Reg Park: First British Mr Universe

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The Independent Online

Roy Park (Reg Park), bodybuilder and actor: born Leeds, Yorkshire 7 June 1928; married 1952 Mareon Isaacs (one son, one daughter); died Johannesburg, South Africa 22 November 2007.

Reg Park made history in 1951 when he became the first British contender to win the title Mr Universe in a world of body-building dominated until then by the United States. One of the last natural champions of the pre-steroid age, he was a prime influence on the life and career of Arnold Schwarzenneger, who stated this week, "Other than my parents, there may be no single person who had more to do with me becoming the person I am today other than Reg."

Handsome and over six feet tall, Park also starred in five films in the Italian cycle of "sword and sandal" epics, also known as the " peplum" genre after the brief skirts worn by the heroes, who usually played such mythical strong men as Hercules, Maciste or Samson. Park appeared in possibly the best-regarded film of the genre, Vittorio Cottafavi's Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide (Hercules Conquers Atlantis, 1961).

He was born Roy Park in 1928 in Leeds, where his father Reg, after whom he became known, owned a gymnasium and a company selling bar-bells, and he started his career as a footballer, playing for Leeds United.

After seeing John Grimek beat Steve Reeves in the first British-held Mr Universe contest in 1949, Park determined to win the title, though maintaining a diet of high-protein and energy foods was not easy in those post-Second World War days, when meat was strictly rationed. Park won the Mr Northeast Britain title in 1949.

Later the same year he was crowned Mr Britain and, after spending six months in the United States, where he was prominently featured in several health and strength magazines, he returned to win the title of Mr Europe in 1950. At the time of Park's emergence, the most famous musclemen were Grimek and Reeves, and Park was described as having heavy muscles to rival the former, along with the grace and beauty of the latter.

The 1950 Mr Universe contest, held in London, became a battle between Park and Reeves, with the more experienced Reeves, who had first won the title in 1947, emerging the winner by a narrow margin. The following year, Park claimed the title, and he was to win it twice more, in 1958 and 1965. Renowned for his strength, he used to delight in lifting cars, and it is on record that he was the first body-builder to bench-press 500lb.

In the early Fifties, he set up a health instruction and equipment business, and after marrying a ballerina while on a body-building tour of Africa in 1952, he moved to South Africa and expanded his business interests to include a chain of fitness studios and a bodybuilding magazine, The Reg Park Journal, published from 1954 to 1959.

Park made his screen début in 1961 when he was offered the leading role in Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide (Hercules Conquers Atlantis, also known as Hercules and the Captive Women). Filmed with brilliant colour effects by Cottafavi, considered the auteur of the "peplum" cycle (which ran roughly from 1958 to 1965, and in which Steve Reeves had established himself as a major star), it featured a bemused Hercules rescuing a princess condemned to death by her own mother (Fay Spain) because if the Queen is survived by her daughter, Atlantis will perish.

Like many films in the "peplum" genre, this cult movie can be interpreted as condemning totalitarianism while asserting the power of strong, male leadership. Park played Hercules again in another superior epic, Mario Bava's Ercole Al Centro Della Terra (Hercules in the Haunted World, 1961), in which the hero literally goes to hell, where he battles a demon lord played by Christopher Lee.

Park played Maciste in Maciste Nelle Miniere di re Salomone (Maciste in King Solomon's Mines, 1964), then starred in Ursus, il Terrore Dei Kirghisi (Hercules, Prisoner of Evil, 1964) and Sfida Dei Giganti (Hercules the Avenger, 1965).

Arnold Schwarzenegger described Park as "an extraordinary mentor and a personal hero", and was to tell his biographer Laurence Lerner that the time he spent staying with Park and his wife in South Africa in the late Sixties while undergoing a training programme provided him with "a model of what I wanted my own life and family to be. We would sit down to dinner in a very civilised way, and we would discuss the day" (Schwarzenneger's earlier family life had been less stable). He added, " I'll always remember him making me do calf-raises with 1,000lb at 5 o'clock in the morning."

The two men were to compete against each other in the 1970 Mr Universe contest when Park, who did not use steroids, unlike Schwarzenneger, lost by half a point. Until Park became ill earlier this year, he continued to train clients at a gymnasium in South Africa.

Tom Vallance

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