HELENA In 1970, Helena’s 10-year-old Troy Bertelsen watched the movie Hercules, starring Steve Reeves, from the Lewis and Clark Library.
I was just a little fat boy. When I watched this movie, I thought that one day I was going to have a body like this, Bertlesen said in an interview in 2011.
Bertelsen began to lift weights with a vengeance, and the obsession led him to national bodybuilding competitions and the world champion in strength. But what he never imagined was that one day he would become one of his closest hero friends.
Reeves before Schwarzenegger
Twenty-five years before Arnold Schwarzenegger made his Conan the Barbarian films, Steve Reeves, a native of Montana and former Helena Valley resident, became Hollywood’s first strongman actor.
Reeves rose to the pinnacle of the bodybuilding sport, before turning his beauty and incredible physique into a successful film career, as one of the highest paid actors in the industry.
But Reeves never forgot where he came from.
I first met Steve at the 1985 American Bodybuilding Championships in Las Vegas, Bertelsen recalls. He had a table in the lobby, and when I introduced myself he asked youre from Montana, right?
I said, yeah, I was, and he said, I’m from Montana too. And that’s all it took to be his friend, said Bertelsen, who now resides in Bozeman. The two have become good friends.
School for deaconesses, earthquakes of 1935
Reeves was born in Glasgow in 1926, to Lester and Goldie Reeves. His father was killed in a bizarre agricultural accident when he was 1 year old. During the Great Depression in 1932, Goldie was hired as a cook at the Rainbow Hotel in Great Falls. Her 6 year old son was sent to Montana Deaconess School in Helena Valley.
In his book Building the Classic Physics the Natural Way, Reeves recounted his time in Helena. He wrote that over the next three years he was only able to see his mother once a month, and sometimes during the summer.
For $ 100 a year, you could send your child to the deaconess, recalled Helenas Milt Coty (now 94). When my mom took my brother to California and my dad didn’t drive a bus, I stayed at Deaconess in 1934.
Coty does not remember Reeves, but there were several locals who never forgot the future Hercules, including his teacher, the late Helen Welsh. Welsh has always reminded his family that the famous bodybuilder / actor was one of his students.
Mom always called (Reeves) one of my boys, said Helens’ son Steve Welsh.
Another of the Welsh students was Ed Bowers, who also told his family to go to school with Reeves, although his wife was skeptical.
Whenever Ed brought up that he knew Steve Reeves from the deaconess, I always thought he had just mingled him with another Steve Reeves, his widow, the late Doris Bowers, recalled in 2011.
In October 1935, the legendary earthquakes struck the Helena region. During the month, three major tremors and thousands of tremors took place, causing $ 4 million in damage and killing four people.
The deaconess has been destroyed, which Reeves recounts in his book. As it struck in the morning, we were all sleeping in our beds, he wrote. My dorm was on the third floor of the brick building and everyone ran outside.
Reeves said after everyone was found except himself, two men returned inside to look for him. The building was dark, with its power knocked out, and most of the walls were partially collapsed.
The outside wall of the room was gone and they found my bed with me still asleep in it, hanging about a foot through the opening and covered in fallen bricks, Reeves wrote.
Bodybuilding and Hercules
The following summer, Goldie and Steve moved to Oakland, California. He started lifting weights in high school and, with his natural genetics, developed one of the most amazing physique in the world.
After serving in World War II, he began to compete in bodybuilding competitions. Reeves won the 1947 Mr. America, the 1948 Mr. World and the 1950 Mr. Universe in London.
At 6 foot 1 and 215 pounds, he had a 52 inch chest, 29 inch waist, 18 inch biceps, and 26 inch thighs. With the looks of a Greek god, his poster, Perfection in the Clouds, hung on the wall of Hollywood movie mogul Cecil B. DeMilles’ office.
And his muscles weren’t fair for the show, either. Several of Reeves’ feats of strength included grasping a 300-pound set of dumbbells with his fingers, one-arm pull-ups, and lifting 200 pounds with his teeth.
In 1958, he starred in the Italian-made film that became his trademark, Hercules, followed by its 1959 sequel, Hercules Unchained. Reeves made 17 most told films in Italy with his voice dubbed with his last film in 1967, a western called A Long Ride Into Hell.
He retired to a ranch near Valley Center, Calif., Where he raised Morgan horses. Reeves remained involved in nutrition, exercise, and horseback riding. He was later credited with developing the forced walking technique and was diametrically opposed to the use of steroids.
Help Bertelsen break into the movies
Back in Montanas Capital City, a young Troy Bertlesen was pumping iron to rebuild his body. After playing football for Helena High, he entered the bodybuilding world in 1981.
Bertelsen won the North American Bodybuilding Championship, as well as two Super Bowl of Strength championships. In 1988 Bertelsen opened his own gymnasium in Whitefish, with Hercules himself, Steve Reeves, helping with the inauguration. But Reeves had other plans for his young boyfriend.
When I first met Steve, he said if I ever got down to 200 pounds to watch him, and he would see how to get me into the movies. So 10 years later, I did, and he did, Bertelsen said.
Bertleson spent the latter part of the 1990s in the Los Angeles movie industry, working at the Reeves Ranch between gigs. Once, when Reeves visited Whitefish, he borrowed the Bertelsens car and drove in 3000 miles, visiting his parents in Havre, Hamilton, Big Sandy, Scobey and Lewistown.
Bertelsen said that whenever the two traveled together, they were often mistaken as father and son. He always called me his illegitimate son, and his girlfriend told me I was the son he never had, Bertelesen said.
Dies in the arms of Bertelsens
When Reeves fell seriously ill in 2000, Bertelsen went to see his friend in the hospital, despite Reeves’ insistence to the contrary.
But when I got there he told me he was happy I came, Bertelsen said.
Reeves told Berelsen that after he was released from the hospital he was going to sell everything and go horseback riding in Montana. But he did not, dying on May 1, 2000.
Reeves’ last wishes were granted after the cremation, however, when some of his ashes were spread over the Big Snowy Mountains (which reminded Bertelsen of Mount Olympus). The others were buried two years later in Scobey Cemetery, next to his father Lester.
The tombstone was paid for by the profits of Bozemans WFNA Big Sky Natural Physique Classic.
All he ever wanted was family, said Bertelsen, who is working on a screenplay from his memories of Reeves. Of all he ever gave me, his greatest gift was to breathe his last breath on my arm.
NOTE: This article was originally published in IR in 2011.