Reeves, Steve (1926—)

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Reeves, Steve (1926—)

From 1957 to 1968, Steve Reeves was able to parlay his bodybuilding success and classical good looks into a film career which, for a brief time, made him the highest paid screen performer in the world. Most of his films were "sword and sandal" spectaculars, made in Italy, but they provided entertainment for his millions of fans around the world and served as an inspiration for later stars of action films, such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Reeves was born on a ranch outside the small town of Glasgow, Montana, and was not quite two when his father was killed in a farming accident. When Reeves was ten, he and his mother moved to Oakland, California, where the active youngster soon had a paper route and was developing his legendary calves by pedaling the rolling hills of his new hometown. Serendipity brought a teenage Reeves into contact with Ed Yarick, one of the most knowledgeable gym owners in the United States. Within two years, Reeves' genetic gifts and Yarick's carefully designed programs had combined to produce a physique equalled by few men in the world at the time.

World War II interrupted Reeves' training for a time, but after fighting in the Philippines he returned to Yarick and began to train for competitive bodybuilding. His first national victory came in 1947, in the biggest contest of all in the United States—the A.A.U. Mr. America. As the holder of this prestigious title, he came to the attention of the media, whose journalists and photographers were drawn to this tall young man, who looked, many said, like a living god.

One of the people who saw photos of Reeves was Hollywood's master of the epic, Cecil B. DeMille, who offered the young bodybuilder the role of Samson in an upcoming film. The one catch was that Reeves had to reduce his 215-pound weight to 200 pounds, a sacrifice he was unwilling to make, having trained so hard to build himself up, and he passed up the opportunity. However, he went to London in 1950 to compete for the world's most important physique title, Mr. Universe, won the contest, and began getting small roles on the stage and in television. In 1954, the eccentric independent director of poverty row movies, Ed Wood, cast Reeves as a policeman in Jail Bait, and later that same year, Reeves was given a much larger role in the musical Athena. In 1957, however, the daughter of the Italian director Pietro Francisci saw Athena, and suggested to her father that the big, handsome American would make a perfect lead for Francisci's upcoming Franco-Italian production of Hercules. Francisci saw Reeves, agreed with his daughter, and a deal was struck that launched Reeves into a series of mythological hero films that made both men wealthy.

A significant factor in the huge success of Reeves' first four European adventure films was the producer/promoter Joseph E. Levine, who took Hercules (1957), Hercules Unchained (1959), Morgan the Pirate (1960), and The Thief of Baghdad (1961), dubbed them into English, and premiered them internationally, not only using slick promotion and distribution methods, but also instigating the publication of tie-in paperbacks and comic books. The result was that Reeves rapidly acquired massive marquee value and found himself in demand.

Unfortunately, however, the popularity of these "neo-classical" epics resulted in such a rash of Reeves films in a short time that his popularity began a steady decline in the early 1960s. Hercules opened in the United States in 1959, but by the summer of 1961 eight of his films had appeared in U.S. theaters. Eight films in 24 months was obviously too much for an American audience to take, and ticket sales fell off. He remained hugely popular in many overseas markets and continued to appear in films throughout the early 1960s. His last, and one of his personal favorites, was the 1969 A Long Ride from Hell, a late entry in a genre of violent Italian films dubbed "spaghetti westerns." Ironically, Reeves had turned down the role, which eventually went to Clint Eastwood, in the movie that popularized spaghetti westerns, Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964). With the success of the spaghetti westerns, the costume epics in which Reeves had found fame and fortune were eclipsed and faded away as the men who made them turned to the new genre.

Reeves suffered a serious injury to his shoulder in 1959. Over the years the effects of the damage were exacerbated by the often dangerous stunts demanded by his action pictures—stunts that he did himself since, because of his unique build, no suitable stunt man could be found. Reeves prized his health; and as he mourned the early deaths of his friends Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, he decided to retire while he was young and healthy enough to enjoy it. By 1970 Reeves, who had married Princess Aline Czartjarwitz in 1963, settled on a ranch in southern California to raise Morgan horses.

In 1982, Reeves published a best-selling book, Powerwalking, in which he encouraged runners to slow down and save their knees, ankles, and hip joints. Instead, he advocated a form of fast walking using ankle and wrist weights as a safer and equally effective form of aerobic exercise. He was in many ways a pioneer in the field of exercise walking, and in the years since the publication of Powerwalking millions of people have switched from running to walking.

For many years, Reeves has been an outspoken opponent of bodybuilding drugs, which were not used during the years in which he competed, and in 1995 he published Building the Classic Physique—the Natural Way. Few historians would argue with the premise that no bodybuilder before or since Steve Reeves has ever had such a truly classic physique.


Terry Todd

Further Reading:

Reeves, Steve, with James A. Peterson. Powerwalking. Indianapolis, Indiana, Bobbs-Merrill, 1982.

——. Building the Classic Physique: The Natural Way. Calabasas, California, Little-Wolff Group, 1995.