Born in Glasgow, Montana, Steve Reeves moved to California at age 10 with his mother, Goldie Reeves, after his father, Lester Dell Reeves, died in a farming accident. Reeves developed an interest in bodybuilding in high school and trained at Ed Yarick's gym in Oakland. By the time he was 17, he had developed a Herculean build, long before the general interest in bodybuilding. After graduating from high school, he enlisted the Army during World War II, and served in the Pacific.
After his military service, Reeves invested in an acting career. In 1954 he had a small role in his first major motion picture, the musical Athena playing Jane Powell's boyfriend. The same year Reeves had a small role as a cop in the Ed Wood film Jail Bait. This is one of the few movies where his voice was not dubbed. In 1957, Reeves went to Italy and played the lead character in Pietro Francisci's Hercules, a shot-on-a-shoestring epic based loosely on the tales of Jason and the Argonauts, though inserting Hercules into the lead role.
From 1959 through 1964, Reeves went on to appear in a string of sword and sandal movies shot on relatively small budgets, and although he is best known for his portrayal of the Greek hero Hercules, he played the character only twice – in the 1958 film Hercules and the sequel Hercules Unchained (released in the U.S. in 1960). He played a number of other characters on screen, including Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Glaucus of Pompeii; Goliath (also called Emiliano); Tatar hero Hadji Murad; Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome (opposite Gordon Scott as his twin brother Remus); the famous war-time messenger of the Battle of Marathon, Pheidippides (The Giant of Marathon); pirate and self-proclaimed governor of Jamaica Captain Henry Morgan; and Karim, the Thief of Baghdad. Twice he played Aeneas of Troy and twice he played Emilio Salgari's Malaysian hero, Sandokan.
After the box office success of Hercules, Reeves turned down the role that finally went to Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) because he couldn't believe that “Italians could make a western”. He also claimed to have turned down James Bond's role in Dr. No (1962).
During the filming of The Last Days of Pompeii, Reeves dislocated his shoulder when his chariot slammed into a tree. Swimming in a subsequent underwater escape scene, he re-injured his shoulder. The injury would be aggravated by his stunt work in each successive film, ultimately leading him to retire from filmmaking and weightlifting.
In 1968 Reeves appeared in his final film, a spaghetti western that imitated the Sergio Leone epics, which he also co-wrote, titled A Long Ride From Hell. At the peak of his career, he was the highest-paid actor in Europe. His last screen appearance was in 2000 when he appeared as himself in the made-for-television A&E Biography: Arnold Schwarzenegger – Flex Appeal.
Later in his life, Reeves promoted drug-free bodybuilding and bred horses. The last two decades of his life were spent in Valley Center (Escondido), California. He bought a ranch with his savings and lived there with his second wife Aline until her death in 1989. On May 1, 2000, Reeves died from complications of lymphoma.