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Steve Reeves: The King of Bodybuilding

He was called “the body that launched a thousand careers.” A Mr. America, Mr. Universe and Mr. World winner and a man whose godlike looks caused traffic accidents and drew crowds that followed him on busy beaches.

[Photographer] Tony Lanza and Steve were walking along, searching for a suitable location to begin shooting, when suddenly they heard a crash behind them. A man had driven his automobile into another car. He climbed out of the wreck, raced up to Steve and shook his hand, saying, 'I just had an accident over there, and I had to come over and congratulate you because you're the cause of it'I couldn't believe my eyes!'
' Milton T. Moore

He was called 'the body that launched a thousand careers.' A Mr. America, Mr. Universe and Mr. World winner and a man whose godlike looks caused traffic accidents and drew crowds that followed him on busy beaches. He was a movie star whose films not only were inspirational and entertaining but also taught generations of film fans something about Greek, Roman and Russian history.

A man whose films inspired such luminaries as Winston Churchill, James Dean, Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bo Derek, Willie Mays and Jesse Owens'and the people who give out the Heisman Trophy, who went so far as to have a special trophy crafted in his honor.

Above all, however, he was a man who lived life on his own terms, turning his back on movies at the height of his popularity. Having made enough money to fulfill his dream of owning his own ranch, he devoted the rest of his life to breeding horses and researching and creating new exercises and bodybuilding methods.

Having just completed the first ever film on Reeves' life and career ('Steve Reeves: The Man. The Legend'see the box above), along with my good friend George Helmer, a longtime friend of Steve's and president of Classic Image Productions, a company devoted to preserving and perpetuating Reeves' legacy, I find myself in the unique position of knowing a fair bit about the incredible life this man lived. I had the pleasure of knowing Reeves quite well for 14 years. Many was the time George and I would make the two-hour drive from Woodland Hills, California, to the ranch in Valley Center, to interview Reeves or on occasion work out with him.

When I first met Reeves, he was 60 years old, but his physique and appearance were unsettlingly youthful. Once, when we were discussing calf training, he suddenly stood up and rolled up his pants leg to reveal a calf muscle that had to be at least 18 inches around and so beautifully formed that it looked as though it had been sculpted by Michelangelo out of living marble'and at age 60! I've spoken with people who knew Reeves very well in the 1950s; they recall a time when it was impossible for him to pull his pants leg over his calf because it was even bigger.

I also recall training with the former 'Hercules' star shortly after he'd turned 70 and getting my ass kicked during a particularly brutal leg session. Rather than feeling embarrassed by the fact that a man 35 years my senior had left me in the dust, I was invigorated and inspired.

Reeves not only showed bodybuilders how great the human body could look naturally'he never took a steroid in his life'but he also showed the world how much more impressive movie action sequences can be when the star is muscular. What's more, he proved that growing old is not a death sentence but a chance to maintain or build a physique and a life that are every bit as enjoyable and impressive as the ones you had when you were younger.

A listing of Reeves' accomplishments would easily fill this magazine. In this series I'll focus on some of his more noteworthy achievements. Before he began his film career in 1954, Reeves' handsome face and sculpted physique were eagerly sought by America's art community as classic subjects of inspiration and presentation. Dr. Avard Fairbanks, a Guggenheim fellow and world-famous sculptor whose works include numerous sculptures of Abraham Lincoln and the Pony Express monument) once said, 'Steve Reeves is the epitome of a man bringing his physique into harmony with the universe he is a part of. He's the grandest example I have ever seen of Michelangelo's dream come true. It is unfortunate Steve Reeves was not living during the Renaissance period, for the masters would have worn their hands to the bone making statues from him.'

In bodybuilding competition the greatest champions speak his name in hallowed tones:

Steve Reeves' physique is perfect.
'Sergio Oliva, Mr. Olympia

A few days before the [Mr. America] contest we heard rumors about a man who had throngs of people following him along the Lake Michigan beachfront, and we couldn't imagine who could draw crowds by merely walking along the beach!
'George Eiferman, Mr. America

Immortal is the least word used to describe Steve Reeves. His photographs are just fantastic. He symbolized the perfect physique, and he was a legend in his own time. He has been a great inspiration to many of us in the field of bodybuilding.
'Lou Ferrigno, Mr. Universe

Beautiful is not a word you usually use in describing a man, but in his case it applies.
'Bill Pearl, Mr. Universe

The physique of the century.
'Reg Park, Mr. Universe

The best-looking, best-built man God has ever created.
'Larry Scott, Mr. Olympia

ALLIt was the Reeves movies more than anything else that inspired my training in the late '50s and early '60s.
'Frank Zane, Mr. Olympia

Michelangelo's concept of the perfectly formed man!
'Vince Gironda

He is a great man and has contributed much to the sport of bodybuilding'. One of the best builds throughout the history of bodybuilding'. Steve was a great inspiration to me.
'Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mr. Olympia

I became interested in bodybuilding when I saw a muscle magazine with Steve Reeves' picture on the cover. I knew right then that was what I wanted to be.
'Mike Mentzer, Mr. Universe

The muscle magazines have likewise sung his praises over the decades:

The most admired, most looked up to and most idolized bodybuilder of all.
'Muscle Builder/Power

The World's Best Built man.
'Iron Man magazine

Steve Reeves' phenomenal physique set new standards for bodybuilding.' Women still go bananas over him.
'Joe Weider, Muscle & Fitness

Mr. Everything'. [he remains a] priceless inspiration to train and succeed in the wonderful world of bodybuilding.
'Musclemag International

I distinctly recall a conversation I had in 1990 with Ben Weider, the longstanding president of the International Federation of Body Builders (IFBB) and a man who has seen all of the top physique stars over the years. I asked him who he thought was the greatest bodybuilder of all time. His answer was immediate: 'Steve Reeves.' Similarly, veteran bodybuilding photographer Russ Warner, who has shot them all over the years, summarized Reeves' uniqueness this way: 'Let's face it'there's only one Steve Reeves.' And I know as the years roll by and we are all dead and gone that Steve will live on in history as the greatest of all time in the field of physical culture, in addition to being one of the finest human beings who was ever created.'

To many of us he remains the owner of the greatest physique of all time, which is quite a compliment given that the muscle he built and displayed in winning the Mr. America, Mr. World and Mr. Universe titles was all natural. His strength was prodigious: He could lift a 400-pound barbell from the floor to his thighs'as in a deadlift'with only the tips of his fingers! Lying facedown on the floor, he'd have a training partner hold his ankles steady as he raised himself to a kneeling position by simply contracting his hamstrings'and he did that for reps!

In a now legendary strength contest between Armand Tanny, George Eiferman (considered the two strongest bodybuilders of their era) and Reeves to see who could barbell clean the most weight from a kneeling position, Reeves shocked all in attendance with a lift of 225 pounds. He also routinely performed strict reps of incline curls with 90-pound dumbbells. He practically invented'and certainly popularized'the technique of using an incline bench for dumbbell presses, barbell presses and dumbbell curls and was the first bodybuilder to make extensive use of cables.

Reeves is also generally considered to have had the most phenomenal symmetry ever seen in bodybuilding'and perhaps, given some of the testimony from the artistic community, ever seen period. Not one muscle group on his physique had been built at the expense of another; balance, proportion and symmetry were his touchstones, and beauty was the result. Add to those attributes the fact that he was 6'1', incredibly handsome and a man of sterling character, always willing to help out a friend but not to be taken advantage of, and you have the ingredients for a genuine American hero.

All of that was why crowds followed him as though he were a god, why cars careened into each other when he took off his shirt, why the fans pursued him so feverishly. (While he was preparing to compete in the Mr. Universe contest in London in the late '40s, Reeves had to check into two hotels to avoid the crush of fans.) And it's why moviegoers went to see his 16 feature films again and again. They'd never seen such physical perfection. Note that the muscle Reeves built during his thrice weekly workouts stayed with him throughout his life and did not disappear a week after the contest'unlike what happens with the bloated, drug-induced muscles of so many of our contemporary physique champions. It was his physique, in fact, that enabled Reeves to become the ideal romantic action hero'one who was embraced (rather than rejected) by the general public. One of his films played in one theater 24 hours a day for more than two years.

I've always been impressed that Steve chose to portray legendary figures in his films: Aeneas (the surviving Trojan hero of Virgil's Aeniad), Hercules (the mythical strongman), Romulus (the legendary founder of Rome), Philippides (the Athenian Olympic hero of 490 B.C. who, legend has it, ran 200 kilometers in two days seeking military aid before the battle at Marathon), Hadji Murad (from Leo Tolstoy's short story of the same name) and the famous buccaneer Henry Morgan. His films brought history and literary awareness to the masses'not as a dreary succession of dates and reigns but as entertainment, teaching them about different peoples and cultures.

Reeves' performance as Hercules sent millions of young men into the gyms and gave birth to a worldwide bodybuilding and fitness craze. It also opened the door'where there had been no door before'to the very concept of muscles in movies. Before Vin Diesel, before Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Rock, Jean-Claude Van Damme or Jackie Chan, there was Steve Reeves, the world's greatest action hero. Reeves did the majority of his own stunt work'including leaping horses over pianos in ballrooms!'and fight sequences as well, which compare quite favorably today with the work of the current crop of action heroes. Even more amazing, they were filmed with only a human body'albeit an exceptional one'as Reeves did not require wires, CGI or quick cutaways.

In addition, it was Reeves who introduced the 'sword and sandal' genre, the most recent example of which was 'Gladiator' starring Russell Crowe, and who refused to portray leading men as anything but virtuous and heroic, both in body and in character. Debbie Reynolds called him 'the handsomest leading man in Hollywood,' and during kissing scenes in his films many of his female co-stars actually refused to stop when the director yelled, 'Cut!'

Reeves' films and physique inspired (and continue to inspire) millions the world over. Even today he has a fan club, the Steve Reeves International Society (www.stevereeves .com), which boasts a worldwide membership in the thousands, and he remains the standard by which action heroes are measured.

Editor's note: Starting next month John Little will begin to relate the incredible story of Steve Reeves, from his early years through his valor in World War II and his glittering career in bodybuilding, plus details of his training and nutritional methods.

John Little is the creator of the Max Contraction Training system and an award-winning filmmaker. He is the writer-director of the new film, 'Steve Reeves: The Man. The Legend,' and the editor of the new training book based on his methods, Dynamic Muscle Building. See the ad elsewhere this issue.

Article copyright ' 2003, John Little. All rights reserved. All photos used in this article are property of Steve Reeves International Inc. and are used with permission. IM

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