In 2021 muscular action stars are common. It seems like very month we read a new transformation story wherein a male actor has radically increased their muscle mass in preparation of a new role. What was once a surprise has now become an expectation. How did we get here?
That is an answer which a short blog post cannot answer. Instead I would recommend John Fair and David Chapman’s excellent book Muscles in the Movies. Less ambitiously, today’s post discusses the first bodybuilding to become a movie star in his own right.
But What About Sandow?
Yes, it is true. In 1901 Eugen Sandow appeared in one of the earliest film recordings every taken. Done during his tour of the United States, Sandow’s appearance in a Thomas Edison film contributed to his reputation as the father of physical culture. His film, which was short in duration, was shown around America and often at Sandow’s own shows.
Sandow was the first bodybuilder to appear on film but he did not become an actor. A stronger example would likely be Annette Kellerman. Originally an Australian swimmer who became an actor in the 1910s, Kellerman was also a physical culturist. At several points she appeared in Bernarr Macfadden‘s Physical Culture magazine and even did physical culture lecture tours in the 1920s.
During research for my book on the history of physical culture in Ireland, I came across several newspaper reports detailing Kellerman’s physical culture lectures in Ireland and the impact they had in local gymnasiums. So Kellerman is definitely a contender.
Ultimately though, we are interested today in the muscular male action star so we have to skip ahead a few decades to Steve Reeves.
Steve Reeves: A Life
Steve Reeves is seen by many as one of bodybuilding’s greatest physiques. He won the Mr. America contest in 1947, the Mr. World in 1948 and the Mr. Universe in 1950. Because Reeves competed in the era before the Mr. Olympia contest, this meant he had won all the major contests in a four year period!
As early as 1947 Reeves was being scouted by talent agents to appear in films. Speaking with The Perfect Vision Magazine in 1997, Reeves remembered that
In 1947, when I won the Mr. America title in Chicago, I got back to my hotel and there was a letter from an agent in New York City. It said “If you’re interested in show business, I think you have potential. Give me a call or write me a letter and I’ll see that you go to acting school on the GI Bill of Rights. We’ll find you a little apartment, and on weekends we’ll get you into vaudeville acts so you can make some extra money.
At that time bodybuilding was not a lucrative sport. The Mr. America contest had begun in 1939 but, generally speaking, the only way to make money was to find a job outside of the sport. Some, like John Grimek, were hired by Bob Hoffman and York Barbell. Others, like Steve Reeves, lived primarily from their military pensions (he served in the Second World War).
Clearly interested in film, Reeves began taking acting classes and, in time, found a job opening with a new venture, Hercules.
Nowadays actors are typically expected to add muscle mass when taking on a role. Reeves, on the other hand, was told to lose weight! In 1948 Reeves met with film director and producer Cecil B. Demille
And he said, ‘This is my Samson.’ Then he added, ‘But you must realize that the motion picture camera puts on 15 pounds, so you’re going to have to lose 15 pounds. You understand?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He gave me a coach who would spend a couple of hours a day with me, and he’d invite me to have lunch with him every day.
So I’d lose five pounds, then I’d go out to the beach on Sunday and all my friends would say, ‘Steve, you’re looking terrible. You’re ruining yourself. You’re the world s greatest; what do you want to be just another actor for?
Why don’t you stay in this field.’ Then I’d go back to the studio and De Mille would say, ‘Look, you’ve only lost five pounds, and I’ve got to start the picture about three or four months from now.’Once a week I would have to do a skit for him.
Frustratingly for Reeves, his role in Sampson as given to another actor. He had to wait another few months until he secured a role in the television show Kimbar of the Jungle.
From Bodybuilder to Hercules
Reeves’ early experiences in acting were mixed. In 1950 he continued to compete in bodybuilding – he won the 1950 Mr. Universe title – while also picking up small roles in television. It was not until 1954 that fortunes began to change.
In 1954 Reeves secured a small role in an Ed Wood film which earned Reeves a Screen Actor’s Guild card. This did not immediately open doors for him in the industry but it meant that he was now joining the mainstream.
Four years after working with Ed Wood, Reeves was offered the opportunity to work with Italian director Pietro Francisci. At that time, Francisci was struggling to find an actor to play Hercules for his Italian movie based on the Grecian hero. Francisci’s daughter recommended Reeves, having seen him in previous films and television shows.
Offered $10,000 for the lead role, Reeves accepted. Despite it’s relatively low budget, the film was a commercial success first in Europe and, in time, the United States. This set in motion several other ‘sword and scandal’ movies which featured Reeves as some form of muscled hero struggling to win the day.
Retired from bodybuilding, Reeves spent the next decade appearing in the movies before retiring completely to move to a 150 acre ranch in Suncrest Stock, Oregan. His short time in the movies nevertheless lives on thanks to the commonality of muscular protagonists still gracing our screens.
I saw one of Reeves’ first movies “Athena” when I was about 12 years old. In that movie, contrary to his later roles, he played an arrogant, unsympathetic, bullying sort of character. The title character, played by Jane Powell, was the loveliest granddaughter of a Bernarr McFadden-type eccentric who wanted to marry her to the Reeves character to create the “perfect human.” She wrecks the arrangement by falling for an ordinary fellow who is able to thwart Reeves’ bullying by using his abilities at judo. Interestingly, many years later I became good friends with one of the troupe of bodybuilders in the movie. This was Jim Cirillo, who played “Mr. Greece.” As he used to joke, “In those days I looked like a Greek god. Now I just look like a goddam Greek!” Cirillo became much more famous as a top gunfighter and mankiller with the NYPD Stakeout Squad than for his short-lived acting/bodybuilding careers.
Reeves decided to get out of the acting business at relatively young age after many of the top male stars died around the age of 60–Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and Humphrey Bogart, just to name some. Just before he quit, he was offered or considered for a couple of leading roles–James Bond in Dr. No and the Man with No Name in A Fistful of Dollars. Given the subsequent careers of the actors who took those roles, one has to wonder whether Reeves may have later rued his decision!
He had an amazing movie career despite how short it was didn’t he? Not sure if you’ve read it yet but John Fair and David Chapman’s new book Muscles in the Movies is absolutely delightful in reliving some of these stories. Like you Reeves’ movies had a big impact on me growing up as they were always on in my grandparent’s house!
Also incredible to think they had him diet down!