Reeves in 1990
Stephen Lester Reeves
January 21, 1926
Glasgow, Montana, U.S.
|Died||May 1, 2000 (aged 74)|
Escondido, California, U.S.
|Occupation||Bodybuilder, actor, philanthropist|
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.
From 1959 through 1964, Reeves went on to appear in a string of sword and sandal movies shot on relatively small budgets 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.
Born in Glasgow, Montana in 1926, Reeves moved to California at age 10 with his mother Goldie Reeves after his father Lester Dell Reeves died in a farming accident. 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.
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.
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.
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?"
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. However this did not happen until Reeves had already made four more films in Europe.
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. Nonetheless Reeves would not play Hercules again, despite his identification with the role.
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
During the filming, Reeves had dislocated his shoulder when his chariot slammed into a tree; 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.
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.
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). "I ended up with an ulcer from that," he said later. "That was my last."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reeves wrote the book Powerwalking, and two self-published books, Building the Classic Physique - The Natural Way, and Dynamic Muscle Building. (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. It was conducted in 1997 and was the last extensive interview Steve Reeves did.
Later in his life, Reeves bred horses and promoted drug-free bodybuilding. 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.
(in parentheses the original movie title)