The Mondo-Esoterica Guide to

Steve Reeves


Born in Montana in 1926, Reeves and his mother moved to California in 1936 after the death of his father in a farming accident. In high school on the West Coast he developed an interest in body-building at a time when it was still a very specialist pursuit and began to work out daily. After graduating in early 1945 he joined-up to fight in the last months of the Second World War in the Pacific and after returning to the US he went to study chiropractics in San Francisco - in his spare time continuing to body-build. After winning 'Mr Pacific Coast' in 1946 and 'Mr Western America' in 1947 he travelled to Chicago where he won the 'Mr America' contest. His dashingly handsome good looks brought him a lot of attention and a theatrical agent was quick to snap up Reeves who shortly moved to New York to persue an acting career.

While performing in a vaudeville routine, Reeves was spotted by a Paramount talent scout and brought in to audition for the lead role in Cecil B. DeMille's latest production, the epic Samson and Delilah (1949). Despite gaining the part at the audition, DeMille was insistant that Reeves lose weight and thus muscle mass for the screen, and nervous about taking on a 'new' actor for such a key performance made him carry out numerous screen tests with varying results. Ultimately he decided to ditch Reeves and bring in the experienced actor Victor Mature for the lead role. A leading role did emerge in a Tazan style television series called Kimbar of the Jungle but lack of funding meant that it went no further than a pilot episode. Inbetween some other minor acting roles Reeves won the 'Mr World' contest in 1948 and became the second ever 'Mr Universe' in 1950, narrowly defeating British entrant Reg Park who would win the next year.

This win brought Reeves international fame as a body builder, but was not enough to get him the major acting roles he sought and he was reduced to a usually self-mocking run of guest spots on television shows including the comedy series The Jimmy Durante Show and Topper. After appearing on Broadway in a very small part in the highly successful Robert Wright and George Forrest musical Kismet (1953) he gained his first feature film role in the light hearted MGM musical Athena (1954) and later in the ineptly low budget film-noir Jail Bait (1954) from the notorious director Ed Wood Jr. Although he had only minor parts in both films, particularly the MGM musical, it was his appearance here that secured him his first and most important, leading role three years later.

By the late 1950s Reeves had all but given up on an acting career and was working for a fitness company, opening new gyms and appearing in promotional material. In Italy, writer and director Pietro Francisci had been working on a script for a Hercules movie, but was struggling to find a suitable actor for the role. During 1957 his young daughter watched Athena in the cinema and quickly informed her father that she had found the man for him. After seeing the film himself, Francisci contacted Reeves who initially ignored the letter, but when he was sent a $5,000 advance, Reeves rushed to accept the role. The film was released the next year as Fatiche di Ercole (1958) and was a success in Europe with Reeves returning to film a quick sequel, Ercole e la regina di Lidia (1959). The major breakthrough however came in late 1959 when both films, which had been ignored by the major American studios, were picked up by the enterprising producer Joseph E. Levine who released them with a huge blaze of publicity in the USA, with the result that Hercules, as it was titled, became one of the highest grossing films of the year.

Moving to living in Switzerland, Reeves was quickly signed on for a myriad of other productions as the success of his Hercules films lead to a mass of similar Sword and Sandal pictures known as Pepla, in what became the first of the Italian exploitation booms. Although the genre is generally associated with light-hearted and often quite daft fantasy films from Greek or Roman mythology as per the original Hercules, there were a variety of other productions shot at the same time, from historical set dramas and adventure films to large scale epics. In 1959 Reeves was cast in films from all of these catagories. Largely helmed by an uncredited Sergio Leone, The Last Days of Pompeii (1959) is a loose retelling of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton's classic novel of the same name, with Reeves playing the role of Glacus. It was during the filming of this production that he seriously injured his shoulder in a riding accident which stopped him from performing the more intense stuntman work and ultimately lead to his early retirement a decade later.

The more traditional Peplum Il Terrore dei barbari (1959) followed but production came to a sudden halt when the production ran out of money. Fortunately the American distributors James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff of American International Pictures (AIP) stepped in to fund the rest of the production, renaming the film Goliath and the Barbarians in the US and rushing it to cinemas shortly after the success of the first Hercules film became apparent. Largely helmed by an uncredited Mario Bava, The Giant of Marathon (1959) was one of the largest scale Peplum epics with Reeves cast as the original marathon runner, Phillipides. The final film of the year was The White Warrior (1959) for director Riccardo Freda, which was one of a number of Peplum style films set outside of the classical era and tells of the warrior Hadji Murad (played by Reeves) who fought invasion by Russian forces of the Caucasus in the 19th Century.

By the beginning of the 1960s the Peplum was booming, Reeves was in huge demand and commanding a suitably high salary. Many of the lower budget producers scoured the gyms for similar figures, leading to musclemen such as Brad Harris, Ed Fury, Richard Harrison and Reeves' old Mr Universe rival Reg Park being cast in many similar roles, but Reeves remained at the top of the game. For the retelling of the legendary story of the founding of Rome in Romolo e Remo (1961), producers considered casting Reeves in both lead roles but he suggested that they cast fellow American body-builder turned actor Gordon Scott as his brother and the actor would go on to make his own career in the genre. Two rather different films followed with Reeves playing the Welsh born pirate Henry Morgan in swashbuckler Morgan the Pirate (1961) and taking the lead role in a colourful adaptation of The Thief of Baghdad (1961). A return to the sword and sandal era came with very large scale epic The Trojan Horse (1961) with Reeves playing Aeneas, usually a very minor character but one of the few who survive the story, allowing him to return in the sequel La Leggenda di Enea (1962).

Towards the middle of the 1960s, like all of the Italian exploitation genres, the Peplum boom suffered from oversaturation and declining popularity - by now the highest paid actor in Europe, Reeves made his last Peplum appearance in The Son of Spartacus (1963) for director Sergio Corbucci. Two swashbuckling parts as the fictional pirate Sandokan (from a popular series of novels by Italian writer Emilio Salgari) followed, Sandokan the Great (1963) and Sandokan: Pirate of Malaysia (1964) both helmed by director Umberto Lenzi. Later that year Reeves was offered the lead role in a small European made Western being helmed by Sergio Leone; not thinking that the film would go anywhere and by now suffering very badly from his shoulder injury, he turned it down and the part was instead given to Clint Eastwood with the film being titled For a Fistful of Dollars (1964). In later years, asked if he regretted turning down the part, Reeves said that he was glad that Eastwood got the part and that he could not have seen himself being nearly as good in the role.

The resultant Spaghetti Western boom was the final curtain for the sword and sandal films for which Reeves had become famous. Having invested his movie earnings wisely, Reeves saw no need to continue acting and was concerned that he would burn out and die before being able to enjoy his retirement, like his peers Erol Flynn and Tyrone Power. He made one final performance in a self-penned Western, Vivo per la tua morte (1968) before retiring back to the United States. Living on a ranch in California to breed horses he remained active in the body-building communities and was very active in promoting drug-free workouts. He passed away in May 2000.

In the body building community, Steve Reeves has become famous for bringing public attention to the sport - with his incredible good looks and perfectly symmetrical figure he set an all new standard in events that had previously been considered no more than sideshows. In more recent years he worked hard to promote natural body building and spoke out against the extensive use of steroids and overly complex diets and exercise routines in modern body-building. To further this, he penned Building the Classic Physique: The Natural Way in 1995. His appearance on-screen motivated actors from Sylvester Stallone and Lou Ferrigno to Arnold Schwarzenegger to take up body-building and appear on the screen themselves and encouraged many more people to take up body-building for fitness and good looks.

For the film community, Steve Reeves is considered today to be the iconic Hercules and his performances in Hercules (1958) and its sequel are credited with kicking off the first of the Italian exploitation movie booms that really helped Italian cinema recover from its post-war depression. Despite appearing in less than a dozen titles of the more than one hundred eventually filmed, Steve Reeves and the Peplum genre will forever be firmly associated.

DVD Reviews: Films starring Steve Reeves

Giant of Marathon (1959)

Retromedia Region 0 DVD
Epic battle scenes, a good storyline and strong direction make this historical epic Peplum among the very best.
Goliath and the Barbarians (1959)

Wild East Region 0 DVD
Reeves gives a strong performance in a well made historical Peplum with good direction and a solid storyline.
Hercules (1958)

DVDY French Region 2 DVD
Reeves defining role in the original and classic film that holds up surprisingly well today.
Recommended and a great place to start.
Hercules Unchained (1959)

Concorde German Region 2 DVD
Reeves returns as Hercules in this very enjoyable film, with good acting and direction, but some pacing issues.
The Last Days of Pomeii (1959)

Cine Plus German Region 2 DVD
Steve Reeves gives a good acting turn in this so-so Historical Peplum, partly directed by Sergio Leone.
One for genre fans.
Romulus and Remus (1961)

Koch Media Germany Region 0 DVD
Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott go head to head in this well made epic, with more storyline than battle scenes.
Sandokan the Great

Impulso Spanish Region 2 DVD
Steve Reeves is the legendary Sandokan in Umberto Lenzi's highly enjoyable and well made adventure film.
The Trojan Horse (1961)

New Entertainment World Region 2 DVD
One of the biggest historical epics, boasting some solid direction and a fine central Steve Reeves performance.
War of the Trojans (1962)

Retromedia Region 0 DVD
Steve Reeves returns as Aeneas in this direct sequel to The Trojan Horse - less effective, it is still enjoyable.
Of interest to Reeves and Peplum fans.
White Warrior (1959)

VCI Region 0 DVD
Bava is credited with cinematography but shows little of his trademark style in Riccardo Freda's rather generic adventure.
Interesting but not recommended.



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All text in this page written by Timothy Young - June 2008.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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