Giovanni Cianfriglia – Steve’s Often Body Double
“A brilliant stunt man, an ex-boxer, and very acrobatic. He made me look like superman. He was so great.” – Reg Park, peplum actor and renowned bodybuilding champion.
Stunt doubles have been associated with their lead actors for decades, and many major stars use these gifted and talented athletes. For example, John Wayne had the help of Chuck Roberson for over 30 years, Clint Eastwood had assistance from Buddy Van Horn for many of his films, and Steve Reeves had the exceptional services of Giovanni Cianfriglia for most of his movie career.
The fact that Steve Reeves didn’t do the majority of his own stunts is contrary to what many of
his fans have believed over the years and what has been incorrectly written in various articles
and Reeves’ biographies for some time. If anything, Reeves did “very few” of his own stunts and relied on others, such as Giovanni (or as Steve called him, “Johnny”) to make it appear the
person we watched on the big screen doing all those athletic feats must be Steve Reeves.
Doubling for Steve in “Sandokan the Great 1963” In his later years
By some definitions, a stunt double is a cross between a body double and a stunt performer. It’s also considered a skilled replacement used for dangerous film sequences (jumping out of a
building, jumping on a horse, etc.), and complex stunts such as fight scenes. Stunt doubles may also be used where an actor’s physical condition precludes much activity. This was the case for Steve right after he badly injured his left shoulder while filming early scenes of ”The Last Days of Pompeii” in 1959. Though it wasn’t Giovanni, Steve relied on another double quite often in that film because of his injury but also because of additional risky scenes where it made more sense to use a double anyway. (Steve would have to endure that shoulder pain for the rest of his film career until surgery helped later during his retirement.)
Still other times, a double is needed when an actor is contractually prohibited by the producers
from taking certain risks. This wasn’t the case for Steve as it was his choice to wisely use the
talents of Giovanni and a few other stunt people whenever he could. He wanted to avoid any
further injuries and risk shortening his screen career at such a young age.
A scene from “Morgan the Pirate” where Giovanni (far right) had a small nonspeaking part but
later appeared as Steve’s stunt double for many scenes.
A break from 1963’s “Sandokan the Great”. Note that Giovanni (far right) is identically dressed
as Steve, goatee and all.
Specific Film Stunts – “Morgan the Pirate”
Giovanni doubling for Steve in “Morgan the Pirate”
British lobby card showing Giovanni in center of photo
Specific Film Stunts – “Thief of Baghdad”
Giovanni doubling for Steve in “Thief of Baghdad”
As Steve’s stand in for upcoming shot in “Thief of Baghdad” with actress Edy Vessel.
Specific Film Stunts - The Trojan Horse
Giovanni doubling for Steve (with actor Mimmo Palmara) in “The Trojan Horse”
British lobby shows Giovanni doing lift, not Steve.
American movie poster shows Giovanni doing lift, not Steve
Cianfriglia and Palmara - Good Friends until the End
Giovanni and Mimmo in Italy, early 2012 (about 4 years before Mimmo’s death in June 2016)
A video of Giovanni and Mimmo re-enacting their peplum days can be seen here (photos
courtesy of Giuseppe Alletto):
Small Speaking Parts
A few times in his film career, Steve was able to get Giovanni more screen time through small
speaking parts. This was in addition to the many stunts he was also providing for the film.
Giovanni was always very grateful to Steve for getting him more screen exposure. Once he
stopped working with Steve, these additional opportunities gave him name and acting
recognition that helped to further his own movie career.
A scene from “The Slave” with actresses Ombretta Colli (left) and Gianna Marie Canale
A scene from “Duel of the Titans” with actress Virna Lisi
Playing the character Kalamba (far right) in a small role for “Sandokan the Great”
An Interview with the Living Legend
In 2006, Koch Media of Germany released a 104-minute, uncut widescreen DVD version of
Romulus and Remus (AKA “Duel of the Titans”). Coupled with the DVD was a short 7-minute
bonus segment of Giovanni reminiscing about his Peplum days, especially the times he worked with Steve.
German DVD Giovanni remembering the Peplum days
Though he was speaking in Italian with German subtitles on the DVD, the English translated
transcript follows: “In this space, in this large forest; I remember 40 years ago there was nothing here. Now they have made construction, but it was all forest. In that area we had battles; we had horses, many confrontations. Horses falling with people, we would jump, and instead we did other things.
There were places where we would jump out of trees. We were on horses with many action
“And me, I was already a stunt man when they introduced me to Steve Reeves. A dear friend of mine for many years introduced me to him. From when we met, Steve asked me to perform all of his stunts. And so this went on for years. I did all of his stunts. He was jealous when I did
stunt work for other actors. Steve said not to do so great of a job for the other actors, or else my (Steve’s) career will not go well. “Remember what I tell you”, said Steve. So I would have to
ask him permission if I could work for other actors. But Steve would tell me to not perform as
well as I could for them. But I needed to earn a living, and when there were no scenes for me
for Steve’s parts, what was I to do? But Steve would order me not to perform well for others.
“You will make me look bad”, said Steve.
“Then I remember there was a scene where I had to jump down and pick up his friend in the
storyline (“Sandokan the Great”). He was heavy, and it was tiring to carry him. When I had to
pass him off to Steve, I gave him the body and removed my arms. Steve dropped the actor
playing the injured man. There was a tremendous difference between us. He was well
developed in weight lifting, but lacked some stamina and true grit. But Steve was a good horse
rider and a good swimmer. He taught me to be a better horse rider. He also gave me other
advice about how to act better. Steve loved horses and had a ranch in America. He had many
horses. I would show him sword fencing, and he would show me how to ride a horse better. He
would give me advice on how to improve my craft.
“I also made some sword fighting films (“Morgan the Pirate”). Steve always wanted me close to
him, and I always prepared him for his duels. One day we were on board the ship filming, and I
was performing his part when needed. He was dueling with three opponents, and he did not
make his three strikes against them. He threw down his sword. He asked, “Why is Johnny not
with me? I want him by my side!”
Here is another tidbit. Finally on the set of “Sandokan the Great”, I was in costume for his stunt
parts with beard and wig to look like Steve. I also had a separate role in the film. Production
people felt Steve and I cannot look this good together, so it was necessary to have me die in the scene somewhat early in the film. But, I did continue to play his double in the film.
Steve was a serious person, and he ate nutritionally. He was in bed by 9 PM, and he would
order me to bed because “Tomorrow we have to work hard”. But for me, this was not normal.
He would invite me often to his home, and we would eat mixed salads, tomatoes, zucchini, milk, foods with proteins and vitamins necessary for weight training. His wife was a good cook so he ate well also.”
The Later Years
Since making his film debut in 1958, Giovanni has appeared in well over 100 films. He also did
sword and sandal stunt work for Reg Park, Lou Degni (AKA Mark Forest), Mickey Hargitay, and
Gordon Scott. He had a major part in Reg Parks’ 1965 film, “Hercules the Avenger”, playing the
character Antaeus. It was Park’s last film, and it was that film that left Reg very impressed with
Giovanni’s athletic prowess. The fight scene between Reg and Giovanni, which Reg always
raved about, is considered one of the best in the entire Peplum era. You can view the scene
Giovanni is pictured with Giuseppe Alletto around 2012
Scene from 1965’s “Hercules the Avenger”
Italian Movie Poster for “Hercules the Avenger (Giovanni in background)”
In 1983 he was also featured as an actor in Lou Ferrigno’s film, “The Seven Magnificent
Gladiators”. This was one of his last sword and sandal films.
When the Peplum explosion declined, Giovanni continued in Eurospy action films and leading
roles in many Spaghetti Westerns working under the stage name of Ken Wood. His stunt work
continued as well in 1985’s “The Jewel of the Nile”, 1988’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”, and
1991’s “Year of the Gun”. More recently, he worked on the Ben Stiller comedy sequel,
“Zoolander No. 2” in 2016.
For a few films in the mid to late 1960s, he was cast as “Superargo”, a super human
spy/superhero/wrestler. Though the character Superargo never removed his mask, the
exceptional physique could not be mistaken.
A variety of characters, beyond stunt work, Giovanni played over the years
Giovanni Cianfriglia did not provide the stunt work for all of Steve Reeves’ films, but undeniably
the majority of them. Sergio Ciani (AKA Alan Steel) also was responsible for doubling for Steve
a few times and other stunt men occasionally participated as well. We do know Giovanni
definitely DIDN’T lend his athletic stunt skills to “The White Warrior”, “The Avenger”, “The Last
Days of Pompeii”, “A Long Ride from Hell” and a few other films.
Today he currently lives in Italy and on April 5, he will turn 84.
“Thank you, Giovanni for the many great screen memories. Steve Reeves’ movies, as well as
other actors’ films, were all the better and all the more exciting thanks to your abilities and
talents. As I was part of the theater audience to several Steve Reeves’ films many years ago, I
definitely appreciated your big screen feats and heroics, though I (or the audience for that
matter) didn’t realize it was you at the time. Thanks for making those films what they were.”