Here in The Underworld, we love our beefcake. In fact, it’s our favorite type of cake, with the possible exception of BonBonerie Opera Crème Torte, a local favorite. That said, we don’t go in too heavily for muscles, per se, at least not the kind one sees today with veins creeping along the surface and most of the internal organs seeming visible on the outside (that is when everything isn’t coated in a heavy layer of steroid-ed flesh slathered over beef, bones and, yes, fat!) We like our men handsome and fit, but, best of all, naturally attractive. So, if we were to select a bodybuilder to admire and adore, the choice is more than clear. The divinely beautiful Mister Steve Reeves is the winner by a mile.
There is a campy aspect to most old-time body builders. You know… the posing straps, questionable locations for the photos (such as a dingy apartment, a seedy studio or a secluded beachscape), oddball accoutrements like sailor hats, six-shooter holsters, togas and the rest… Also, due to the era in which most of these classic photos were taken, there is often big-time Brylcreem hair, a lack of attention to certain grooming and skincare areas and, sometimes, amusing tan lines. To overcome this test of time and truly stand out even now, one needed to have good old timeless handsomeness and Mr. Reeves had it in spades!
Reeves was born Stephen Reeves to a farming family in Glasgow, Montana. His preteen years were spent doing his fair share of the work, which, on a farm, never seems to end. He marveled at his older brother Vernon when he would chop wood for the family’s use, noting the physique and muscle tone that resulted from such labors. Though the family moved to California when he was ten, in the wake of his father’s death in an accident, the seeds of physical fitness and development were already planted.
Bodybuilding was not a very common activity in 1941, but the high school student took an interest in weightlifting and by the age of sixteen and seventeen he was demonstrably larger and more developed than anyone else around. After graduating high school, WWII was upon us and he enlisted in the Army, serving in the Pacific sector. Already, this young man was stopping traffic with his clean good looks, a thick head of wavy hair and an amazing body, a body that looked terrific even in his uniform.
After the war, he attended school for chiropractics, which he’d chosen for his profession. Reeves also continued to work on his muscles and developed into a major contender for the titles in local contests. In 1946 and ’47, he was named Mr. Pacific Coast. In 1947, he became Mr. America. Then he was 1948’s Mr. World and placed second in the Mr. Universe competition. A personal goal came to fruition when he became 1950’s Mr. Universe! Naturally, all his suits had to be custom-tailored to fit his inverted triangular frame, but he was lookin’ good!
In the midst of this, though, a talent scout approached him, telling him that he could probably find work in show business with a look like his. He was invited to New York to train as an actor, using the G. I. Bill to pay for it. An aborted stint with Brando’s coach Stella Adler (in which they tangled over her physical instructions) led to work with another teacher and there he was spotted by one of Cecil B. DeMille’s scouts and tested for the lead in the upcoming epic Samson and Delilah! DeMille, however, felt that with the camera adding fifteen pounds, Reeves was too developed and bulky to appear appealingly onscreen. Audiences were not used to seeing leading men shaped like that, no matter how handsome the face. He ordered Reeves to lose weight, something that was at odds with his routine and lifestyle. Reeves tried, and did lose half the weight, but felt bad about it, thinking twice (this was in 1947, before he had achieved all of his goals in the bodybuilding world.) In time, DeMille opted to cast paunchy and decidedly less beautiful Victor Mature instead, leaving Reeves out of a major opportunity.
Reeves made a smattering of appearances on TV in unbilled bits or as a novelty item. He also was one of the shipboard Olympians in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. A few years later, he wound up working as a supporting actor in a film directed by the notoriously rotten Ed Wood! Jail Bait had him playing a police detective, not even the main one, but an assistant to Lyle Talbot. One of the lead actors in the film was Wood’s grocery deliveryman!! He wouldn’t make another film or TV appearance again in his life. Though it is bad, as is to be expected, it isn’t the howler that Wood’s other films like Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda are. Reeves got on well with Wood, though, not that an association with him was going to lead anywhere significant. Fortunately, something better was on the horizon!
When the MGM movie musical Athena was being put together for Esther Williams, the storyline involved a character training bodybuilders to compete in the Mr. Universe competition. Who better to cast in one of the parts than a former Mr. Universe?! When Williams became pregnant, the character of Athena went from being a swimmer to a singer and Jane Powell was brought in to do the part, something that disappointed Williams greatly since she had helped conceive of the project (and retained a co-writing credit on it.) Debbie Reynolds was also in the film and shared scenes with Steve (and another muscleman.)
Though his character was hardly central to the plot, it was a good showcase for him and his physique. It was certainly a world away from the low-rent filmmaking of Ed Wood and would eventually lead to some significant success in his life, but not right away. This was the last time moviegoers would ever hear Steve Reeves real voice on film. The remainder of his screen output would come from Italian-made films in which his voice was always dubbed by someone else. When Athena finally played in theaters overseas, the thirteen year-old daughter of Italian director Pietro Francisci watched it and singled out Reeves as a candidate to play the title character in her father’s upcoming movie Hercules.
In the meantime, after Jail Bait and Athena, but before Hercules, Reeves appeared on Broadway in shows such as Kismet and The Vamp (with Carol Channing!) He then worked in public relations, opening fitness clubs while showing off his physique. He was content to stay out of the movie biz until a persistent Francisci mailed him an airline ticket and a $5000 advance! Also, he was married for a year and a half during this period. The marriage was kaput before he went to Italy to begin filming.
Reeves grew a thick, flattering beard in order to play Hercules (in a storyline that actually had far more to do with Jason and the Argonauts’ adventures, but oh well…) He was paired with Croatian actress Sylva Koscina as a love interest (her maid was played by future James Bond actress Luciana Paluzzi.) As the hero, he partook in many daring deeds and showed off that astonishing figure in some abbreviated costumes.
Made on a low budget (Reeves himself was only paid $10,000 total!), but with an epic scale, the director could find no studio in America willing to release it. Finally, after two years, producer Joseph E. Levine paid $120,000 for the right to distribute Hercules in the U.S. and promptly embarked on a major advertising campaign and “saturation” booking that outdid any other previous release in the country. It was a rip-snorting success, making forty million dollars. In spite of the fact that it had rotten sound and atrocious vocal dubbing, fans flocked to see scantily clad Reeves beating down countless enemies. In the days before home video, the Hercules films would be re-released to theaters periodically, allowing Levine to continue to make money off his meager initial investment.
It kicked off a major trend in Italian filmmaking, the sword and sandal epic. Between 1959 and 1964, one hundred seventy films of this type were made there! Reeves was unquestionably the go-to guy for the genre and immediately went about filming a sequel, Hercules Unchained, which also costarred Koscina (this time as Hercules’ wife.) Do be sure to notice that Steve is carrying FOUR men in this shot. Four!
Reeves would always be associated with the part of Hercules though he only made two films as the character. A third was offered to him, but he declined, wishing to pursue different ideas and roles. (Not all that different, however, since most roles for a muscleman fit neatly into a certain range without the leeway that later stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone enjoyed.) Due to the lag time between filming Hercules and its U.S. success, Reeves had already made or been signed up for several more similar films, thus he stayed in Italy rather than field offers from home. (God knows he would have made a stunning Superman!)
Occasionally, another American star would be found amongst the casts of these productions, such as Bruce Cabot appearing in 1959’s Goliath and the Barbarians (that is not Bruce above.) And in the wake of Reeves’ success, many other American bodybuilders went to Italy to make a name for themselves in the countless imitations popping out of the woodwork. One of Reeves’ best films was called The Giant of Marathon. In it, he played an ancient Olympic champion who leads a horde of men into battle. That in itself doesn’t sound so exciting, but how about if the men are all hunky Italians wearing nothing but some skimpy white briefs and carrying gigantic, phallic poles? Unusual for a movie of this type, there was also significant underwater filming, with these men swimming underneath the enemy’s battleships to tear them apart.
No costar, however, was ever as good-looking or as fit as Steve, himself. His thick mop of dark, wavy hair, his chiseled features and his crystalline blue eyes gave him the appearance of an ancient god come to life on Earth. Helen might have been the woman who launched a thousand ships, but Steve was the man who launched a hundred thousand fantasies!
The Giant of Marathon is, intentionally or not, loaded down with homoeroticism. If the sight of men swimming away from the camera in their wet, white briefs, with legs flailing, or showing them handling massive spear-like weaponry isn’t enough, try scenes like this one that have a sort of Ben-Hur quality, though Ben-Hur never had near naked male statuary in between the leads as they quarreled. These films had sun, sand, sweat and sinew in abundance and, like Tarzan, gave little boys of a certain persuasion the right to gaze and gawk away at the screen without arousing suspicion.
Now steadily working on a treadmill of gladiator and hero type movies, Reeves worked for director Sergio Leone in The Last Days of Pompeii. (Leone was the assistant director, but he actually did 90% of the work, as the named director was older and not entirely well.) This time, he costarred with noted Spanish actor Fernando Rey and German actress Christine Kaufmann, who would later become pregnant by and eventually marry Tony Curtis.
During Pompeii, Reeves was involved in a debilitating chariot accident when the vehicle hit a tree. His shoulder was horribly affected and, though he thought it was on the mend, it was severely re-injured later in a swimming scene. This ailment would plague him for the rest of his movie career. Years afterwards, he had successful surgery to repair it.
Fully aware of the marquee value, Joseph E. Levine continued to distribute Reeves’ films in the U.S. and ultimately produced two of them, including the change of pace Morgan the Pirate. This time as a swashbuckler, Reeves had more clothing on than usual, but remained gloriously handsome and breathtakingly fit. Reeves’ relationship with Levine was contentious, though. He had to sue to get the money owed him and there was bickering over whose name should be the largest in the advertising (with Steve winning out on that score.) Do note in the shot below that he is depicting one of my favorite classic action costuming issues, the shirt torn open at the nipple! Ha!
1961 brought The Trojan Horse and the unusual costar John Drew Barrymore (the son of legendary actor John Barrymore and later the father of one Drew Barrymore.) After only middling success in America, Barrymore had moved to Europe where his name would be a draw and where money was being paid for actors who might only be moderately successful at home.
That same year Duel of the Titans was made. The story of Romulus and Remus, it was intended to be a duel role for Reeves using trick photography and doubles, but Reeves requested that another actor/muscleman be used and his friend Gordon Scott was brought over to portray his brother and eventual antagonist. Scott had made a significant impact as Tarzan in a series of colorful and well made films, but left the series to do this, one of the sword and sandal films that is considered among Reeves’ best and one of the better ones all around. (Click on the photo to the left and meet the world's luckiest horse, luckier than Flicka and Trigger, for she got to have Steve's bare thighs pressed up against her back for the duration of the film!)
Blonde beauty Virna Lisi was Reeves’ love interest. It was common for the heroes of these films to be paired with voluptuous ladies possessing tons of hair and tons of makeup. The eyelashes and eyeliner were almost universally insane, matched with slinky toga-like costumes and outrageously big and/or ornate hairstyles. They were nearly always (badly) dubbed right along with everyone else and were typically big-breasted and showed plenty of leg as well.
Around this time, Reeves made the first of two movie career blunders. He was approached to trade in his tunics and flip-flops for a suit and tie in order to portray master spy James Bond in Dr. No. For some reason, he declined the part (possibly over money, as the Italian-made films were paying him terrific salaries that the British film industry could unlikely afford, especially when the film to be was full already of expensive sets, gadgetry and so on.)
Instead, he continued on with his newly created genre, starring in The Avenger and Son of Spartacus. There seemed no end in sight for the demand of these films, which enjoyed a near worldwide craze and accounted for 10% of all films made in Italy at that time. In 1963, he married the lady who’d been working as his secretary, Aline Czartjarwicz (how would you like to give THAT name to the hostess at Red Lobster?), and they remained together until her death in 1989.
Sandokan the Great was another slight departure, with Reeves playing a legendary Indian hero with turban. Just like the wondrous Errol Flynn before him, Reeves was the type of man who could be put into almost any costume, no matter how ornate, unusual or strange, and still carry it off, looking handsome and dashing. The strong, carved, statuesque features and physique could withstand practically anything.
Again, Reeves made a major misjudgment when it came to his movie career. Sergio Leone, who he had been directed by previously, came to him with a brainstorm. He wanted to try something new, a western made in Italy to rival all the countless westerns that had been produced in the U.S. and which were still popular all over the globe. Reeves didn’t believe that an Italian could make a plausible western (especially one adapted from a Japanese story, Yajimbo) and refused the role that Clint Eastwood eventually inherited in A Fistful of Dollars. That film, of course, was a smash hit, resulted in two more like it for Eastwood and kicked off another major league genre, the Spaghetti Western!
After a sequel to Sandokan, Reeves took some time off to enjoy married life and reassess the direction of his career. Gladiator movies and the like were starting to wear thin and he had competitors crawling out of the woodwork with seemingly every guy who ever won a title flying to Italy to make a sword ‘n sandal epic. Reeves, however, remained the primary figure of the genre and was the highest paid actor in Europe at the time.
When he made another film, it was in the Spaghetti Western genre. He was duded out in cowboy gear for A Long Ride from Hell, a film that he produced himself. Now forty-one and suffering from some niggling ailments and injuries from his action-oriented movie career, Reeves made this his final film. He returned to America along with his wife in 1968 and he began a new chapter as a rancher and horse breeder, his love of the animals going all the way back to his youth on the farm.
Throughout Reeves life, he was an advocate of drug-free bodybuilding. He was a critic of steroid-infused muscle development and didn’t hide that fact. He believed in the value of fitness through exercise and weightlifting and felt that such a hobby was a good way to turn kids attention away from delinquency and recreational drugs. He penned a workout guide called Building the Classic Physique the Natural Way, detailing the regimen that had given him his eye-popping body.
He continued to live a peaceful and rewarding life on his ranch, growing oranges and avocados as well as swimming, riding and doing light weightlifting to keep fit. He’d made some smart stock investments during his heyday and had no need to work any further. Knowing that many of his contemporaries in the film business had died young from stress and burnout, he chose to live quietly and relaxingly. Aline passed away in 1989 and Reeves lived until 2000, when he quickly succumbed to lymphoma. He had retained, until the end, not only his trim, strong body, but also his trademark thick thatch of hair, though it was gray by then.
He left the world a cache of films that captured him at a time when he was the god-like idol of countless people. Every boy’s dream and every girl’s fantasy (and some boys’ fantasies!), he was the epitome of the daring, heroic, superhumanly strong bastion of right. He was immortalized by name in one of the songs from The Rocky Horror Show and his visage continues today whether it be the countless photos that exist of him or the conception of Hercules that he projected (and that no one else has ever been able to touch.) In his day, he was the closest thing we had to a mythical god on Earth.