05/22/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
In the midst of making the 1959 epic The Last Days of Pompeii, bodybuilder-turned-actor Steve Reeves slammed his chariot into a tree, dislocating his shoulder. A less heroic specimen might have run to a doctor, but Reeves calmly snapped the shoulder back into its socket and resumed filming.
Throughout his life, Reeves—who died May 1 at age 74 in Escondido, Calif., of complications from lymphoma—demonstrated a fierce devotion to his craft, such as it was. Best known for playing Hercules in Italian-made, poorly dubbed sword-and-sandal epics in the 1950s, he inspired such latter-day action stars as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kevin Sorbo. "Steve will go down in history as the most handsome and one of the greatest bodybuilders ever," says fitness guru and longtime friend Jack LaLanne, 85.
Raised in Oakland, Reeves began lifting weights at 16. The 6'1", 215-lb. muscleman was named Mr. America in 1947, Mr. World and Mr. Universe in '48 and Mr. Universe again in '50. He made nearly 20 films over the next two decades, reportedly becoming one of the highest-paid actors in Europe. Reeves retired in 1969 at age 43, moving with wife Aline (who died in 1989) to a ranch near Escondido, where he raised and rode Morgan horses.
Until the end, Reeves remained obsessively fit. "It was very common to see him 45 miles from home on a bicycle," says neighbor Bruce Given. Not surprising, says LaLanne: "Steve was an artist with his body."