monica Pier until Dec. 18.

"I said, 'You boys measure in inches. You gotta do it in feet if you're a real man.' "

A little gym humor there. His secret?

"I'm into the mega-eating program," confides Zumwalt, who began his young athletic life with the shotput when asthma ruled out more mobile sports.

Take all that muscular muchness and process it through the Cirque-ulator and you come out with this amazing feat of pure unadulterated manpower: Zumwalt plucks a woman out of the audience for a tug-of-war--and loses.

Come again?

"It's part of the changing world and changing values as well," says Cirque du Soleil artistic director Gilles Ste-Croix, whose latest show celebrates the recent changes in world power. "A big macho guy has to learn there is other stuff than being macho. He's so huge, he's a mountain. But he has a heart of faience, of very delicate porcelain. He's a very sensitive man."

OK, so Zumwalt bends steel too. And he's working on potentially new derring-do in which he would pick up the entire troupe--6,800 pounds of acrobats, clowns and contortionists--and carry the world on his shoulders.

That would be child's play for the Hisperia resident and former world arm-wrestling champion. A dragon tattoo crawls down his mighty left breast. A long-ish braid snakes out the back of his otherwise bald head. And of course, there is the porcelain heart.

"I was arm-wrestling a guy one time," says Zumwalt, 42. "I looked at him, and said, 'This guy's a joke,' very slender and very animated. So I just decided to give him a hard time. I locked up and held him there, and he's trying all these different angles. This was in the middle of a mall where they had a state championship going on.

"He was standing up and his belt broke, and his pants fell off and he didn't know it. I stopped in the middle of the match, walked behind him and pulled his pants up and walked back. He was blood red. We started again and I went through him real quick. Mercy killing."

Of course, put the pants on a movie star and it's a different story. The star in question was Sylvester Stallone, who helped launch Zumwalt's brawny film career when they arm wrestled for 1985's "Over the Top." The scene was shot before a crowd at the Las Vegas Hilton.

"Actually, Sly wanted to lose, but (director Menahem Golan) put it up to the audience. 'Who do you want to win? Do you want Rick to win?' And I got a very nice amount of applause.

" 'Do you want Sly to win?' And it was overpowering. 'OK, Sly, you win by popular demand."'

But Zumwalt won parts in 15 more (mostly action) movies. In fact, Zumwalt was a faux strongman in films before becoming a real one for Cirque. For "Batman Returns," he played a tattooed strongman.

So when a show business friend of Zumwalt heard of Cirque du Soleil's plan to harken back to the company's street-performing roots by casting a strongman, he suggested Zumwalt for the job.

"I said, 'You're out of your mind.' I said, 'I'm 42 years old.' I said, 'No way. I think the stage scares me.' "

Ste-Croix says the transition to the stage from film, which offers the safety net of multiple takes, wasn't easy for Zumwalt.

"At the beginning, we say, 'Oh, we made a mistake,' " he says. "But a performer onstage has to have show-biz reflexes and that is growing on him slowly."

Travel with Cirque has also given Zumwalt, a recovering alcoholic for 10 years, fresh venues for his talks to teens about the perils of drugs and alcohol.

"I say, 'Pal, I've been there. Put down the bottle. Put down the pipe and come with me.' "

In the end, Zumwalt's experience muscling his way around Cirque's big top has given new meaning to the words stage fright .

"I scare me in a dark alley."

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