By David Rosenfeld
In the 1980s you couldn’t turn on a television set in America – or even the world – without seeing Jake Steinfeld. Chances are he was wearing a tight black t-shirt. His Body by Jake workout videos on Turner Broadcasting and ESPN aired so often most people can remember him even if they never exercised. It didn’t hurt that the hard-bodied, charismatic New Yorker was often flanked by swimsuit models in spectacular settings.
But that’s just one aspect of the long-time Pacific Palisades resident who many people might be surprised to know founded Major League Lacrosse and recently performed a one-man show in Las Vegas. This year Steinfeld, 56, also serves as the Palisades honorary mayor, a designation bestowed by the local Chamber of Commerce that has him appearing at functions around town such as a recent spelling bee where he gave a quick talk that was classic Jake.
“I was just blown away by the guts these kids had to get up on stage,” he told me later when we sat down for an interview in the backyard of his home. Two of his four kids have left for college and it was just him and his wife Tracey at home for the day. Steinfeld still speaks with a thick Long Island accent that sounds like he could play a character on The Sopranos.
“I told them, ‘You took a shot, whether you win or lose. In life you’re gonna lose a lot,” he said. “As any entrepreneur will tell you, in order to succeed you have to lose a lot.”
He said he talked a bit more and then closed with two lines of an anonymous poem that has stuck with him since the eighth grade. Stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit, it’s when things seem worst that you must not quit. “So remember kids, don’t quit,” he told them.
It’s those same two lines and the catch-phrase Don’t Quit, which Steinfeld actually trademarked, that he’s been using to close appearances since 1982 when Ted Turner first put him on his fledgling worldwide cable network at age 24. He filmed 200 one-minute exercise videos that first year that ran four times a day in the U.S. and four times an hour throughout the world. Like no other, he created the field of personal fitness and was among the first to make it an occupation.
Steinfeld had already earned a reputation around Hollywood as a personal trainer to the stars. It might sound cliché now, but in those days Steinfeld was the first, and he was quickly becoming the one to draw attention.
One of his earliest clients was Steven Spielberg who opened several doors including a job training Harrison Ford on the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. One day at an airport, fans from Australia approached who were more interested in meeting Steinfeld than the Hollywood A-listers who joined him.
Steinfeld tells the story and other episodes from his life in a one-man show he performed in Las Vegas last year. The act, called No Expectations, is available on Vimeo and iTunes. He had only performed the hour-long set one other time in Beverly Hills before he filled the 700-seat theater at the Mirage. He’s come a long way for a guy who grew up as an overweight kid with a stutter. For him it was just another challenge for a man who refuses to give up on just about anything he sets his mind to.
Beginning in 1990, Steinfeld created and starred in a sitcom called Big Brother Jake, which ran four seasons on the Family Channel. In 1993 he helped launch FitTV – the first 24-hour fitness channel – which sold to News Corp six years later, providing the fitness icon with the financial freedom to pursue new goals. It was on a plane ride from New York after a sales pitch with John F. Kennedy Jr. – Kennedy for his George magazine and Steinfeld for a new fitness publication – that he discovered what would become the next great chapter in his life.
Over the past 10 years, lacrosse has become one of the fastest growing sports in America. No longer delegated to the East Coast, the fast-paced hard-hitting sport has found its way into youth programs, high schools and colleges throughout the country in large part due to the success of Major League Lacrosse. And no one has done more to create the league and keep it going than Steinfeld.
“We’re still 5 to 10 years away from really hitting our stride,” he said. “Because of Major League Lacrosse and the deals I was able to make in television, having us on ESPN since 2000, really helped in a huge way to grow this sport. This year we made a new deal with CBS Network, which will air the majority of our games.”
Steinfeld had played lacrosse in high school and briefly in college, but hadn’t thought much about the sport or starting a professional league for that matter until reading an article on that plane ride with JFK Jr. The story was about Dave Morrow, who started a company in his dorm room called Warrior, which made the first titanium lacrosse shafts. When the plane landed, the entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and Steinfeld picked up the phone to call Morrow.
The story of how he teamed up with Morrow and Tim Robertson, the son of televangelist Pat Robertson, and founded a brand new professional sports league is documented in the bestselling book Take a Shot! written by Steinfeld and Morrow.
“I’ll never be as in-your-face and out there as Jake,” Morrow writes about his first weeks in California. “I’ll never be his equal when it comes to sheer chutzpah. But although I’d only been around him for a few weeks, he was already starting to change the way I saw the world. Jake was opening my eyes to a much bigger game.”
Now into its 14th season with 8 teams, Major League Lacrosse champions compete for the coveted Steinfeld Cup, and Morrow’s company is one of the largest equipment brands in the world.
Growing up in Brooklyn as an overweight kid with a stutter, Steinfeld said he learned to be resourceful. It wasn’t until his father brought home a set of dumbbells in the eighth grade that he turned to weight training. Young Jake took to it almost immediately.
“At the end of the day, bodybuilding not only built my body but it built my confidence and my self-esteem,” he said.
Steinfeld pioneered the field of personal training, which now accounts for one of the fastest growing professions in the country. When it came to televised workout videos few came before him other than the legendary Jack LaLanne. He credits his success to recognizing early on that exercising and personal training was more than about working out.
“What I am is a motivator,” Steinfeld said. “The thing most trainers forget about at the end of the day is personality. You are selling yourself. You are coming into someone’s home, or meeting them in a park or whatever. It’s a given you know about the body and you know how to train somebody. It’s about the personality, how you’re able to connect with that client and keep that person motivated on a daily basis because exercise at the end of the day is really boring, and you as the trainer need to make it engaging.”
By the time he graduated high school, Steinfeld was a giant who studied Muscle & Fitness magazine like it was the bible and Arnold Schwarzenegger its demigod. Later he would come to know Schwarzenegger. Their kids would attend the same school in Brentwood, and Steinfeld would serve as the chairman of the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sport.
Steinfeld came to California at age 19 with the intention of becoming Mr. America. It was the call home to explain to his parents that he describes now as one of those defining moments.
“All I knew was that I loved what working out did to me,” he said. “I felt great. I felt empowered. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just wanted to be Mr. America. So I said I’m going to California and I’m gonna do it.”
In less than a year he would be faced with the realities of a sport dominated by performance-enhancing drugs at the time. He decided early on that he wasn’t going to use steroids, more because he was afraid of needles than anything else. His highest rank was second in Mr. Southern California.
Rather than return to New York, he stuck it out in an apartment in Northridge, taking jobs as a bouncer. He had never thought about personal training when an attractive young actress asked him to help her get in shape for an upcoming role. Turned out she was very well connected in Hollywood. When Steinfeld arrived to meet her at a friend’s place, Francis Ford Coppola answered the door. Not realizing who he was, Steinfeld remembers thinking, “This guy could use a workout too.” Before long he became a trainer for the biggest names in show business.
“Here I was this kid from New York and now I’m on a G4 flying to Necker Island or going to Sri Lanka,” he said. “You learn an amazing lesson. Famous people are no different from you and me. The only difference is they had a dream, they had a goal, they had a passion and they never took no for an answer. It said to me very simply that I might not ever direct ET but I’m going to have my own success in life.”
In 2008, Steinfeld launched FitOrbit, a web-based personal training platform offering clients access to a real-life trainer 24 hours a day. More than 20,000 people who used FitOrbit for more than four years lost at least one pound per week, said CEO Nick Desai. Like most people who meet him, Desai said he gravitated toward Steinfeld’s infectious energy and good nature.
“Jake knows how to connect with people and make them feel warm and inspired,” Desai said. “I immediately got the sense that he is the kind of guy I want to be around because he knows how to make a successful business financially while also inspiring people in their lives. And both of those are admirable goals.”
Rich Cronin was the president of Fox Family Channel when Steinfeld had his sitcom, but it wasn’t until their kids played lacrosse together at Brentwood School that the pair became close. Cronin jokingly now serves as Steinfeld’s “minister of media” for his honorary mayor duties.
“Jake thought he’d really like to do whatever he could especially as the town is going through this transition of redeveloping Swarthmore district,” said Cronin, who began to sound like a real mayor’s office. “Jake is a really positive guy. He brings people together. In the Palisades you have a lot of different groups that may have different interests. We want to be sure that it continues to have the same small town family atmosphere that it’s always had.”
These days Steinfeld, who just celebrated a birthday, typically wakes up at 4 am and exercises six days per week. He does a 42 minute workout with 100 repetition sets in a small gym at his house. He’s not training to gain muscle or lose weight, just what he calls breaking even.
“It becomes a very psychological workout,” he said. “Every repetition and every set I accomplish I’m visualizing what I have to do for that day.”
He said he simply refuses to lose, no matter what. He also chairs the National Foundation for Governors Fitness Councils, which put fitness centers in elementary and middle school. Thanks to support from corporations, largely due to Steinfeld’s influence, the council will put fitness centers in 12 schools in four states worth $100,000 each.
“When we put a fitness center in a school we’re not just about building bodies we’re about building confidence and self-esteem,” Steinfeld said. “When kids have confidence and self-esteem, they will be able to accomplish anything they want in their lives.”