The sword-and-sandal epic seems to be alive and well, with not one, but two films based on the mythical Hercules set to hit theaters this year. First, with Kellan Lutz (Twilight) taking up the mantle for The Legend of Hercules origin story, followed by Dwayne Johnson in the graphic novel adaptation of Hercules: The Thracian Wars, which follows the hero’s later years.
Having two actors portray the same character alongside one another may seem odd in today’s world of shared movie universes, but the allure of Hercules has persuaded stars to lend their skills (and muscles) to the demigod’s adventures for decades. Here is our look at Hercules Actors Through the Years.
Seen in: Hercules (1958), Hercules Unchained (1959)
The character of Hercules may have existed for centuries beforehand, but it was Steve Reeves’ shift from bodybuilding to acting in Pietro Francisci’s Hercules that proved the myth could be box office gold. Having turned down the role of Biblical hero ‘Samson,’ Reeves would go on to star in a number of sword-and-sandal films, becoming a top box office draw around the world.
Unlike many who would follow in his footsteps, Reeves had the acting chops to match his muscles – even if his judgement wasn’t always sound. Reeves didn’t just turn down Clint Eastwood’s role in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), but refused a pay cut to play ‘James Bond’ in Dr. No (1962).
Seen in: The Loves of Hercules (1960)
His performance may not be the most memorable on our list, but Mickey Hargitay was one of the first actors who was famous before taking on the role. The Hungarian-born bodybuilder became a household name thanks to his marriage to Hollywood starlet (and co-star in The Loves of Hercules), Jayne Mansfield.
But Hargitay was no slouch: he was a champion speed skater, acrobat, and underground soldier in WWII. It was Steve Reeves who convinced Hargitay to take up bodybuilding, eventually playing the same musclebound mythical hero onscreen. And in this film, both he and his wife played to – and showed off – their respective strengths.
Seen in: Hercules and the Masked Rider (1963), Hercules Against the Moon Men (1964)
Originally known for playing the Biblical strongman Samson, and standing in for Steve Reeves on the set of Hercules Unchained, Sergio Ciani took the stage name of ‘Alan Steel’ when he stepped into the heroic role in the early 1960s. What followed was a string of films that took Hercules from one century to the next, dispatching foes as he went.
As the Italian sword-and-sandal genre was overtaken by the ‘spaghetti western,’ Ciani traded his muscles for a mustache, appearing in over two dozen films by the end of his acting career in the late 1970s. Even so, his adventures as Hercules remain his most famous.
Seen in: Hercules in New York (1970)
Today, the idea of Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a larger-than-life, loin-clothed warrior is impossible to shake, thanks to his famed role in Conan the Barbarian (1982). But long before that, the 22-year-old bodybuilder took the title role in Hercules in New York; a kooky, fish-out-of-water tale starring the son of Zeus.
Taking the stage name of ‘Arnold Strong (Mr. Universe)’ and stumbling through awkward social situations and a brief career as a professional wrestler, Schwarzenegger helped make one of the most forgettable entries on our list. So if either upcoming Hercules films flop, at least there’s evidence that the world will be happy to forget it.
Seen in: Hercules (1983), The Adventures of Hercules (1985)
Given his claim to fame as the Incredible Hulk, first in the TV series, and later lending his voice to the creature in his film appearances, it wasn’t much of a leap for Lou Ferrigno to play yet another tortured (albeit less green) strongman in Hercules and its sequel.
Despite possessing perhaps the greatest poster artwork of the 20th century, and featuring Hercules trading blows with stop-motion robots, the film was critically panned along with Ferrigno’s performance. Yet it remains a cult favorite, and a showpiece for just how absurdly large Ferrigno was at the height of his acting career.
Seen in: Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999)
His reign may have been limited to television, but for many, Kevin Sorbo’s run on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys is untouchable. Both his strength and adventures may have been on a smaller scale than in prior or upcoming films, but the TV series (running alongside the spin-off Xena: Warrior Princess) made Hercules a household name for fans both young and old.
Sorbo’s next major role on the sci-fi series Andromeda made him one of the few nerd icons capable of leaping from swords to spaceships, but the son of Zeus he will forever be. He even reprised the role in God of War III – who knew?
Seen in: Young Hercules (1998-1999)
In the 1990s, syndication meant spin-offs, and the success of The Legendary Journeys led to Ryan Gosling portraying the Greek hero in his teen years as Young Hercules. In the end, 50 episodes were produced in a single season for Fox Kids, but despite positive ratings the show was not renewed.
Gosling went on to become one of Hollywood’s brightest and most sought-after stars, while much of the special effects crew on site in New Zealand went to work on the country’s next major production, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Not that bad for a spin-off aimed at schoolchildren.
Seen in: Hercules (2005)
The 2005 two-part miniseries simply titled Hercules was neither a financial nor critical success, so there aren’t many who would rank Paul Telfer as one of the most beloved actors to step into the role. Even so, the miniseries represents one of the few modern adaptations of the myth to not only characterize Hercules as somewhat unlikable, but include the murder of his children by his own hand.
But as one of the only truly adult takes on the myth, and a tagline that is incredible in its own way – “Half God. Half Man. All Power.” – the miniseries is sure to be a guilty pleasure for any diehard fan of the sword-and-sandals genre in just about any form.
Seen in: The Legend of Hercules (2014)
Kellan Lutz’s turn as Hercules may not be as fantastic as those in the past – looking to be more Gladiator than godlike (with a dash of 300 to be safe) – but proves that the Greek hero still has staying power. And since the young star made his name appearing in Twilight, a franchise aimed at a younger audience, few heroes have the broad appeal of Zeus’ son.
Even if the version of the Greek hero won’t possess the superhuman strength of other incarnations, The Legend of Hercules looks to offer a healthy dose of action. But if it’s gladiator combat, not star power that director Renny Harlin is relying on to turn heads, it’s wise for this film to come out before its closest competition.
Seen in: Hercules: The Thracian Wars (2014)
It usually goes without saying that comic book artists are able to depict muscled heroes bigger and broader than any normal person could be. But in the case of Hercules: The Thracian Wars, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson may have actually gotten even larger than the hero of the graphic novel on which it is based.
The already-massive actor has clearly taken the role seriously, living up to the legend in stature alone. The action and story have a lot to live up to if they hope to compare, but director Brett Ratner’s ancient epic has yet to be teased with any substantial footage.
That’s just 10 of the dozens of men who have portrayed the Greek hero over the years, and each movie fan is sure to have their favorites. Which portrayals stick out the most in your memory? Is it due to the quality of the film, the strength of the performance, or simply nostalgia?
Be sure to mention your own favorites in the comments.
The Legend of Hercules is in theaters now.
Hercules: The Thracian Wars hits theaters July 25, 2014.
Follow me on Twitter @andrew_dyce.