Reg Park, who passed away yesterday after a long struggle with cancer at the age of 79, was first and foremost a world champion bodybuilder, but his brief and all-but-accidental acting career in the 1960s brought to the screen the most fully realized portrayals of Hercules ever filmed.
He followed in the footsteps of Steve Reeves (the first man ever to hold all three major titles of accomplishment in bodybuilding: Mr. America, Mr. World and Mr. Universe), who made the role world-famous in the enormously successful HERCULES (1957) and HERCULES UNCHAINED (1958). When Galatea producer Lionello Santi sold the franchise to producer Achille Piazzi, Reeves -- out of loyalty to director Pietro Francisci, who had cast him -- abandoned the role, which was briefly taken up by Mark Forest (the screen name of Lou Degni). When Forest was lured away to take over the role of Maciste in a multi-picture deal, Piazzi offered Hercules to Reg Park. A former Mr. Britain and two-time winner of the Mr. Universe title, Park was British-born but based in South Africa, where he ran a successful health club.
Once Park was convinced that Piazzi's offer was sincere, he flew to Rome -- without any prior acting experience -- to star in HERCULES CONQUERS ATLANTIS (aka HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN, 1961), directed by Vittorio Cottafavi. Assisting Cottafavi on that picture was an uncredited Mario Bava, who devised some special effects sequences and contributed some second unit photography. Park had a great time being the center of attention and was well-liked by the crew -- not something that could always be said of Reeves -- and he was convinced to stick around and make a second picture that Mario Bava and some screenwriter friends had cooked up in the meantime. That project became HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (aka HERCULES IN THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, 1962).
Steve Reeves was the most convincingly godly of all the actors who took on the role of Hercules and, in a sense, he was an impossible act to follow, though his acting was often wooden. Reeves' experience was in posing; he looked great onscreen, knew how to stand so that the light caught his oiled physique in ways that would flatter him, but he was not an effective speaker. Reg Park, on the other hand, was more than a bodybuilder; he was also an entrepreneur, and his past experience in self-promotion and salesmanship brought to his acting jobs a sense of relaxed, good-humored ease that made him the most fully dimensional of all the actors ever to play the part.
Park also had the good fortune to work with Cottafavi and Bava, whose directorial abilities went well beyond the fanciful costumed fun that was Francisci's stock in trade. Cottafavi's Hercules, in particular -- lazy, self-absorbed, fun-loving, self-mocking, all too human until various challenges provoke him to rise to the occasion -- is the closest of all movie Hercules to the one that originated in the pages of Greek and Roman mythology. Bava, who preferred female leads, explored the character's vulnerability in his film, as he ventures into the depths of Hades in an effort to save a few loved ones who, by way of black magic, have either turned against him or oblivious to him. HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD is a masterful fusion of the epic and horror genres, just as Bava's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES is an ideal fusion of horror and science fiction; it is also the most purely cinematic example of the sword-and-sandal genre, and the greatest showcase Bava ever found for his unique ability to conjure fabulous imaginary worlds with next to no means. HERCULES CONQUERS ATLANTIS, on the other hand, is held by many devotées to be the absolute finest of all the Italian sword-and-sandal films. These are also the films that Arnold Schwarzenegger credits with inspiring his own desire to pursue a career in bodybuilding. Reg Park was his hero.
Park made only three other, lesser films before returning to the business he had founded in Sandton, South Africa. One, and one of them (HERCULES THE AVENGER aka SFIDA DEI GIGANTI (1965) was cobbled together in large part from footage recycled from the films he had made with Bava and Cottafavi.
Some years ago, I exchanged a couple of e-mails with Reg Park. I had tracked down the website for his business and e-mailed him there, asking him to be interviewed for MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. He responded kindly and warmly, but begged off, explaining that his work on those pictures was done so long ago, a lifetime ago, and he could no longer trust the validity of his own recollections, vague as they were. If he couldn't be certain of their veracity, he preferred not to entrust them to posterity -- but he wished me the very best of luck with my project. I admired the integrity of that response much as I had always admired the integrity of character so evident in his screen portrayals. If only all actors with hazy memories would admit to it, and not misinform history with their self-serving "entertainments" and "legends"! Fortunately, I found some quotes from earlier published interviews, so I was able to represent his view of things in the book somewhat, and I'm very glad about that. Especially now.
To see the supreme likes of Reg Park and Gordon Scott vanish from the earth in the space of a year makes me feel a sense of loss that goes beyond the personal; one feels that a certain kind of man, an irreplaceable kind, is disappearing from our midst. We used to call them heroes. Today we need heroes more than ever, but all that the movies give us anymore are actors who play heroes, usually of the conflicted or traumatized kind; they play them in costumes that lend their bodies phony musculature, they perform their heroic acts with the assistance of CGI, and they explore their "dark sides." Anyone can play Batman or Spider-man, but a role like Hercules cannot merely be played; it must first be earned -- by dedicating years of one's life to the attainment of a superior level of physical perfection and physical strength.
If someone like Reg Park climbed a colossal tree, or traversed a length of rope suspended over a lava pit in a matinee movie, it didn't matter that the scenes and deeds were staged because he, himself, was real. Put the real Reg Park in those same situations and he would have stood a better chance than most of pulling it off. His Hercules walked among us, not above us. You had to admire him... but he also made you like him.
I may have discovered the key to his likability one night while watching parts of HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD with the sound turned off. (This is something I occasionally do to gauge how much is being brought to a piece of filmmaking by its soundtrack.) Having grown somewhat adept at lip-reading, I noticed that, in all of the scenes where Hercules raised his massive arms to the sky and addressed his father Zeus, Reg Park -- on the set -- had addressed his lines to his own Heavenly Father: Jesus. Needless to say, the literary Hercules predated Christ by centuries so the chronology of Park's spoken words is laughable, but surely he knew that his dialogue was going to be looped by someone else later, and the line would be fixed. What mattered to him in that moment, it seems to me, was to make the moment believable and not dishonor the part. I wish I could have asked Reg Park about this, but I suppose the work stands as its own best explanation. When you look at these scenes, you believe them in a way that wholly transcends the way Steve Reeves used to bark "By the Gods!" at the arc lights off-camera.
A moment of silence, then, for the gentleman who brought Olympus down to earth.