Though he did not possess a Herculean acting talent by any stretch, handsome bodybuilder Steve Reeves certainly had an enviable Herculean physique, and made plenty good use of it in Europe during the late 1950s and early 1960s portraying some of filmdom’s most famous bronzed gods. Reeves was originally a Montana boy born on a cattle ranch in 1926. His destiny was revealed early in the game when, at the age of six months, he won his first fitness title as “Healthiest Baby of Valley County.” His father Lester died in a farming accident when Steve was just a boy, and his family moved to Oakland (California). He first developed an interest in bodybuilding while in high school.
Steve joined the Army in his late teens where his job was loading boxcars and trucks. He also worked out loyally at the gym during his free time and the combination helped develop his body quite rapidly. Following Army service (he served for a time in the Pacific), he decided to pursue bodybuilding professionally. In 1946, at the age of 20, he won “Mr. Pacific Coast” in Oregon, which led to his titles of “Mr. Western America” (1947), Mr. America” (1947), “Mr. World” (1948) and, ultimately, “Mr. Universe” (1950).
With all the body-worshiping publicity he garnered, he decided to travel to New York to study and pursue acting. He subsequently returned to California…and Hollywood. There were not huge opportunities for a muscleman in Tinseltown other than providing pectoral background. Steve was, however, considered for the lead role in Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical costumer Samson and Delilah (1949), but refused when told by the legendary director he would have to lose some of his musculature (about 15 lbs.). The part instead went to Victor Mature. Steve did manage to snag the role of a detective in infamous director Edward D. Wood Jr.’s Jail Bait (1954). Small parts on TV also came his way, but they too were mostly posing bits or walk-ons. To the Hollywood power players, Steve was just a body. Whether he could act or not was not a concern or selling point. Fans just wanted to see him take his shirt off.
Down on his luck, Steve’s fortunes change when Italian film director Pietro Francisci saw him play Jane Powell’s boyfriend in the feature film Athena (1954) and persuaded him to go overseas to star in Le fatiche di Ercole (1958) (US title: “Hercules”). Though critics dismissed the film as “muddled mythology” while denigrating its cheapjack production values (including a poorly-dubbed sound track), the public went crazy over the sword-and-sandal epic and, in particular, Steve’s marvelous beefcake heroics. He became an “overnight” star. Sequels followed, none any better or worse, with him going through the paces as a number absurdly-muscled biblical and mythological figures. An able horseman, he also performed many of his own stunts. Moreover, he paved the way for other pumped-up acting hopefuls (Ed Fury, Mark Forest, Reg Park) to seek their fame and fortune in Italy as a feature-length Samson, Ursus or Colossus. Nobody, however, came close to topping Steve in popularity.
A shoulder injury forced Steve’s retirement, spending the remainder of his life promoting steroid-free bodybuilding while living on a ranch and breeding horses. The more recent bodybuilders of fame such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, both Hercules impersonators of yore, have given Steve significant credit for their respective acting successes. Married twice, Steve died in Southern California of lymphoma on May 1, 2000, at age 74.
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