I've reproduced this faithfully, but I seriously think some of those film dates are off. The info here for the Steve Reeves International Society is obviously out of date, but I have a link to their current web site on my main Steve Reeves page - they're still active.
Very little has been written about the early years of Steve Reeves; and his remarkable contribution to world cinema has rarely been discussed in serious journalistic terms. And yet the life and career of Reeves is of a fascinating and unique nature - the stuff of which The Movies are made.
Steve Reeves was born in Glasgow, Montana, a healthy and robust child of Welsh, Irish, German and English heritage, on January 21, 1926. His father was a rancher who also did carpentry and was a contractor. When Steve was only six months old his mother entered him in his first contest in which he received the title of "Most Healthiest Baby" in Danials County. By the age of three, Reeves was able to ride horseback on his own - the beginning of a lifelong love of horses.
Later, during his last year of junior high school in Oakland, California, Steve discovered body-building. He worked out with friends and eventually purchased a 200 lb. set of used weights and turned the family garage into his workout gym. Within a month he was enrolled in the training methods and nutritional guidance at the gym of noted body building coach Ed Yarick in Oakland.
After more than two years of hard work and dedication to bodybuilding, Reeves had developed a truly phenomenal body. Friends told him repeatedly that he should become a wrestler, a dancer, or an actor in the movies because of his good looks and amazing musculature. He graduated from high school in 1944, and on September 12 of that year reported to the Precidio of Monterey for induction into the Army.
After basic training, Reeves received orders to ship out to the Philippines; his assignment was on the front lines in Luzon. Steve belonged to Company A of the 25th Division which was involved in the taking of Balete Pass. He was assigned to Japan after the Allied occupation and stationed on Nokkaido Island. Steve was released from the Army at the war's end, following 26 months of service. On September 18, 1946, he finally stood again on good old American terra firma.
The harrowing experiences and sights of the war had changed his life, as it had certainly changed everyone's. But it was amidst the horrors of war that the young man planned what he'd do after the war. Often he would block out the casualties and death that surrounded him with thoughts of a better time to come at the conclusion of the war. He had decided to become a movie star.
Steve Reeves didn't merely become famous; he became world famous. Hercules was neither his first film nor his last, but it is the film for which he is most universally acclaimed, and the type of role that he continued in for much of his career. It fired the Italian film industry and launched an entire genre of productions -180 films made in a six year time period.
Although anything approaching a definitive Steve Reeves biography or an exhaustive history of the Italian "Sword & Sandal" films of the 1950s and '60s is sorely lacking, we are proud to present this in-depth interview with Steve Reeves - perhaps his first in any movie magazine since the 1960s. It was conducted this year by George Helmer, founder of the Steve Reeves International Society. Selected questions were compiled by Stephen Flacassier, author of "Muscles, Myths and Movies," easily the most satisfying volume on the "Hercules" films yet published in the English language. Cult Movies readers will assuredly honor both gentlemen for their pioneering work in documenting this some times underrated period in film history and keeping it alive.
Interviewed by George Helmer
CM: You may still be the best known body builder in the world. Prior to you the best known person into physical culture was Eugen Sandow. Was he an influence on you?
Steve Reeves: John Grimek had a direct influence on me because he was of my time. You could see pictures of him in the magazines, and at contests or social gatherings.
CM: Bodybuilding was something that wasn't considered a sport by the average person back in the 1940s, was it? It wasn't taken too seriously.
SR: People didn't consider it a sport, that's true. They thought it was a get-in-shape hobby. My friends and family didn't see much of a living in it unless a person could open a gym. My friends thought it was a good way to socialize and to compete. It is a sport in the respect that you compete - against the weights and other people in the gym. Then ultimately you compete against other bodybuilders on the stage. So in that respect it is a competitive sport.
CM: Did you think of bodybuilding as a way of breaking into acting in films?
SR: Not really. Actually, having the build that I did was a detriment at first. I went to Universal Studios and had an interview. They told me that I was a good looking guy and was tall and every thing. They could put me under contract like Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson but the trouble is I had that big physique and they could only use me in one movie a year. It would be a very limited use situation, maybe because I made their other male contract players look weak by comparison. So it was a disadvantage for many years, but then when the right films came along it pushed me way ahead. And although I've been out of the limelight for the past 25 years, I consider it a great honor to still be recognized for my work in bodybuilding and films.
CM: Today's style of bodybuilding has been called "freaky for the sake of being freaky," as compared to the massive yet symmetrical build you're so well known for. Which do you think best reflects the sport of bodybuilding?
SR: First of all, I think to be fit and in shape is a great thing. But it shouldn't dominate and rule your life. I believe your life should be balanced. I would recommend, that a person have a symmetrical, classical type physique. It's more desirable to the general public, although a few fans like that extreme bulked up steroid type physique. I'm glad more people are getting into the sport. Back in the '40s we never would have imagined that a machine like a Soloflex could be brought into a person's living room, because we didn't even have that kind of equipment in the gyms at the time. In the big gyms we had only barbells, dumb bells, leg press machines and wall pulleys. That was about it!
CM: Your first dramatic acting was in live theater wasn't it?
SR: I was in Kismet for two years in which I played one of the guards and sang in the quartet. I was in The Vamp with Carol Channing which was playing on Broadway. In the New York Catskills I was in Wish You Were Here and continued acting in it for a year when it went to Sacramento. It gave me some very good experience.
My acting career started In 1947 after I had won the Mr. America contest. Knowing that I couldn't have the big body and be an actor I dropped about 10 pounds. The camera puts 10 or 15 extra pounds on you and you want to trim down for the movies. I went to acting school in New York City since I wasn't getting the acting jobs I wanted. I continued working on my body and won another body building contest, then lost the weight again and started acting once again. This went on until 1957 when I made Hercules. That changed everything for me.
CM: For many years most of your official bio's didn't mention that your first film was Jail Bait for director Ed Wood. Now that Wood is getting so much attention, do you mind being associated with that film and his work?
SR: No, not at all. It was actually my first film and that's where I got my Screen Actors Guild card. While the film was in production it was called The Hidden Face. Later on when they released it they changed it to Jail Bait, which does sound like it would sell better. I liked working with Ed Wood, and thought he was a nice man and a good director. He kind of let you do what you wanted and guided you very slightly, not trying to dominate every move you made.
CM: How were you approached to do the part?
SR: My agent heard that they were going to make the picture and read the script and thought it would be a good film for me to start with. In the movie I think I only had my shirt off for five seconds. There was no screen test or anything; I interviewed with the director and he said I would be good for the part.
I didn't have that big of a part in the film and so there was no difficulty for me. I didn't have to work that many hours in one day or remember much dialogue. It wasn't difficult at all, and since it was my first role it was quite a good adventure.
CM: In Wood's biography Nightmare Of Ecstasy it's said that it required numerous takes just to film you putting on your necktie; while the impression from Wood's films is that they're one- take wonders. Do you remember this shot being a tough one?
SR: I don't remember the shot but knowing Ed Wood he would never take more than four shots regardless. Being used to wearing tee-shirts and sweatshirts it might have been difficult for me to tie a tie. I can tell you this, though - I had to furnish all my own suits, jackets, pants, shoes and so forth, since they had no money for a wardrobe. I knew it was an inexpensive film, but I wanted to get into movies and this seemed like a good picture to start with.
CM: Your second film was called Athena, which gave you less acting to do but highlighted your physique more. Did you consider this a step back?
SR: I didn't think it was back-stepping; I thought it was a step up. It was a color picture, which was a musical comedy and had big stars like Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell and Vic Damone. I felt that this movie was going to give me a lot of exposure, which it did. I was hoping it would be more successful than it was, like Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, which was a very successful film. It's true I didn't have as much dialogue as I wished, but that's the way it goes. That movie is where I was discovered to play Hercules, so how can I complain!
Athena was a big budget film. On one day of shooting, the guy who played the boyfriend of Debbie Reynolds had to come into the scene and walk up to Debbie; he said, "Hi girls, hi Debbie!" Of course her name in the film was Minerva, so they had to shoot the scene over. So they took it from the top again and he does his lines, and as he's lifting up a box his pants were too tight and he ripped out the entire backside. He wasn't wearing any undershorts and his entire butt was sticking out. His stage name at the time was Richard Saber; he was also Mr. America and next to me he had the most important part as far as physique actors were concerned.
CM: And then your next film was Hercules. Over the years a lot has been said about your working relationship with Joseph E. Levine, the producer. One time it's Levine who's raking in the dough from the movies while you're just taking home a paycheck Another report has Levine being left out in the cold after making a few high ticket movies while you cashed in on the popularity and doing more films. What really happened?
SR: The truth of the matter is that I made Hercules over in Italy and Levine didn't know any thing about it. Not until it was released all over Europe did his agent know anything about it. He was buying films for Levine, and I believe he bought Ulysses - a film which proved to do pretty good for him. He had a friend in Rome who looked for films to buy. When Hercules came out it was the biggest box office draw in Italy and all over Europe, and Levine said, "Well, I better get that one to the States." Levine bought it for the United States and released it during the summer of 1959. I made that film in the summer of 1957, so there was a two year delay. I must say that Levine was a good promoter and showman and he put a lot of money behind the publicity for Hercules. He bought it for a very reasonable amount, and bought it for the United States only, not even all of North America. All his money went into promoting it.
The same producer and director had a script all ready to go for the sequel, Hercules Unchained. I had no other offers at the time, so I returned to Italy and made the film.
When I made Hercules Unchained, Levine bought that one up too, this time getting United States and Canada. He had nothing to do with producing the second film either; it was already finished when he bought it. I was already on my fourth or fifth film by the time he bought Hercules and the second film, Hercules Unchained. He bought both films but didn't participate in the production in any way. Then he wanted to sign me up for a third Hercules film, but I convinced him to do Morgan The Pirate instead. Definitely Levine made more money off my films than anybody. Other people made money also, but Levine made more than anyone else on the first two films. On those two I made very little money.
CM: Did you have a good working relationship with the man - any ideas how these rumors started?
SR: Not really. Levine was an egomaniac. I would say that we would have a good working relationship until his ego came in. We had a contract for one of the films - it could have been Morgan The Pirate or Thief of Baghdad. The contract stated that I would have my name 70 percent the size of the title, and no actor or producer could get more than 5O percent of the title. He wanted his name to be as big or bigger than mine. I said, "No Joe, you signed the contract stating that mine was to be the first name above everybody else and 70 percent of the title; we have a contract." This was in the Hotel Excelsior in Rome and he was eating a big bowl of spaghetti. He got so mad he threw his plate up and spaghetti was dripping from the chandelier and all over the place; it was a mess. If he wanted the contract to read differently we could have negotiated something else for a price, but he just wanted to take the glory.
When he re-released Hercules and Hercules Unchained in 1977 he contacted me and said, "Would you go around and make personal appearances for me when the show opens in Dallas, New York, Chicago, and about seven other cities?" I said that I would, and he asked, "How much are you going to charge me?" I said that I didn't need much, just my expenses and five hundred dollars each day, which is nothing. He thought that was too much and said, "Oh hell, I can get some muscle men jerks from the gyms in each of those towns - do you want me to do that?" I told him to go ahead, and that's just what he did. For crying out loud, I gave him that price because I felt I was giving him a more than fair value for my time. These days when I do events I charge somewhere around a thousand dollars an hour, or if I stay three hours I'll do it for two thousand dollars. I was certainly worth more in those days than I am today. But Levine- five hundred dollars a day for old times sake yet he wanted all the money.
CM: The inevitable question has to be; while filming Hercules, did you ever dream it would be so successful around the world?
SR: Naturally I was hoping so, but you never dream of it. If I would have imagined what was going to happen, I wouldn't have had to come back and get a job in the States. After filming the first one, I came back home and went back working for American Health Studios as an instructor in their gyms for six months. I found out how popular Hercules was and they brought me back for the second one. By the time I finished the second film I signed for a third and fourth. I knew success was there at that time. I had no idea that Hercules, my first starring role, would be the most successful picture in the world. Not only in the United States but the entire world in 1959. I was top box office here, and in Calcutta India it played four showings a day 365 days a year for two years. It was also a huge success in Japan and throughout Asia. I had no idea, if I would have had that knowledge I would have cashed in on it. I would have gone to Japan and done commercials like Stallone and those guys do today. Stallone and Schwarzenneger go over and make commercials for Japan only and make a fortune.
CM: Was that your own voice in these films?
SR: It was my own voice in the American films, but not in the others. They tried to match my voice as close as possible in the other films. When they shot the film they had my voice recorded in English, but the woman doing the part of Yoli was speaking Italian and another person was speaking French; also they had airplanes going over all the time so they couldn't use the soundtrack. What they did was mail the scripts and soundtracks which they did have to New York and got radio actors to dub the voices and re-create the sounds. It was less expensive to do it that way than pay my expenses and salary to dub my own voice.
CM: Sylva Koscina plays your wife in both Hercules films. Did these films have the same effect on her career as it did yours?
SR: She was a Yugoslavian girl who was working in Rome and had done a few small parts. Hercules really launched her career and she did very well ever after. She did the film completely in Italian because she came from the part of Yugoslavia that spoke Yugoslavian as well as Italian. She was a nice person to work with and since it was my first big film I was more concerned with what I was doing rather than what the other people were doing.
CM: This film also has you with Mimmo Palmara. While the two of you couldn't exactly be considered a team, most of your movies have Palmara somewhere in the background - no matter what production team is making the film. What can you tell us about him?
SR: Mimmo Palmara was a large Italian at about six foot one and about two hundred pounds. When I had an adversary, they didn't want me to have someone five foot six and a hundred pounds. It wouldn't look very good! They got the biggest guy they could find that could act and had a face with a lot of character and good physique. That's why we used him so many times. After the first movie I had complete approval of all the cast, directors and anything else, and never found it necessary to object to anybody. They always put the right people in the cast.
CM: Since Hercules was the first, did they run into any unforeseen production problems, such as getting costumes?
SR: They had done a lot of costume films in Italy before ours, for the local market there. Of course they did; they had Quo Vadis with Robert Taylor which was a Roman film. We used a lot of costumes from that film for the extras in my films. They made special costumes for the main stars for every picture. But they do have warehouses of costumes for Greek pictures they can fall back on.
CM: How was Mario Bava to work with?
SR: Mario Bava I remember very well. He was a great cameraman and good for special effects. Later he wasn't satisfied in being a cameraman because he knew all the set ups the directors had used and for years and years had been a cameraman and made these creative decisions. He got more ambitious and made a bunch of vampire type movies, horror films that he became known for.
CM: Your next big epic was Goliath And The Barbarians. How soon after Hercules was this made?
SR: It was six months after filming Hercules Unchained. There was Hercules, Hercules Unchained, The White Warrior, which was made in Yugoslavia, and then Goliath and the Barbarians. Obviously, Hercules was already playing in Europe by then, but not yet in America.
These films were so successful I should have been getting better contracts. But I had an agent by the name of Mitchell Gurts who sold me down the river for Hercules Unchained. They contacted him and said that they wanted me for Hercules Unchained; not only didn't he get a raise for me, they gave me the same amount for the second movie that I'd made on the first. He got himself a free around-the-world trip for negotiating it that way, not giving me a raise.
I think the producer of Goliath and the Barbarians was a new producer just going into producing and he wanted something that would be a sure thing. After seeing the success of the Hercules films, he thought he'd make another picture of the same genre but not call it Hercules because other people had that name tied up. He utilized the popularity of Hercules to launch that film and his own success.
Bruce Cabot of King Kong fame was one of the other stars-a real nice guy. I think he played the father of one of the barbarian girls.
CM: A lot of your co-stars in the films ended up portraying Hercules in later films. Did that bother you at all?
SR: When that genre really exploded many people got involved, but it never bothered me. Alan Steele was Italian and my stunt double in one of my films. I forgot what his real name was but it was a very long name, so he took an American name. I believe he made a couple of the reasonably low Hercules films.
When they made Romulus and Remus they wanted me to play the parts of both twins. In those days they didn't have the technology that they have today, so we said, "Let's get another actor to play my brother." Like who? I thought of all the guys I'd known who were about the same height, good build and nice looking and said, Gordon Scott. In the contract I said I would do the movie if they got Gordon Scott. They thought this demand of mine could hold up production if Gordon wanted too much money. They contacted him and got him for much more than he ever made before, but not as much as they thought they were going to have to pay. I've known Gordon Scott since we were teenagers and was glad to have him in this film. It helped relaunch his career after the Tarzan series had spiraled down.
I never worked with Reg Park, but he made a couple of Hercules films. Again, his films played in only a few countries, whereas mine were sold worldwide, so it never had much impact on what I was doing one way or another. I used to get dozens of scripts, since I didn't want to work that much, I'd do three films per year and other actors would make the remaining films.
CM: You made a film called The Avenger, which is a pretty unspectacular outing for you.
SR: The reason I did that film is that had done The Trojan Horse (aka War Of Troy) and I had a two picture contract with these same people. They chose the second one to be the sequel and filmed it one year later. I agree, the second one wasn't as good and it wasn't as successful.
CM: Sandokan the Great was even more of a departure from the time line of the rest of your films.
SR: The author of that was Amilio Salgerey, who was the Jules Verne of Italy. Sandokan is something that all school children in Italy read and tend to admire. The Italians thought it would be a big moneymaker and good for Italy. They thought the rest of the world would like it too. I enjoyed doing the film.
CM: Since Sandokan was an established fictional character, were there any plans to do more films with him if this one took off?
SR: We did two "Sandokans" and again it was a two picture deal. One did so well that we did the follow up. The first was called Sandokan The Great or Sandokan the Tiger, and the second was Pirates of the Seven Seas or Sandokan the Pirate depending on what country it was released in. The first was filmed in Italy, Ceylon and Spain. The second was filmed in Italy, Spain and Greece.
It was good to get off the old back lot for these films. Traveling was one of the best parts of acting. I was able to go to all those countries, see the different cultures, taste the foods, take in all the spectacular views of nature and observe all the different mannerisms of the people.
CM: Another of your great films is Giant Of Marathon, which is my favorite of all the films in the genre. The film goes pretty much by the book until the ending, when you and your loyal guards take to the ocean with nothing more than what look like sharpened telephone poles to sink ships. The fighting was pretty spectacular! Did you know this was going to be such a dynamic climax to the film?
SR: The actor always knows what's going to be in the climax of the film because he has the script to read. You know what's going to happen, though they might surprise you a little by modifying it slightly at the end if they see something more workable.
The underwater scenes were filmed in about three days in the very clear waters off of Capri.
CM: Given your build and how little you're wearing, I can't imagine they used a stunt double for you in all those shots. It's obviously you. Was there any concern for your safety with this long underwater filming?
SR: They are always concerned for your safety but what the productions always do is give you the most dangerous scene to be done on the last two days, whether it appears in the movie in the middle or at the start. If something happened to you by then, they had the movie all wrapped up. Underwater you do what you can, then come up for air and rest a while, then get back down there and do another shot. I'm a pretty good swimmer, so it's just all part of the job.
I've had a pretty diverse career, doing pirate films, westerns and so forth. One thing I'd say is that I'd never play a villain type role. My audience thought of me as a hero, and I thought of myself as a hero and that's how I wanted to represent myself. So that's the way it went.
But I was comfortable playing any swashbuckling hero type. There was no need to change my type of role as far as I could see. I wanted to do a Western, and I did get to do that in my last film. It was almost the same thing as the sword and sandal films except you had different garb on-a cowboy outfit instead of a Greek toga.
CM: The Western film is Long Ride To Hell, which is your last film to date. It's said that you were offered the lead in Leone's film A Fist Full Of Dollars but turned it down because of the bloodshed. After the Italian Westerns became successful and took the place the sword and sandal films had on the backlot, it's said you made this one to either counter or, as everyone else did to you, cash in on them.
SR: Number one, I didn't refuse Fistful Of Dollars because It was bloody. I didn't care about the blood. I refused it for three reasons. First of all, I didn't think an Italian could make a good Western. I'm a man of the West, born in Montana and have uncles that have 50,000 acres of cattle ranches. My family have been World Championship Rodeo Cowboys, so I'm a man of the West. I wanted to see the Western done as it should be done, with authenticity. I thought the Italians wouldn't have the feel for it. The film was based on a Japanese film by Kurosawa, almost shot for shot. That's mainly why I didn't want to get involved.
The director is someone I'd worked with before; he was listed as the assistant director of the first unit on Last Days Of Pompeii. The main director, Mario Benar was a man of age and didn't have too much energy; so he let Sergio Leone do all the directing. I worked with him before and we got along real well. But I just didn't want to do that particular film.
But I still wanted to do a Western someday. I was living in a small chalet in Lucerne, Switzerland when I wasn't shooting. One winter I read over one hundred paperback Westerns, because I wanted to do a Western. I came across three I liked real well. I contacted this literary agent in New York City and asked him to check into those three and see if I could get an option to buy. He checked into it and got back to me in a couple of weeks and said that two of them Clint Walker had an option on and the third John Wayne had an option on. He said that he understood that within a month one of these was going to be available. I waited for a month and luckily, out of all the hundred books I read, the one I wanted most did become available. It was called Judas Gun by Gordon Sherreffs who sold Rio Bravo to John Wayne and Last Train From Gun Hill to Kirk Douglas. Gordon is a great Western writer. I took an option on it for ten thousand dollars. All you have to do is put down a thousand dollars and within a year if you want it you pay nine thousand dollars and it's yours.
Well, within six months I got a production company that wanted to do it. I got an Italian writer who would work with me. I was the technical director and I wanted to make sure that the saddles were right and had the right type of bridles and that the costumes were right. I enjoyed doing the picture but it was quite stressful for me because I was the star, the co-author, technical director, and I had a piece of the production so it required all my attention. Mainly I enjoyed it because it was something I'd wanted to do for years. Clint Eastwood was doing his Westerns but producers couldn't quite see me doing these because they thought of me as Hercules only. One time I put on my Western clothes and went in for a conference with the head of one of the studios in Italy, and he said maybe he could see me as a cowboy, but in his mind he could only picture me in Roman togas.
CM: On the poster for Long Ride To Hell it's not your body they use where they try to link this to your Hercules films. Whose idea was it to use someone else on the poster?
SR: The distributor has control of that, as well as most aspects of selling the film. I have no idea who's body or face they used on the poster.
CM: We find your name attached to George Pal's film of Doc Savage; what happened there?
SR: I did go and meet with the people. George Pal was going to do this Doc Savage and he chose a director who was a real enthusiast about me. George Pal wasn't really a writer, he was a producer and had good ideas. At that time all the Hollywood writers were on strike. George Pal put this together the best he could with his ability, but he was not a top professional writer. So the director and I looked at the script and thought we needed to make some changes; a lot of things weren't sounding very realistic on paper. There were some delays and they ended up not using me or the director. That's when Ron Ely got the part. I think Ron did a good job, but the overall film wasn't that great.
CM: Do you consider yourself fully retired now?
SR: I might still make a feature film, but I mainly concentrate on the horses now. I see the new films that come out and I enjoy some of them. People talk about the impact of violence in today's films. I think the public is so used to the violence that they kind of demand it now. They feel let down if there aren't a few buildings blown up and a few hundred people killed, lots of car chases and so on. It is a sure way to sell tickets, but sometimes I wonder if it's the only way.*