Steve Reeves Unbound

Before the homonymic Supermen George Reeves and Christopher Reeve, there was yet another muscle man to bear the suname on movie screens, a body builder who had held the title of Mr. America (1947), Mr. World (1948) and Mr. Universe (1950) — Steve Reeves (1926-2000). If you’re not a fan of sword-and-sandals epics, you may the name from lyrics in The Rocky Horror Show.

Reeves had started lifting weights as a teenager in Oakland, California. After World War Two service he began to compete in — and win — these major contests, which led to a perfoming career. He studied acting for a time, and was in a nightclub two-act with vaudeville and burlesque comedian Dick Bernie. While Reeves had the opportunity to audition for major projects like Samson and Delilah (1949) and Li’l Abner (1959), he was taken more seriously as eye candy than as a thespian, and prestige fare was not to be his fortune. His first screen credit was the lead in an unsold TV pilot called Kimbar of the Jungle (1949). He had a walk-on as an athlete in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), followed by a good sized role in Ed Wood’s Jail Bait (1954) and a walk-on in Athena (1954) starring Jane Powell.

Reeves next went to New York for some more stage experience. He appeared in the Broadway shows Kismet (1955) and The Vamp (1955). After an absence of three years from screens he appeared in a 1957 episode of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.

The following year Reeves became a giant in the Italian film industry with Hercules (1958). For the next decade he was an international star based out of Rome usually in vehicles based on mythology or ancient history: Hercule Unchained (1959), The White Warrior (1959), Goliath and the Barbarians (1959), The Last Days of Pompeii (1959), The Giant of Marathon (1959), Morgan the Pirate (1960), The Thief of Baghdad (1961), Morgan the Pirate (1961), The Trojan Horse (1961), Duel of the Titans (1961), The Slave (1962), The Avenger (1962), Sandokan the Great (1963), and The Pirates of Maylasia (1964). His last film was a spaghetti western called I Live for Your Death (1968).

Injuries sustained while performing his own stunts forced Reeves to slow down, and he retired from films at the relatively young age of 42. He spent the next three decades on his ranch (he was originally from Montana), although he did emerge once in 1978 — to appear on The Joe Franklin Show! Mickey Hargitay was inspired to go into bodybuilding and show business by the example of Steve Reeves.