In the summer of 1997, life was nearly perfect for Kevin Sorbo. His acting career, finely tuned physique and personal life were at all-time highs. He was starring in the hit TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and the movie Kull the Conquerer. He was engaged to his gorgeous Hercules guest-star, Sam (Sandra) Jenkins.
Then everything slammed to a halt.
“I was in the gym doing a bicep curl and I got this sharp pain in my arm,” he says. “My fingers were cold. I knew it was something bad, but my ego wouldn’t listen. I blew it off as another injury.”
While driving home following a session with his chiropractor, Sorbo was hit with blurred vision, dizziness and intense buzzing in his head. The next morning, his speech was slurred and he could barely walk. Sam rushed him to the hospital, where tests revealed that Sorbo, then 38, had suffered an aneurism, an abnormal ballooning of an artery, near his shoulder.
To save his arm, doctors used drugs to thin his blood. At risk of bleeding to death, Sorbo was forced to lay motionless in the intensive care unit for nearly a week.
“That was the hardest thing,” says Sorbo, now 53, who’d built his Hollywood career on being an action star and extremely fit and active athlete. “I got sores on my back from lying there.”
Beating the odds
Sorbo, who underwent surgery to repair the aneurism, later learned that he had suffered three separate strokes the day he was admitted to the hospital. Doctors said the likelihood of that happening to someone his age and in his excellent shape was one in 75 million.
“I should have bought a lottery ticket,” Sorbo says with a laugh.
He’d have to slow down and take it easy for a while, his doctors warned.
Sorbo kept this potentially explosive news under wraps, only recently disclosing the full story in his book, True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal and How Nearly Dying Saved My Life.
“In everybody’s mind, he was Hercules, so it was very difficult for him to come clean,” says Sam Sorbo, 45, who married Kevin in 1998. “But it’s been cathartic for him to talk about it.”
During his nearly three-year recovery, Sorbo returned to the Hercules set, struggling to play the world’s strongest man while in reality, he was sometimes so frail he feared he might fall down.
“At first, it was enough just to try to walk,” Sorbo says. “I figured my career was over.”
As he slowly healed, Hercules producers re-wrote scripts, limited his screen time and hired stunt doubles to help him cover his weakness.
“Before the strokes, I always did my own stunts,” he says. “And I was used to working 14-hour days, seven days a week.”
Sorbo has never been one to avoid hard work. As a pre-teen, he started a newspaper route in his hometown of Mound, Minn., and for seven years rose at 4:30 a.m., six days a week, even when the thermometer dipped to 20 degrees below zero.
He and his two older brothers played golf at a course overlooking Lake Minnetonka.
“We had five kids and my dad couldn’t afford a membership on a teacher’s salary,” he says. “But we golfed for free, because he worked there in the summers.”
Let’s get physical
Today, Sorbo is also a teacher of sorts. He and Sam home-school their three children—Braedon (nicknamed “Biwa”), 10; Shane, 8; and Octavia, 6—in Westlake Village, Calif.
“Sam does most of the work,” says Sorbo, who often makes breakfast for the family before “school” starts. “But I’m the one who makes sure they get their physical activities. They’re very active with other kids playing football, basketball and taking karate four times a week.”
Inspiring kids to be physically and mentally fit is an issue close to the actor’s heart. Since 1997, he has been a spokesman for A World Fit for Kids, a Los Angeles-based after-school teen mentoring program that boasts a 94 percent graduation rate.
“He’s been so supportive,” says Normandie Nigh, the program’s executive director. “He is very involved, always sharing messages with the kids.”
[MORE: Who else played Hercules?]
Sorbo’s directives to the teens, such as “Be strong in a world that’s weak,” often sprang directly from Hercules scripts. The kids ate it up. But during his ordeal, Sorbo struggled to apply this wisdom to his own life, especially when he was forced to rely on others—particularly Sam—during what seemed like an agonizingly slow recovery.
“I’d remind him of how he was improving, even if it was in a small way,” she says. “I always had that optimism, which drove him a little crazy.”
Movies and more
After the Hercules finale in 1999, Sorbo went on to star as Capt. Dylan Hunt in the TV series Andromeda from 2000 to 2005. He has made dozens of other TV appearances over the years in shows including Two and a Half Men, Dharma and Greg and The O.C., and he returned to the big screen with movie roles in Soul Surfer, Meet The Spartans and What If, with several other films in the production pipeline.
“What happened to me was a gift,” Sorbo says. “God was trying to warn me. I didn’t listen, so he gave me a tap on the shoulder to slow down.”
He slowed down, but he never gave up. His path of determination was set when he refused to accept his doctors’ initial diagnosis that he might never recover fully.
“Doctors saved my life and saved my arm, but I wasn’t going to let others set my limitations,” he says. “People can find miracles within themselves—find their own true strength.”