Looking Back at the Life of Steve Reeves, Screen Hercules

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

    Strong to The Finish When, in 1949, Hollywood megalith Cecil B. DeMille was casting around for the perfect side of beef to play the male lead in his upcoming biblical soap opera Samson and Delilah, his attention was called to Steve Reeves, a dark-haired Adonis crowned Mr. America for 1947 and Mr. World for 1948. With his eye-popping vital statistics (6-foot-1, 215 pounds, 18-inch biceps, 51-inch chest, 29-inch waist), Reeves, 23 at the time, certainly qualified as a proper Samson in the measurements department, and his boyish handsomeness?arrestingly good-looking in an undistinguished way?didn't particularly hurt matters. But while he'd struck imposing, bare-to-the-waist, bulging-muscles poses on the covers of Body Builder, Muscle Power and Iron Man magazines, he had absolutely no acting experience. The way Reeves always told the story, DeMille urged him to try out for the role anyway, while simultaneously insisting that the bodybuilder lose 10 to 20 pounds; in DeMille's mind, Reeves was too beefy. When Reeves declined?he'd worked hard to attain his all-muscle physique?DeMille moved on, eventually settling on Victor "The Hunk" Mature, who handled the Samson part with surprising aplomb, playing opposite Hedy Lamarr's femme fatale Delilah. Reenter the strongman-in-sandals element. Unbeknownst to Reeves, Italian director Pietro Francisci was searching for a suitably stacked someone to portray Hercules in his Le Fatiche di Ercole (The Labors of Hercules), and, tipped by his 13-year-old daughter, who'd spied Reeves in Athena, the filmmaker wired Reeves $10,000 and a roundtrip ticket to Rome. Reeves accepted, made the picture?a somewhat awkward massaging of the Jason and the Argonauts saga?and returned to his health-club job.

    As Hercules, Reeves, his body glistening, waltzes-wrestles with a snarling lion, whangs the Cretan Bull on the noggin, uproots a tree, snaps enormous chains and pulls down a huge palace. Italian audiences embraced both actor (the cast's sole non-European) and movie, making Le Fatiche di Ercole a box-office sensation; it went on to generate huge receipts throughout the Continent. Its financial success did not escape the notice of Hollywood production executive and promotional avatar Joseph E. Levine, who bought the American rights to it in 1958, dubbed it into English, renamed it Hercules and, preceded by an over-the-top publicity assault that included Herc-related comic books, pulp novels and other ancillary tie-ins, released the film in the U.S. in the summer of 1959.

    Hercules racked up spectacular numbers for Levine. But while moviegoers swooned, most critics cringed. "Steve Reeves throttles the screen evils with his big muscles in the old manner of Tarzan," sniped Richard Nason in The New York Times. "There is added but unintended humor in the fact that his voice has the querulous pitch of a bank clerk's." (Someone must have spiked Nason's popcorn. Reeves virtually rattles the dimestore sets with a booming baritone.)

    The extraordinary success of the film engendered a spate of made-in-Italy imitations boasting mythological motifs, notably Francisci's 1959 Ercole e la Regina di Lidia (Hercules and the Queen of Lydia), a sequel of sorts starring Reeves?and featuring many of the actors from its predecessor?in which Hercules grapples with several tigers, gives the heave-ho to some gargantuan statuary and goes one-on-one with hulking ex-heavyweight boxing champ Primo Carnera as the guffawing son of a goddess. Levine released it as Hercules Unchained in summer 1960; it, too, ignited robust ticket sales. Suddenly, Reeves was a megawatt star, earning $250,000 per picture, considered top dollar back then, as he reeled off 13 additional spaghetti action-adventures between 1959 and 1964, from Il Terrore dei Barbari (Goliath and the Barbarians) to La battaglia di Maratona (The Giant of Marathon), directed by Jacques (Cat People) Tourneur. Levine picked up only two for American distribution.

    Typically, U.S. film critics sneered at the Reeves tsunami: In his January 1960 review of Goliath and the Barbarians for the Times, Bosley Crowther helpfully pointed out that "The extent of the theatrics is Mr. Reeves' manifesting feats of strength, such as out-tugging two straining horses and tossing would-be assailants on their ears." Certainly, none of these movies could be confused with La Dolce Vita, nor Reeves with Marcello Mastroianni, but then that was sort of the point. "I'll admit I wasn't a Shakespearean actor," Reeves confessed to Newsday three years ago. "I didn't win any Oscars, but I did the best I could. Even if a tiger is tranquilized, when his paws are on your shoulder and he's breathing in your ear, it's pretty scary."

    At the same time Reeves padded his curriculum vitae, the Italian movie industry shifted into hunka-hunka overdrive, producing 170 mythology-based films between 1957 and 1964, according to Mira Liehm's 1984 book Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present. "By 1965," writes Liehm, "twenty films had been produced featuring Hercules, two dozen about Maciste (the good giant who appeared for the first time in the silent film Cabiria), eight with Ursus (originally a character in Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel Quo Vadis?, which was filmed several times), and seven starring Samson... Their fantastic box-office success lasted until 1965. Then people tired of them, and this generation of supermen disappeared as quickly as they had emerged."

    For his part Reeves disappeared from the screen after he finished making his 18th picture, Vivo Per La Tua Morte, a western released here in 1969 as A Long Ride from Hell. Not only had the he-man roles dried up, but Reeves was increasingly bothered by a shoulder injury he sustained in 1959 when the chariot he was steering collided with a tree during the filming of The Last Days of Pompeii. He retired in 1969, and with his wife, Aline Czarzawicz, raised horses, initially in Oregon, later on a ranch north of San Diego.

    Although his shoulder problem prevented Reeves from serious weightlifting after he gave up his film career, he maintained a rigorous fitness regimen, helping to popularize powerwalking?vigorous striding, with arms swinging while gripping weights?and avidly promoting steroid-free bodybuilding via his book Building the Classic Physique the Natural Way. He wisely invested the money he made from movies in real estate, stocks and bonds, which allowed him to live comfortably in retirement. "I want to make it to 100," he once noted, "because if I don't, it would be bad for my reputation."

    Reeves didn't make it. He died on May 1 in a hospital in Escondido, CA, age 74, the result of complications from lymphoma, which he learned he had only two months earlier. And while his bodybuilding reputation easily eclipsed his moviemaking reputation, Reeves embodied an integrity that suffused everything he attempted, including his films. "I never enjoyed being an actor," he told the Los Angeles Times years ago. "What I enjoyed was the challenge. I always came to work on time. I always knew my lines. But I also knew that nothing lasts forever."