Actor and bodybuilder Steve Reeves, who made a career out of playing Greek gods in low-budget Italian films, inspiring such future Hollywood strongmen as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, died May 1 of lymphoma at a San Diego hospital. He was 74.

Reeves, best known for his portrayal of Hercules in a series of dubbed imports, was diagnosed eight weeks ago with lymphoma, longtime friend Troy Bertelsen told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

A bodybuilder with a 52-inch chest and a 29-inch waist, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Reeves starred in 19 films, including several as the famous Greek hero. A 1959 Hercules film made him one of the most popular box office stars in the world, next to Sophia Loren. He was ahead of such stars as Doris Day, John Wayne and Rock Hudson.

Almost all his films were “sword-and-sandal epics,” bearing such titles as “Fatiche di Ercole” (Labors of Hercules, 1957), “Terrore dei Barbari II” (Goliath and the Barbarians, 1959), “The Thief of Baghdad,” (1961), “The Trojan Horse” (1962) and “Romolo e Remo” (Duel of the Titans, 1963).

Short on plot, production values and dialogue, but long on action and shots of bare, rippling muscle, they displayed the brawn that earned Reeves the titles of Mr. America in 1947, Mr. World and Mr. Universe in 1948 and Mr. Universe again in 1950.

While his movies lacked critical acclaim, Reeves is considered a pioneer in the action-hero genre of movies that fueled the careers of Stallone and Schwarzenegger .

Most of his films were shot in Italy, made by producer Joseph E. Levine, and shown dubbed in the United States. Some of the films founds fans in high places, including President Kennedy.

According to one story that had gone around Hollywood, producer Cecil B. DeMille had picked Reeves to star in “Samson and Delilah,” but when the then-bodybuilder refused to lose weight for the role, it went to Victor Mature.

Reeves’ first speaking role came in “Jail Bait,” a 1954 pic directed by Ed Wood. That year, he also appeared in “Athena,” with Debbie Reynolds and Jane Powell. Italian director Pietro Francisci had been searching for an actor to star in “Hercules,” and his 13-year-old daughter mentioned Reeves, whom she had seen in “Athena.”

Reeves also appeared twice on Broadway. In “Kismet,” which opened Dec. 3, 1953, at the Ziegfeld Theater, he played one of Wazir’s guards. In “The Vamp,” starring Carol Channing, which opened at the Winter Garden Nov. 10, 1955, he was billed as a “muscleman.”

Reeves was born in Montana, moved to Oakland, Calif., with his mother as a child and began lifting weights when he was 16.

Reeves continued his devotion to physical fitness long after he left the movies. He wrote “Building the Classical Physique — the Natural Way” and through his Steve Reeves Intl. Society Web site, he promoted supplements and powders with natural ingredients.

After retiring from acting in 1969, Reeves raised horses on his ranch in Oregon and, later, in Valley Center in north San Diego County.

Reeves’ wife, Aline, died in 1989. They had no children.