In the decades preceding the Weider family’s creation of the Mr. Olympia competition, the foremost honor in the bodybuilding world involved an altogether different sort of nod to Grecian lore: getting to play Hercules, the mightiest demigod in Greek mythology, on the silver screen.
The pattern began in 1957, with the casting of Steve Reeves as Hercules in The Labors of Hercules. By this point, the 31-year-old Reeves was already 10 years removed from his 1947 Mr. America victory, and had twice captured the crown of Mr. Universe in Europe’s most prominent bodybuilding competition. According to Reeves, an Italian film producer noticed him on the set of the 1954 romantic musical comedy Athena and offered him $6,000 to try his hand at portraying the son of Zeus.
Even then, some people found it odd that the role of a Greek demigod in an Italian-made film would be played by an American farm boy from Montana, but the 6-foot2- Reeves was dismissive of the caliber of European bodybuilders when he touched on the logic behind his casting with the Pittsburgh Press in June 1958. “There just aren’t enough serious bodybuilders in Europe,” he argued. “And even when the men here have good muscle definition, their legs are too short to give them classic proportions.”
The Labors of Hercules was a massive worldwide hit, grossing more than $60 million against a budget of only $2 million, and kicking the doors of the sword-and-sandal cinematic era wide open. Reeves would only play Hercules on one other occasion — in 1959’s Hercules Unchained — which was another massive hit. From there, Reeves graduated to appearances in other films that necessitated shirtlessness, firmly establishing the precedent that if you wanted your leading man’s physique to appear robust amongst the comparatively underdeveloped everymen of the mid-20th century, casting a legit bodybuilder was the move.
When Reeves abandoned the role, the opportunity fell to Mickey Hargitay, who had been inspired by Reeves to become a bodybuilder. Hargitay was only five years removed from his own victory in the 1955 Mr. Universe competition, and he starred opposite his legendary sexpot wife Jayne Mansfield in 1960’s The Loves of Hercules.
Some critics seemed to resent the casting of Hargitay, with Newspaper Enterprise Association writer Erskine Johnson likening Hargitay as being the equivalent to Mickey Rooney in comparison to Reeves, despite Hargitay standing only about an inch shorter and weighing roughly 10 pounds lighter.
After Hargitay, Reg Park, a native of Leeds, England, and two-time Mr. Universe, was cast as Hercules. He would ultimately play the role in four films: Hercules and the Captive Woman, Hercules in the Haunted World, Hercules, Prisoner of Evil and Hercules the Avenger.
The Lesser Hercules
In 1962, actor Brad Harris broke the string of Italian-made Hercules films in which the leading man had a high-level bodybuilding pedigree by assuming the eponymous role in The Fury of Hercules. During the same year, Mr. Italia winner Adriano Bellini played the role of Maciste in the film Hercules in the Valley of Woe. By that point, Maciste had been well established as another sword-and-sandal opportunity for heavily muscled men of the era to showcase their oiled bodies on the silver screen.
Under the pseudonym of “Kirk Morris” — so as to make his name more palatable to Western audiences — Bellini would later become the first authentic Italian to play Hercules in Hercules, Samson and Ulysses. Sergio Ciani (as “Alan Steel”) would follow a similar path in Hercules and the Masked Rider and Hercules Against the Moon Men.
In April 1964, The Indianapolis Star reported how 6-foot-5, 225-pound Rock Stevens — real name Peter Lupus — scored the role of Hercules in Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon after winning the bodybuilding contest literally known as “Mr. Hercules.” Stevens said that he opted to take a stab at acting when Hargitay took a liking to him and vouched for him once he entered the Hollywood scene.
Bodybuilders of the era didn’t necessarily have to play Hercules to capitalize on their success in the sword-and-sandals genre either. Dave Draper, the winner of the 1965 Mr. Universe contest, appeared under the name “David the Gladiator” as the host of the weekly movie feature night The Gladiator Theater on KHJ-TV in L.A. during 1964 and 1965.
Speaking of 1965, it would mark the abrupt end of the sword-and-sandal era, as the attention of Italian filmmakers shifted from films featuring men with mammoth-sized muscles to spaghetti westerns, cutting off the path through which several bodybuilders had traveled to big-screen stardom.
The Next Wave of Hercules
That said, the industry faucet did remain sufficiently open for a few more bodybuilders with demigod proportions to trickle through. In 1970, Hercules in New York became the motion-picture vehicle that first introduced the world to 22-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger, already a Mr. World-winner and a multi-time Mr. Universe-winner who was on the cusp of capturing his first of seven Mr. Olympia titles.
Meanwhile, in 1983, Lou Ferrigno, Schwarzenegger’s arch rival from Pumping Iron and multi-time Mr. Universe winner in his own right, was cast as the eponymous hero. “When I was a kid, I used to watch the Hercules movies over and over and over,” Ferrigno explained to Muscle & Fitness. “My father would come into my room at two in the morning and I would be watching Steve Reeves on the television, and he would scream at me, ‘All you do is watch Hercules! Why don’t you get an education, Louie? You’re just wasting your time with that stuff.’”
At this stage of his career, Ferrigno was already synonymous with the TV series The Incredible Hulk, but he affirmed that his fondness for the Hercules character was of such significance that he considered it to be of far greater importance.
The Influence of Hercules
As muscularity has become critically important to on-screen portrayals of heroic figures, and average actors have crafted physiques that are far larger and vascular as a result, professional bodybuilders have more or less gotten squeezed out of the equation. Or in the case of John Cena, Dwayne Johnson and Dave Bautista been replaced by strongmen of a different kind — i.e., pro wrestlers.
Accordingly, contemporary inheritors of the Hercules mantle — a la Johnson — have surpassed the bodybuilders of the 1950s and 1960s with respect to the muscle mass they brought to their depictions of the mythological hero. But thanks to the standards set by guys like Reeves, while you’re no longer required to be a Mr. Olympia in order to call yourself The Son of Zeus, the physical preparation required to convincingly portray such a demigod remains herculean nonetheless.