ENCINITAS — Ron Stokes has had two passions in life, acting and fitness, and he’s excelled at both. Now 78, he credits his longevity to a healthy lifestyle and a purpose in life.“You have to love what you do, no matter what,” he said.Stokes has come a long way since picking apricots for 25 cents a bucket after arriving in California in 1954 from Omaha, Neb. He earned a degree in speech and drama from San Jose State, then was drafted into the U.S. Army and served as a public information officer.
He harbored dreams of acting since childhood, and embarked on a Hollywood career in 1963. Stokes’ first job was an industrial film for Ford Motor Company. Soon lucrative commercials began coming his way from Texaco, Chevrolet, Miller’s beer and Kool cigarettes.
His reputation got around Hollywood, and he became a sought-after character and supporting actor in some of the most popular shows in television history including “The Twilight Zone,” “Bonanza,” “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
He also appeared in scores of crime dramas such as “Perry Mason,” “Columbo,” “Mod Squad,” “The F.B.I.,” “The Rookies,” “Police Woman” and “Police Story.”
“My two brothers were cops in Omaha and I was probably in a uniform more than them,” he said, smiling.
Stokes tried his hand at movies, appearing in “Airport” with Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin. He also starred in lesser-known films such as “Mutiny in Outer Space” and “Women of the Prehistoric Planet.”
Among the legends he performed with, he said his favorites were Robert Young, Peter Falk and especially Rosalind Russell, who starred with him in the film “Rosie.”
His last film was a comedy titled “Touch and Go” with Michael Keaton in the mid-1980s.
Stokes was in good shape, maintaining his physique by working out in the gym regularly. One day he grabbed his gym bag, on his way out the door, when he collapsed. At 50, he had suffered an acute stroke.
“The doctors did an examination and couldn’t find any blockage in the artery,” he said. “The only thing they could do was to prescribe aspirin to keep my blood thin.
“I was unable to speak for almost eight weeks, and wasn’t sharp as I should have been. My speech came back slowly, but I didn’t have that extra something that you need to compete in Hollywood.”
Stokes and his wife, Dinah, a stage actress, often traveled south to San Diego County. They decided to leave the entertainment business and relocate to Encinitas. Stokes immediately joined the gym at the Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA and became a regular.
“In 2002 they suggested I take a course as a fitness trainer at the YMCA La Jolla, and they paid for it,” he said. “Afterward they hired me and I’ve been here now for 10 years.”
Shannon Hughes is strength and wellness program director.
“Ron has been an inspiration to many participants here at the Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA,” she said. “His positive spirit and genuine caring attitude is motivating to all who have the pleasure to work with him.”
Dale Gottdank credits Stokes with helping him get in shape last spring through the YMCA’s 12 Week Program.
“Ron’s amazing,” he said. “I started in April and lost 35 lbs. He inspires you to work hard and get into better shape. You get into the habit of working out, and thinking about your diet, and it all comes together.”
Stokes is reluctant to take the credit.
“People who are motivated are not working out for you or me,” he said. “They are doing it for the person who looks back at them in the mirror. The motivation is you.”
He offers his formula for longevity: “Feel good about yourself, about what you are doing and where you are going,” he said. “Have a positive and constructive attitude, no matter what you undertake.”
Stokes says there are several regulars over the age of 90 in the Personalized Fitness Center, and that he’s not about to stop either.
“I tell everybody that I’m going to be the healthiest person you’ll ever find in a coffin,” he said, smiling.