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California and the West | Obituaries

Steve Reeves, Mr. Universe Who Became Movie Strongman, Dies

May 04, 2000|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steve Reeves, the Mr. Universe who won a film role as the mythical strongman Hercules and became one of the world's top box office draws of the 1950s, has died.

Reeves was 74 when he succumbed Monday to lymphoma, diagnosed eight weeks ago, at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido.

He made 19 films in his career, and while critics panned his acting, the movies were popular with the public, especially in Europe. His most successful film, "Hercules," earned him just $10,000, but eventually he made $250,000 a film, then good money for a leading man.

With an imposing 6-foot-1, 215-pound build, Reeves in his prime had broad shoulders, a 52-inch chest, a 29-inch waist and matinee-idol good looks. He won the Mr. America title in 1947, the Mr. World and Mr. Universe titles in 1948 and another Mr. Universe title in 1950.

"He was the most successful [bodybuilder] at his time," Arnold Schwarzenegger, who himself set records for bodybuilding excellence, said Wednesday. "He was handsome and had a beautiful body. . . . . He loved the sport, he loved being a perfectionist."

Reeves was born in Montana, where his father died when he was 3. He spent the next several years riding horses on his uncle's ranch before moving to Oakland with his mother. A friend there taught Reeves to lift weights when he was 17.

"When I was a junior in high school, I could beat anybody at arm-wrestling," Reeves recalled in an interview with The Times some years ago. "Then when I started high school, there was this guy, Joe Gambino, who was about 5-foot-5. I was already 6-foot, but Gambino could beat me at arm-wrestling and I just couldn't figure out how. One day I went to his house and asked his sister, 'Where's Joe?' and she said, 'Oh, he's out in the garage working out with weights.' So I went to the garage and he taught me how to lift weights. He used to charge me 50 cents a lesson. Joe became a barber. I became Mr. Universe."

Reeves bought his own set of weights and put on 30 pounds of muscle in three months. After serving in the Army during World War II, he won the Mr. America title in Chicago in 1947.

The acclaim from the bodybuilding competitions helped him land screen tests in Hollywood, but most studio executives were put off by his size. He recalled that Cecil B. DeMille tested him for the lead of the film "Samson and Delilah" but told him to lose 10 pounds. Reeves and DeMille decided that neither of them wanted him to have the role very much. The part went to Victor Mature.

Reeves bumped along in Hollywood over the next several years. His first speaking role came in "Jail Bait," a 1954 B movie directed by Ed Wood. He also had a small part that year in "Athena, " a musical comedy starring Jane Powell. But that role helped fuel his rise to fame.

Italian director Pietro Francisci had been searching for an actor to star in "Hercules," and his 13-year-old daughter mentioned Reeves after seeing "Athena."

The director saw the film and immediately cabled a round-trip airline ticket and $10,000 to Reeves, who had just decided to quit the movie business for a steady job with a health club chain.

Reeves went to Rome, made the film and returned to his job with the health clubs.

But the movie caught on like wildfire. Fans throughout Europe flocked to theaters to see "Hercules." The film was later brought to America with an English soundtrack and found a wide audience.

Hercules was followed by "Hercules Unchained," and then a number of costume dramas in the 1960s, including "The White Warrior," "Morgan the Pirate," "Thief of Baghdad," "Duel of the Titans" and "The Barbarians."

In his sword and sandal movies, Reeves toppled temples, tossing off columns as if they were oversized rolling pins, and leveled regiments of pursuing soldiers. He fought tigers, a lion, a bull and a bear--scenes filmed with the help of animal trainers and tranquilizers.

"I'll admit I wasn't a Shakespearean actor," Reeves told a reporter from Newsday in 1997. "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."

Off-screen, Schwarzenegger said, Reeves was a shy man.

"He was an introvert, not an outgoing guy," he said. "His way of expression was through developing the physique. That was the way he could communicate."

In fact, Reeves once told The Times, "I never enjoyed being an actor. 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, which is why I invested the money that I was making from the films while I still had it."

Reeves invested in stocks, bonds and real estate, which made him financially secure for life. That allowed him to tend to his first love: raising horses. He had ranches first in Oregon and then in the north San Diego County community of Valley Center.

His wife, Aline, died of a stroke in 1989. They had no children.

Reeves said he could afford to live another century. At least, he said, "I want to make it to 100, because if I don't, it would be bad for my reputation."

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