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Steve Reeves, Cinema's Favourite Hercules - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

May 2009

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One thing up front: Steve Reeves, who was a bodybuilder prior to his film career, did not bring the muscleman to the movies (neither to Italian nor to international movies that is). Italian muscleman cinema existed at least since the epic Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone) from 1914, starring Bartolomeo Pagano as Maciste, a character he would reprise about two dozen times until the late 1920's. In the USA, the first popular muscleman actor was Johnny Weissmuller [Johnny Weissmuller bio - click here], playing Tarzan from the early 1930's to the late 1940's. Weissmuller might not have been a bidybuilder like Reeves, but the emphasis of his character was his muscular built rather than his acting abilities, and Reeves would later frequently cite Weissmuller as one of his inspirations.

(Interestingly, the role of Tarzan was played by Gordon Scott [Gordon Scott bio - click here], a regular bodybuilder, from 1955 onwards, a time when Steve Reeves himself had nothing more than a few walk-on appearances and an Ed Wood-film to his credit [Ed Wood bio - click here].)

All that said though, Steve Reeves was still some sort of pioneer, having had a big hand in reviving the Italian muscleman-cinema, giving the peplum (= Italian variety of the sword and sandal-film) a massive shot in the arm, and - thanks to his reputation as Mister Universe - giving his films worldwide appeal unheard of for Italian movies prior to his breakthrough-movie Le Fatiche di Ercole/Hercules (1958, Pietro Francisci). And just maybe, without Steve Reeves it would not have been possible for bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Lou Ferrigno [Lou Ferrigno bio - click here] to have big-screen careers based on their body rather than their acting abilities ...

 


 

Becoming Mister Universe

 

Born 1926 in Glasgow, Montana, USA, Steve Reeves reportedly won his first trophy - a precursor for many to come - being no more than 6 months old, the Healthiest Baby of Valley County-award. Reeves was born on a cattle ranch, and farming was a passion that remained with him for the rest of his life, even though his father died in a farming accident when Reeves was not yet in his teens and his family subsequently moved to Oakland, California.

 

His interest in bodybuilding developed while he was in high school, and later, when he was drafted serve in World War II, he tried to squeeze in some workout at the gym no matter what, not only at the homefront but even when he was sent to the frontlines in the Philippines and later when he was stationed in Japan with the occupying forces.

After returning from the war, the tough regime he had put himself through would pay dividend - resulting in his first bodybuilding title, Mr. Pacific Coast, in 1946, when he was just 20 years of age.

In the following years, Reeves made his hobby into a career and worked hard on his body - and over the years, the titles improved, he won Mr. Western America and Mr. America in 1947, Mr. World in 1948, and finally, Mr. Universe in 1950. With nothing else left to achieve (after all, what's there above Mr. Universe?), Steve Reeves retired from actively participating in bodybuilding contests and intended pursue an acting career instead, something he had given a try even before his Mr. Universe-title. Of course, all the publicity about his many titles and his perfect body had already made him a household name - but that did not immediately translate into big screen success ...

 


 

Becoming Hercules

 


Steve Reeves got into acting even before he won his Mister Universe-title, took several acting classes in the 1940's, and he actually almost made his big screen debut - and in a lead role, too - in 1949. No other than legendary director Cecil B.DeMille wanted Reeves to star in his bible drama Samson and Delilah, and initial screen tests even proved satisfying - but even though Reeves was initially chosen for the part due to his perfect built, his body ultimately got in his way: DeMille wanted Reeves to lose about 15 pounds in weight, which Reeves, at the time still a bodybuilder first, an actor only second, just couldn't achieve. Plus, as an actor DeMille ultimately felt Reeves wasn't yet up to the task.

Ultimately, the role of Samson went to Victor Mature ...

 

Not winning the role in Samson and Delilah was a bit of a setback, but it did not really hurt the career of Steve Reeves. As mentioned above, he became Mr. Universe in 1950, and the title gave his popularity an instant boost - actually so much so that he helped to popularize bodybuilding in the early 1950's. Appearances on television followed, both as himself and in acting roles.

 


Finally in 1954, Steve Reeves got another chance to star in a movie, and he grabbed it - the film in question being Jail Bait by the legendary Ed Wood [Ed Wood bio - click here].

Now of course Ed Wood was no DeMille and the cheapie Jail Bait no Samson and Delilah (in fact, it wasn't even one of Wood's better or more entertaining films), but all that said, it was probably as good an introduction into feature filmmaking as any, and Reeves' role - that of a young cop trailing a gangster and his sort-of-innocent partner - is for once not relying primarily on his body ... as a matter of fact, Reeves can only be seen topless in one brief scene during the entire movie, which makes Jail Bait rather the exception in Reeves' career.

 


Reeves' role in Athena (Richard Thorpe), a musical comedy starring Debbie Reynolds and Jane Powell from the same year (1954 that is), was in stark contrast to the one in Jail Bait, as his cameo has little more than decorative function, his main raison d'être in the film being his perfect built - and as if to emphasize on that, he was billed Steve Reeves 'Mr. Universe of 1950' in the movie's credits.

 

Yet, as insignificant as Reeves' role might have been in Athena, and as little it challenged him as an actor, ultimately it proved to have a much greater impact on his future career than his stint with cult director Ed Wood - at least if you believe legend that is. Legend has it that in the latter part of the 1950's, Italian director Pietro Francisci was planning to make a film on legendary Greek hero Hercules, but in all of Italy, it seems, he couldn't find an actor to fill the part (first and foremost physically, that is) ... until Francisci's daughter saw a screening of Athena, and upon spotting Steve Reeves, she knew that he and only he was supposed to be in her father's film ... daddy, as you might know, quickly agreed. Not necessarily a true story, but a nice one indeed ...

 


 

Coming to Italy

 


Upon Reeves' arrival in Italy, there was no indication that the film he was hired to play in, Le Fatiche di Ercole/Hercules (1958, Pietro Francisci), would become anything extraordinary - after all the Italian film industry had put out sword and sandal films all through the 1950's, the most popular of them probably being Ulisse/Ulysses (1954, Mario Camerini) starring Kirk Douglas. Also, while Steve Reeves might have been fairly well-known for his bodybuilding, he was by no means a big star (let alone a renowned actor). Thus he worked on the film for a meagre $ 10,000 in salary.

That said however, Le Fatiche di Ercole is by no means a bad movie, it's a light-footed retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts-legend - which the character Hercules was actually a part of even if his role was somewhat augmented in the film - that takes its literary sources rather seriously (something that can not be said about most later Hercules-movies), yet it lacks the dead-seriousness of your typical Hollywood sword-and-sandal film - a genre that came back into style in the American movie-capital in the late 1950's as well. And while it's true that Steve Reeves never was much of an actor, the role of a perennial good guy like Hercules was straightforward enough to take full advantage of his physical appearance while it didn't challenge him too much as an actor - and truth to be told, Reeves' performance in Le Fatiche di Ercole is decent enough ...

 


Le Fatiche di Ercole became a runaway hit in Europe, so a second film was rushed into production, Ercole e la Regina di Lidia/Hercules Unchained (1959), again directed by Pietro Francisci, with Reeves again getting no more than $ 10,000 for his performance. Compared to the first film, Hercules Unchained took considerable liberties to the legend, but just like Le Fatiche di Ercole, it was a relatively carefully made sword and sandal flick (especially when compared to later peplums), and it boasts a certain enthusiasm to tell its simplistic tale that is somehow infectuous.

 

Hercules Unchained was already in Italian cinemas when US-American film distributor Joseph E.Levine got his hands on Le Fatiche di Ercole, had it dubbed and released nationwide in the USA accompanied by a massive advertising campaign - and while it might have been a bit of a gamble to give a foreign film a big release in the USA (almost as much of a gamble as it is now), it certainly paid off for Levine, as the movie was becoming one of the biggest hits of 1959, making Levine 40 million Dollars (allegedly) - which is in stark contrast to the meagre $ 10,000 that Reeves got for the film (though to be fair, Levine had nothing whatsoever to do with Reeves' fee and nobody could have predict edthe film would become such a runaway success).

 

After Hercules Unchained, both Pietro Francisci and Steve Reeves left the Hercules-series - which went on strong without them for 5 more years before coming to a grinding halt - but the influence of Reeves' two Hercules-films is undeniable: Thanks to these two films, Italy has become a literal breeding ground for muscleman-epics, and soon, Hercules the series character got company from resurrected Maciste, biblical Samson and newly invented Ursus. Just like Hercules, these characters were played by quite a number of different bodybuilding actors over the next few years until the muscleman-genre had pretty much outstayed its welcome with the audiences by 1964. 

Reeves however stayed away from any of these series-heroes to concentrate on more original characters.

 

Why Reeves refused to do a third Hercules-film which was actually offered to him is somewhat shrouded in mystery, but it might have been a money issue: As mentioned, Reeves first stint as Hercules has become a smash hit both sides of the Atlantic, and yet he earned nothing more than a pittance ...

 




But even if Reeves' roles immediately after Hercules Unchained were out of the established muscleman-series, he didn't stray too far from the Hercules-formula, playing the superstrong and righteous muscleman in films set in Pompeii - Gli Ultimo Giorni di Pompei/The Last Days of Pompeii (1959, Mario Bonnard) -, during the huns' raid of Italy - Il Terrore dei Barbari/Goliath and the Barbarians (1959, Carlo Campogalliani) -, in ancient Greece - La Battaglia di Maratona/Giant of Marathon (1959, Jacques Tourneur) -, or 19th century Chechnia - Agi Murad il Diavolo Bianco/The White Warrior (1959, Riccardo Freda).

Two things might have to be noted here: a) Steve Reeve's salary raised from film to film (and rightly so, after all, he was the raison d'être of many of these films), and b) none of these films was strong on historical accuracy - which was the rule for Italian period pictures from the late 1950's/early 60's rather than the exception though.

 


Steve Reeves' finest hour probably came in 1961, when he took the lead in Romolo e Remo/Duel of the Titans (Sergio Corbucci), a comparatively faithful and carefully crafted adaptation of Rome's founding myth. In all, it's one of the least cheesy, least silly films of the peplum-genre (though silliness and cheesiness are quite endearing aspects of the genre), features unusually well-staged action and moves along as quite a steady pace.

As good as Duel of the Titans might be as a film though, it has also to be noted that Stevve Reeves gets upstaged in this one by fellow bodybuilder-turned-actor Gordon Scott [Gordon Scott bio - click here]. Scott wasn't necessarily a much better actor than Reeves, but the evil twin Remus to Reeves' too-good-to-be-true Romolus just was the much better role.

(By the way, Duel of the Titans was Scott's first peplum, and he would play in many of them after this one, eventually winding up to play Hercules as late as 1965 in the proposed TV-pilot Hercules and the Prisoner of Troy/Hercules vs the Sea Monster [1965, Albert Band].)

 


Duel of the Titans was followed by two attempts to break away (though not to far away) from the peplum-formula, the pirate-movie Morgan il Pirata/Morgan the Pirate (1961, Andre de Toth, Primo Zeglio) and the Arabian nights-fantasy Il Ladro di Bagdad/The Thief of Bagdad (1961, Arthur Lubin, Bruno Vailati), but while these films were no better or worse than most of Reeves' previous efforts, they just didn't hit it off with the audience quite as well as his sword-and-sandal-epics, and thus it was only a matter of time before Reeves would return to ancient history with La Guerra di Troia/The Trojan War (1961, Giorgio Ferroni), a film about the fall of Troy that is interesting inasmuch as it tells the story not from the Greek but the Trojan point of view, making Ulysses a villain for a change. Needless to say though, Steve Reeves did not play Ulysses but Trojan hero Aeneas, the man who according to legend would later in life become the founding father of Rome.

 


The Trojan War did in fact prove successful enough that a sequel, La Leggenda di Enea/The Last Glory of Troy (1962, Giorgio Venturini) was actually made in 1962, with Steve Reeves (of course) reprising his role as Aeneas - and this time, the film did deal with Rome's founding myth ... the other founding myth, not Romolo e Remo of course.

 

After a cameo role in Sergio Corbucci's star-studded Ciccio Ingrassia-Franco Franchi army-comedy Il Giorno più Corto/The Shortest Day (1963) - which also saw Reeves' partner from Corbucci's Duel of the Titans Gordon Scott in a small role by the way -, Steve Reeves returned to ancient Rome for Il Figlio di Spartacus/The Son of Spartacus (1963, Sergio Corbucci), which would ultimately turn out to be his last peplum, pretty much because the genre was going out of steam the more it processed towards the mid-1960's, and it was a wise decision for any actor to turn his back on the genre before he outstayed his welcome.

 


By 1963 though, Steve Reeves still was a big enough name in Italy and all over Europe that he was able to draw a crowd and command top salaries, so it was not long before producers found another vehicle for the popular muscleman, one just far enough removed from the peplum formula as such to not take the plunge the genre was about to take - Sandokan, the popular freedom fighter turned pirate of the Malaysian sea penned by Emilio Salgari, a famous Italian writer of adventure literature from the 19th century whose popularity was still going strong in the 1960's (and the ensuing decades by the way).

Reeves played Sandokan in two films, Sandokan, la Tigre di Mompracem/Sandokan the Great (1963) and I Pirati della Malesia/Sandokan - Pirate of Malaysia (1964), both directed by Umberto Lenzi [Umberto Lenzi bio - click here]. Both films were competently enough made, but somehow they failed to catch on with audiences, probably due to a handful of reasons: On one hand, the films' budgets were not necesarily up to the movies' demands - which is why excuse after excuse is made to move the action from sea, as one would expect from a pirate movie, to land -, on the other, Sandokan was a character Steve Reeves wasn't actually cut out to play (very much unlike Hercules for example) ... and then in 1964 Ray Danton was launched as a rival Sandokan in the films Sandokan alla Riscossa/Sandokan Fights Back and Sandokan contro il Leopardo di Sarawak/Sandokan against the Leopard of Sarawak (both 1964, Luigi Capuano) - which didn't help Reeves' Sandokan-films too much, either.

 


 

Leaving the Film Business

 

When the peplum was pretty much down for the count in1964, Steve Reeves saw his film career going down the river - which wasn't essentially bad, since on one hand he had made enough money as an actor to grant him a comfortable life (while his salary on the Hercules-films might have been $ 10,000 a piece, he allegedly was granted about $ 250,000 on his final outings), on the other he was still popular enough as a bodybuilder to make quite a few bucks from that profession.

 

It is said, that during his film career, Reeves was asked to play both James Bond in Dr. No (1962, Terence Young) and the man without a name in Per un Pugno di Dollari/A Fistful of Dollars (1964, Sergio Leone) respectively - roles made iconic by Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood respectively of course - but he turned down both. Now this might sound a bit ridiculous from today's point of view, and I have no idea if the rumours are true in the slightest, but on closer inspection, they just as well might be:

The very British James Bond was actually played by (and portrayed as) an American, Barry Nelson, in his first ever screen incarnation, Casino Royale (1954, Wiliam H.Brown jr), an episode of the TV-show Climax!. And Sean Connery, before making it big as an actor, was actually a bodybuilder, placing third in 1950's Mr Universe-contest (which Steve Reeves won).

As for A Fistful of Dollars: The Spaghetti Western was actually born out of the peplum, and before Sergio Leone made his genre-defining A Fistful of Dollars, Italian Westerns had more to do with the sword and sandal genre than with anything else, and before the movie became an international success, nobody could even guess what Leone was actually up to ...

That's still not to say these two rumours are true, just that they are not as unlikely as they seem at first sight.

 


Steve Reeves tried to revive his film career in 1968 (four years after his last film), taking into account the changed times, with the Spaghetti Western Vivo per la Tua Morte/A Long Ride from Hell (Camillo Bazzoni), a film he even co-scripted. Actually, the movie about a rancher (Reeves) out for revenge on those who have wronged him was one of the better Italian Westerns of the era, but it somehow got lost in the sheer number of Spaghetti Westerns hitting the big screen in the late 1960's, and thus was not the success it maybe should have been.

 

A Long Ride from Hell's lack of success at the box office was one of the reasons Steve Reeves retired from moviemaking (and it was quite a pleasent farewell movie, actually, nothing to be ashamed of), the other was his shoulder he had injured while filming The Last Days of Pompeii and which has never fully recovered since and actually got worse from film to film. Now since Steve Reeves wasn't actor enough to do character roles, he would have to stick to action cinema, which became more and more impossible for him over time.

 

As mentioned above, Reeves did not retire a poor man, apart from his movie-salaries he had also had some luck at the stock market, and his name and reputation saw to it that he could earn handsome sums for personal appearances - after all he was one of the figureheads of bodybuilding, and he would go on to promote steroid-free bodybuilding for the rest of his life.

Apart from occasional personal appearances, Reeves enjoyed his retirement raising horses on his ranch in California, and he was said to be quite an able horseman.

In 2000, Steve Reeves died of lymphoma aged 74, but by that time, his legacy had long lived on in bodybuilding actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Lou Ferrigno [Lou Ferrigno bio - click here], all of whom credited Reeves as a major influence at one time or another ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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