Steve Reeves

Stephen Lester Reeves (January 21, 1926 – May 1, 2000) was an American professional bodybuilder, actor, and philanthropist. He was famous in the mid-1950s as a movie star in Italian-made peplum films, playing the protagonist as muscular characters such as Hercules, Goliath, and Sandokan. At the peak of his career, he was the highest-paid actor in Europe.[1]

Steve Reeves
Reeves in 1990
Stephen Lester Reeves

(1926-01-21)January 21, 1926
DiedMay 1, 2000(2000-05-01) (aged 74)
OccupationBodybuilder, actor, philanthropist
  • Sandra Smith
    (m. 1955; div. 1956)
  • Aline Czartjarwicz
    (m. 1963; her death 1989)
  • Deborah Ann Engelhorn
    (m. 1994; his death 2000)

From 1959 through 1964, Reeves appeared in a string of sword and sandal movies shot on relatively small budgets[2] and, although he is best known for his portrayal of Hercules, he played the character only twice: in the 1957 film (released in the US in 1959) and its 1959 sequel Hercules Unchained (released in the US in 1960). By 1960, Reeves was ranked as the number-one box-office draw in twenty-five countries around the world.[3]

Early life

Born in Glasgow, Montana, in 1926,[1] Reeves moved to California at age 10 with his mother Goldie Reeves after his father Lester Dell Reeves died in a farming accident.[2] Reeves developed an interest in bodybuilding at Castlemont High School and trained at Ed Yarick's gym in Oakland, California.

After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the United States Army during World War II, and served in the Philippines. After his military service Reeves attended California Chiropractic College in San Francisco.[4]

He reigned as Mr. America of 1947, Mr. World of 1948, and Mr. Universe of 1950. He was contacted by an agent who suggested he go into acting.[4]


Cecil B. de Mille

Reeves moved to New York where he studied acting under Stella Adler, but after arguments he was refunded his tuition. He studied instead at the Theodora Irvin School of the Theatre. He began performing a vaudeville act with a comedian named Dick Burney. One of Cecil B. De Mille's talent scouts saw him and had him tested for Samson and Delilah (1949). Reeves received a seven-year contract with Paramount.[4]

Reeves says de Mille wanted to cast him in the lead role, but told Reeves he had to lose 15 pounds in order to look convincing on-camera. Reeves says he tried to lose the weight and worked on his acting in preparation for the role over three months. Then De Mille told him he was going to give the role to Victor Mature.[4]

Early acting appearances

In 1949 he filmed a Tarzan-type television pilot called Kimbar of the Jungle, and in 1950 became Mr. Universe.

Reeves appeared on television in Stars Over Hollywood in the episode "Prison Doctor" with Raymond Burr. He was one of the athletes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and appeared on the TV series Topper ("Reducing").

In 1954, Reeves had a small supporting role as a cop in the Ed Wood film Jail Bait. It was his first film and earned him his Screen Actors Guild card. "I had a suit on at all times," he later recalled. "I even had a tie. Only took my shirt off once. Those were the days, huh?"[4]

The same year Reeves was in the MGM musical Athena,[2] playing the boyfriend of Jane Powell's character.

These two films are the only ones Reeves made in the United States where his actual voice was used; Reeves acted in Italian-made films for the remainder of his career, where all dialogue and sound effects were added in post-production.

Reeves guest-starred on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show as the owner of a gym.[5] On December 17, 1954, Reeves guest-starred in the ABC sitcom Where's Raymond?, starring Ray Bolger as Raymond Wallace, a song-and-dance man. Reeves played a well-built office employee whom Wallace sees in the company of Wallace's girlfriend, Susan.[6]

In 1955 Reeves appeared on two Broadway shows, Kismet and The Camp.

Pictures of Reeves' costume test for the lead in Li'l Abner (1959) can be easily found on the web.

He then decided to quit acting and worked for American Health Studios in public relations, opening up fitness studios.[4]


In Italy, director Pietro Francisci wanted to make a film about Hercules but could not find anyone suitable to play the role. His daughter recommended Reeves on the basis of his appearance in Athena and Francisci offered him the role and a plane ticket to Italy. Reeves at first did not think he was serious but eventually agreed and flew to Italy to make the film. His fee was $10,000.[4]

Hercules was a relatively low-budget epic based loosely on the tales of Jason and the Argonauts, though inserting Hercules into the lead role.[2]

The film proved popular in Europe. What made it an international sensation was when US distribution rights were bought by Joe E. Levine who spent over $1 million promoting it, turning the film into a major box-office success, grossing $5 million in the United States in 1959.[7] However this did not happen until Reeves had already made four more films in Europe.[4][8]

The first of these was a sequel to Hercules, Hercules Unchained (1959), again directed by Pietro Francisci. Reeves was paid the same fee, although his wage would double from then on. This film was another huge success, being the third most popular film in Britain in 1960.[9] Nonetheless Reeves would not play Hercules again, despite his identification with the role.[4]

Reeves' third film as star was The White Warrior (1959), based on Hadji Murat, the novel by Leo Tolstoy. He played Hadji Murad, a 19th-century Chechen chieftain who led his warriors in a fight against the invading Russians.

Reeves was then in Terror of the Barbarians playing Emilio, about the Lombard invasion of Italy. American International Pictures bought US rights and retitled it Goliath and the Barbarians (1959), with Reeves' character renamed "Goliath". The film earned $1.6 million in North America during its initial release where it was double billed with Sign of the Gladiator[10]


Reeves was Glaucus Leto in The Last Days of Pompeii (1959), based on the novel by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton. It co-starred Christine Kaufmann and Fernando Rey and was mostly directed by Sergio Leone.

During the filming, Reeves had dislocated his shoulder when his chariot slammed into a tree;[1][2] he re-injured it while swimming in a subsequent underwater escape scene. The injury would be aggravated by his stunt work in each successive film, ultimately leading to his retirement from filmmaking.[2][11]

U.S. directors

Reeves followed this with The Giant of Marathon (1959) where he was cast as Pheidippides, the famous wartime messenger of the Battle of Marathon. By now Reeves' success was such that his films would use Hollywood directors: Marathon was directed by Mario Bava and Jacques Tourneur. According to MGM records the film earned $1,335,000 in the US and Canada and $1.4 million elsewhere resulting in a profit of $429,000.[12]

Reeves had a change of pace in Morgan, the Pirate (1960) where he played pirate and self-proclaimed governor of Jamaica, Captain Henry Morgan. Andre De Toth and Primo Zeglio directed.

He then did an "Eastern", The Thief of Baghdad (1961), playing Karim, directed by Arthur Lubin.

In The Wooden Horse of Troy (1961) Reeves played Aeneas of Troy, opposite John Drew Barrymore.

He co-starred with fellow body builder Gordon Scott in Duel of the Titans (1961), playing Romulus and Remus respectively. Sergio Corbucci directed.

Reeves played Randus, the son of Spartacus in The Slave (1962) then reprised his role as Aeneaus in War of the Trojans (1962) aka The Avenger.

Later roles

Reeves played Sandokan in two films, both directed by Umberto Lenzi: Sandokan the Great (1963) and Pirates of Malaysia (1964). By this stage Reeves says his fee was $250,000 a film.[4]

In 1968, Reeves appeared in his final film, a spaghetti Western he co-wrote, titled I Live For Your Death! (later released as A Long Ride From Hell).[2] "I ended up with an ulcer from that," he said later. "That was my last."[13]

Reeves reportedly turned down the James Bond role in Dr. No (1962)[1] because of the low salary the producers offered.[14]

Reeves also turned down the role that finally went to Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) because he did not believe that Italians could make a western out of a Japanese samurai film.[1][11]

George Pal contacted Reeves for the role of Doc Savage in Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, the first of what was meant to be a film series, but when filming was about to begin a Hollywood writers strike put the film on hold with Reeves and the original director replaced.[15]

Post-acting career

Reeves decided to retire for several reasons: stress, his injury, and the decline in the market for his sort of movies. He had earned enough to retire and moved to his ranch in Oregon, which he purchased from Chandler Knowles.[11]

His last screen appearance was in 2000 when he appeared as himself in the made-for-television A&E Biography: Arnold Schwarzenegger Flex Appeal.

Other interests

A biography, Steve Reeves – One of a Kind, was published in 1983 by Milton T. Moore.

In 1991, Chris LeClaire began writing and researching Reeves' life and career. LeClaire lived and worked for Reeves at his Valley Center, California horse ranch during the summers of 1993 and 1994 while writing Worlds To Conquer, The Authorized Biography Of Steve Reeves. LeClaire conducted more than one-hundred hours of taped interviews with Reeves up until the actor's death in the spring of 2000.

In 1994, Reeves, with long-time friend and business partner George Helmer, started the Steve Reeves International Society. In 1996, it incorporated to become Steve Reeves International, Inc.

In 2003, Helmer co-authored Steve Reeves – His Legacy in Films, and in 2010, Steve Reeves' Hercules Cookbook. In 2014, he published a Reeves biography, A Moment in Time – The Steve Reeves Story. Helmer is also the executor of the Reeves' estate, exclusive owner to the rights of Reeves' name and image, and considered by many as the authority on Reeves.

Some doubt exists as to whether Steve Reeves ever gave authorization or approval to any biographer.[16]

Reeves wrote the book Powerwalking,[17] and two self-published books, Building the Classic Physique - The Natural Way,[18] and Dynamic Muscle Building.[19] (Note that George Helmer published a revised and updated edition of the Powerwalking book in 2013.)

Freelance writer Rod Labbe interviewed Reeves, and the article appeared in Films of the Golden Age magazine, summer 2011.[14] It was conducted in 1997 and was the last extensive interview Steve Reeves did.

Personal life

Later in his life, Reeves bred horses and promoted drug-free bodybuilding.[1][2] The last two decades of his life were spent in Valley Center, California. He bought a ranch with savings from his film career and lived there with his second wife, Aline, until her death in 1989.[1][2]


On May 1, 2000, Reeves died from a blood clot after having had surgery two days earlier. He died at Palomar Hospital in Escondido, California, where his second wife had also died.[2]

In the 1973 British musical stage production The Rocky Horror Show, and its 1975 film counterpart The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Dr. Frank N. Furter introduces himself to Brad and Janet with the song Sweet Transvestite. The lyrics include, "Or if you want something visual/That's not too absymal/We can take in an old Steve Reeves movie".


(in parentheses the original movie title)

  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) as Olympic Team Member (uncredited)
  • Jail Bait (1954, Hollywood film directed by Ed Wood Jr.) as Lieutenant Bob Lawrence
  • Athena (1954, Hollywood film directed by Richard Thorpe) as Ed Perkins
  • Hercules (1958, released in Italy in 1958, released in U.S.A. in 1959) (Le fatiche di Ercole / The Labors of Hercules) as Ercole (Hercules)
  • Hercules Unchained (1959, released in USA 1960) (Ercole e la regina di Lidia / Hercules and the Queen of Lydia) as Hercules
  • The White Warrior (1959, directed by Riccardo Freda) (Hadji Murad il Diavolo Bianco / Hadji Murad, The White Devil) as Agi / Hadji Murad, the White Warrior
  • Goliath and the Barbarians (1959) (Il terrore dei barbari / Terror of the Barbarians) as Emiliano (a.k.a. "Goliath")
  • The Last Days of Pompeii (1959) (Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei / The Last Days of Pompeii) as Glaucus Leto
  • The Giant of Marathon (1959) (La battaglia di Maratona / The Battle of Marathon) as Phillipides
  • Morgan, the Pirate (1960) (Morgan, il pirata/ Morgan, the Pirate) as Henry Morgan
  • The Thief of Baghdad (1961) (Il Ladro di Bagdad) as Karim
  • The Trojan Horse (1961) (La guerra di Troia/ The Trojan War) as Aeneas
  • Duel of the Titans (1961) (Romolo e Remo / Romulus and Remus) as Romulus
  • The Slave (1962) (Il Figlio di Spartaco / Son of Spartacus) as Randus – son of Spartacus
  • The Avenger (1962) (La leggenda di Enea / The Legend of Aeneas) (also released as The Last Glory of Troy; it is a sequel to The Trojan Horse) as Enea / Aeneas
  • Sandokan the Great (1963, directed by Umberto Lenzi) (Sandokan, la tigre di Mompracem/ Sandokan, the Tiger of Mompracem) as Sandokan
  • Pirates of Malaysia (1964, directed by Umberto Lenzi) (a.k.a. Sandokan, the Pirate of Malaysia, a.k.a. Pirates of the Seven Seas; this is a sequel to Sandokan the Great) as Sandokan
  • A Long Ride from Hell (1968, spaghetti western directed by Camillo Brazzoni, produced and co-written by Steve Reeves) (I Live for Your Death!) as Mike Sturges (final film role)

See also


  1. Lane, John Francis (June 5, 2000). "Steve Reeves: Putting muscle and myth in the movies". Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved July 15, 2009.
  2. Lyman, Rick (May 5, 2000). "Steve Reeves, 74, Whose 'Hercules' Began a Genre". The New York Times. Retrieved July 15, 2009.
  3. Rutledge, Leigh W. (1989). The Gay Fireside Companion. Alyson Publications, Inc. p. 146. ISBN 978-1555831646.
  4. Frumkes, Roy (July 1994). "An Interview with Steve Reeves". The Perfect Vision Magazine.
  5. "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show". Youtube.
  6. "Where's Raymond?/ The Ray Bolger Show". Retrieved March 14, 2011.
  7. IMDB: Business
  8. "Meet Joe Levine, Super(sales)man!: Distributor of 'Hercules' Touted as New Mike Todd". Los Angeles Times. July 27, 1959. p. C13.
  9. "Hercules" the favourite: AT BOX OFFICE". The Guardian. London (UK). December 8, 1960. p. 21.
  10. "Rental Potentials of 1960", Variety, January 4, 1961 p 47. Please note figures are rentals as opposed to total gross.
  11. "Interview with Steve Reeves Part two".
  12. The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  13. "'Mr. Universe' is a powerwalker now". Toronto Star. January 18, 1987. p. D4.
  14. Labbe, Rod (November 5, 2011) Steve Reeves: Demi-God on Horseback. Films of the Golden Age
  15. "Cult Movies 1996: Steve Reeves – The World's Favorite Hercules". Retrieved April 5, 2011.
  17. Reeves, Steve; Peterson, James (1982). Powerwalking. Bobbs-Merrill. p. 196. ISBN 978-0672527135.
  18. Reeves, Steve; Little, John; Tanny, Armand (December 1, 1995). Building the Classic Physique – The Natural Way. Little Wolf Press. p. 240. ISBN 978-1885096104.
  19. Reeves, Steve; Helmer, George (2003). Dynamic Muscle Building. John Little. p. 171. ASIN B000ME9BIQ.

Further reading

  • Chapman, David. "On The Cover: Steve Reeves", Hardgainer, November 1992.
  • LeClaire, Christopher. Steve Reeves Biography "WORLDS TO CONQUER – The Authorized Biography Of Steve Reeves", * , First Edition December 1999, Second Edition 2017.
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