Family & Companions
For a world filled with comic book fans, Christopher Reeve had for years been the definitive Superman. For thousands suffering with paralysis and spinal cord injuries, in one tragic moment, he morphed suddenly from an actor perfectly cast onscreen, to a real-life personal inspiration and a champion of medical research and healthcare reform. Standing six-foot-four and sporting a jaw as square as his illustrated predecessor, the then-unknown Reeve became an overnight success when he was cast in "Superman: The Movie" (1978) - most notable for his evenhanded portrait of both the character's sensitive vulnerability and commanding power in the face of injustice - all the while, wearing tights and a cape. Despite playing such an iconic role, he resisted typecasting in the wake of the film series' success, sticking close to his original love of live theater when Hollywood failed to deliver worthy scripts. When he did appear onscreen, he held out for parts in such films as the Academy Award-winning period classic "The Remains of the Day" (1993), the Sidney Lumet thriller "Deathtrap" (1982) and, in his most beloved non-Superman role, the romantic period piece, "Somewhere in Time" (1980). But all the Hollywood razzle-dazzle evaporated in a single instance, when in 1995, the world learned that the man who had epitomized "superhero," was rendered completely paralyzed by an equestrian accident. Although Reeve never regained physical movement and would ultimately lose his life to his handicap, his efforts as a tireless advocate for medical research into spinal cord injuries and his brave battle to regain a quality of life for himself and his family, proved more heroic than any character he could ever have portrayed onscreen.
Christopher Reeve was born on Sept. 25, 1952, into a prominent family whose lineage included a former Massachusetts governor, a Supreme Court justice, a Mayflower passenger, and the CEO of Prudential Financial. His father, Franklin D'Olier Reeve, was a writer and scholar at Columbia University in New York; his mother was journalist Barbara Pitney. The couple bore Christopher and his younger brother Benjamin while living in New York, but following the couple's 1955 divorce, Barbara and the boys moved to Princeton, NJ. She remarried a stockbroker and the brothers were enrolled at the prestigious Princeton Country Day School.
At the age of nine, Reeve made his professional acting debut at Princeton's McCarter Theater. He was active in music and theater throughout school, while simultaneously overachieving in every other area of his young life, including a spot on the honor roll and excelling at baseball, soccer, hockey and tennis. When he was 15, he was accepted into a summer apprentice program at the Williamstown Theater in Massachusetts. The following summer of 1969, he earned a weekly wage from the Harvard Summer Repertory Theater Company, wowing theatre critics with his role in the three-hour Russian drama "A Month in the Country."
After graduating from Princeton Day in 1970, Reeve enrolled at Cornell University after turning down offers from Princeton, Brown, Columbia, and Carnegie Mellon, where he majored in English and music. During a busy freshman year, Reeve was wo d by renowned agent Stark Hesseltine, who had seen him perform and was anxious to boost his professional career. Reeve remained active in the university's theater productions, but began to spend summers as a working actor, touring with the French comedy "Forty Carats" and joining the San Diego Shakespeare Festival the following summer. The experience prompted him to travel to Europe and further work the classics at the Old Vic in London and the Comedie Francaise of Paris. Upon his return, Reeve hoped to focus his education on drama at Juilliard. In the fall of 1973, he was one of only two applicants invited into the institution's advanced program for study under famed classical actor, John Houseman. The other was Robin Williams. The unlikely twosome formed a close friendship that would last for the remainder of Reeve's life. Reeve completed only a year of training at the renowned institute, dropping out over scheduling demands of his first TV acting job, the daytime drama "Love of Life" (CBS, 1951-1980).
The up-and-coming actor performed steadily on the soap from 1974 to 1976, during which time, he continued to appear on New York stages and further his studies at Greenwich Village's HB Studio. In 1975, he enjoyed his Broadway debut and the lifelong support of Katherine Hepburn when he acted opposite her in "A Matter of Gravity" during its yearlong run. Reeve had made only one small film appearance in "Gray Lady Down" (1978), when Hesseltine provided his young client with an opportunity to audition for the big screen adaptation of "Superman," competing against such heavyweights as Robert Redford and Sylvester Stallone to play the Man of Steel. With his extremely earnest manner and youthful good looks, Reeve looked the part - both as the superhero as well as his awkward alter ego, Clark Kent - but it was the disarming sincerity and dash of humor he brought to the role which won over casting directors and the film's director, Richard Donner. Using Cary Grant as his model and combining that image with the contemporary 1970s sensitive male, was Reeve's ticket to stardom. "Superman: The Movie" was a box office smash, leaving critics duly impressed with Reeves' multi-dimensional interpretation of the formerly two-dimensional hero, as well as the fact that he held his own opposite such respected thespians as Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty. For his incredible interpretation, he was even honored with a BAFTA Award for Best Newcomer.
The film, of course, was only the first in a profitable and beloved franchise. The sequel "Superman II" (1981) was shot at the same time as the original, but director Richard Donner was fired midway through shooting by father-son producing team Ilya and Alexander Salkind and replaced with Richard Lester - helmer of such quirky films as "A Hard Day's Night" (1964). Unfortunately, Lester made drastic script changes and re-shot a great deal of Donner's completed work - angering such loyal Donner fans as Reeve and his co-star, Margot Kidder (Lois Lane). While not as critically lauded as its predecessor - due in no small part to numerous Lester-like goofiness and pratfalls - "Superman II" was a monster success and provided a unique chance for Superman to battle not one bad guy - but THREE bad guys this time out.
Not unexpectedly, after the release of the original "Superman," Reeve had been inundated with offers to play action her s and studly swingers. Concerned that he not be typecast as different variations on the invincible alpha male, Reeve instead opted for the romantic period piece, "Somewhere in Time" (1980), co-starring Jane Seymour, who went on to become one of his closest friends in a growing circle of actors in awe of his work ethic and innate kindness. Unfortunately, fans were not prepared to accept Reeve in a hazy, sentimental light - let alone period costume - which helped make the time traveling romance less than a hit upon its release. But over a period of years, the film built up a rabid cult following no one involved with it at the time could have ever anticipated. "Somewhere in Time" appreciation societies began popping up around the country and arranged visits by fans to the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island, MI where the film was shot would occur more instead of less through the years.
Despite being one of the biggest stars in the world and a fixture in monthly movie magazines ever since his "Superman" debut, Reeve continued his prolific work on the stage, returning to his haven, the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, and to Broadway in Lanford Wilson's "Fifth of July" (1980). But bills still had to be paid, so Reeve returned to the tights and cape for "Superman III" (1983) - a misbegotten effort which ousted good friend Kidder as his co-star in favor of actress Annette O'Toole and brought on board for some inexplicable reason, comic Richard Pryor as his nemesis. Although the film was far inferior in all aspects to the previous two, Reeve's dedication to his character was still striking; in particular, his scenes as Superman's evil doppelganger were memorable in their intensity. Due to the film's critical drubbing and a lagging box office, it was clear the "Superman" gravy train was grinding to a halt. There would be more one more outing for the Man of Steel, with "Superman IV: Quest for Peace" (1987) - a noble effort on Reeve's part to not only resurrect the franchise, but to address issues he was concerned with - namely, nuclear proliferation. Reeve shepherded the forth installment all the way, attempting to give the story some depth with his own script revisions, but the franchise was past its prime. The fantastically bad film - with its low budget special effects and laughably bad dialogue and characters - bombed spectacularly. Reeve would never again play his most iconic role on screen again.
Despite the typecasting curse he had been saddled with through the years, Reeve continued to challenge his Clark Kent image by playing a variety of parts, including an eager, naive playwright in "Deathtrap" (1982), a gay priest in "Monsignor" (1982), a deceptive magazine writer sucked into the world of a violent pimp in "Street Smart" (1987), and Kathleen Turner's wealthy fiancé in "Switching Channels" (1988). Like his enchanting turn in "Somewhere in Time," some of Reeve's most revered feature work was of the historic drama genre, including Merchant-Ivory productions like "The Bostonians" (1984), the feature film "The Remains of the Day" (1993) and a CBS adaptation of "Anna Karenina" (1985). He also bridged his theatre and film careers in the star-studded music theater send-up, "Noises Off" (1992).
During the period leading up to 1995, Reeve took several year-plus breaks from Hollywood to do theater in New York and Massachusetts and to spend time with his family, actress/singer Dana Morosini - whom he married in 1992 after catching her sing onstage and falling immediately in love at first sight - their son Will, and Reeve's children Matthew and Alexandra from an earlier relationship with actress Gae Exton. It was while shooting "Anna Karenina" that Reeve was first introduced to horseback riding. Already an accomplished mountain climber, skier, sailor, and scuba diver, he enjoyed the challenge of a new sport, so after that particular film had wrapped, he continued training, eventually joined the competition circuit. It was during one of these competitions - a jumping event in Virginia in May of 1995 - when he was thrown from his horse, breaking his top two vertebrae and nearly dying from his injuries. Rendered paralyzed from the neck down with no chance to walk again, the actor's fate seemed particularly cruel. He was, after all, the man who had been a whole generation's Superman. A superhero who was now rendered to a wheelchair for life. The idea that there was a "Superman" curse became a popular thought as well - seeing as how Reeve's most famous predecessor, actor George Reeves, who had portrayed the Man of Steel on television for many years, had committed suicide in 1959.
After making the decision in his mind that he wanted to stay alive and overcome this sad twist of fate, Reeve made his highly anticipated first public appearance in a wheelchair and attached to a ventilator, on the ABC newsmagazine "20/20" (ABC, 1978- ) in September of 1995 - only 5 months after the accident. It was during that interview with Barbara Walters, that, with Dana by his side, the public first learned the heartache the family had gone through and how much the previously athletic Reeve had wanted to die when first given his prognosis. The touching interview was a ratings goldmine, as interest in Reeve's welfare was genuine. The following month, he appeared in person at the annual awards dinner of The Creative Coalition and made an emotional impact at the Academy Awards in March 1996 by appearing onstage in his wheelchair, to a lengthy standing ovation. That same year he won an Emmy for narrating the TV special "Without Pity: A Film About Abilities" (HBO, 1996). It was almost as if Reeve had become a bigger star; a more beloved celebrity, in light of his unfortunate injury.
The ever passionate Reeve decided to use this high profile to champion medical treatments for spinal cord injuries - which would go on to include in later years, the funding of controversial stem cell research. He also became a powerful and outspoken critic of the health care and insurance systems, speaking before Congress and the United Nations on several occasions. The Christopher Reeve Foundation was formed to generate funding for scientific research into finding cures for spinal cord injury. In 1999, Reeve and Dana launched the Paralysis Resource Center to provide information and support for others with spinal cord injury, whether they needed guidance solving day-to-day living issues, navigating through the health care system or finding a support group. Throughout his work, Reeve remained firmly convinced that he and others like him would one day become mobile again, and his spirit was not only inspirational, it resulted in a marked improvement in his own condition. After joining a rigorous physical therapy program he was able to breathe without a ventilator for over 90 minutes at a time, and regained small but remarkable movement and sensation in some limbs.
Reeve's effort on behalf of spinal cord injury was hardly his first foray into activism. He was co-president of the Creative Coalition, an organization designed to educate artists and performers about pressing issues so that they can use their position to help inform the public and participate in public policy. He was active with Amnesty International, People for the American Way, and the National Resources Defense Council. As a licensed pilot with two solo trans-Atlantic flights under his belt, he had been a member of the Charles Lindbergh Fund - a promoter of environmental technology, and Lighthawk, an environmental aviation association. In 1987, Reeve had led a protest in Chile in defense of 77 actors threatened with execution by dictator Pinochet. He was recognized with several international Human Rights honors. So Reeve's dogged efforts on behalf of people stricken with paralysis, was hardly news to people who knew him personally or for fans who had followed his career since "Superman."
Not letting a little thing like a wheelchair and a ventilator get in the way of his Hollywood career, in 1997, Reeve made his directorial debut with the AIDs drama, "In the Gloaming," (HBO). The next year he starred in ABC's remake of Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1998) and earned a Screen Actors Guild Award for his performance. Reeve served as an executive producer on the PBS series "Freedom: A History of Us" (2003) and bridged two generations of Supermen when he appeared in a 2003 episode of the WB's "Smallville" (2001-11).
That same year, Reeve became the third person in the United States to undergo a surgical procedure called diaphragm pacing, which allowed him to breathe without a ventilator for hours at a time. He embarked on directing a feature film - the animated baseball tale "Everyone's Hero" (2006). Unfortunately - though no would could know this at the time - neither Reeve nor Dana, who had served as co-producer, would see the project through to it premiere.
Only days after being mentioned by presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, during a presidential debate in regards to increased stem cell funding, on Oct. 10, 2004, age 52, Christopher Reeve went into cardiac arrest after experiencing an allergic reaction to a medication administered to treat an infection. Dana, who been appearing onstage in California at the time, raced home to be with her husband. She made it just in time to say goodbye, although he was already in a coma when she arrived. The world was shocked - mainly because his health and mobility had seemed to be improving. Close friends like Glenn Close, Jane Seymour and Robin Williams all paid their respects in private as well as in the press. Unfortunately, it would not be long before these same people would have to eulogize again. In a tragic turn of events, Dana Reeve - after boldly taking the reigns of the Christopher Reeve Foundation and all they had worked for - would succumb to lung cancer only two years later, in March 2006, leaving their son Will, an orphan. Fortunately the world embraced the youngster, who would be raised by his best friend's family - an arrangement Dana made before she passed away. His older half siblings also served as pseudo-parents, as well.
In the end, Reeve, the actor, left behind not only a legacy of dynamic performances and a character for the ages in Superman, he demonstrated what one person could accomplish, even without mobility; without the ability to breath on one's own that many people take for granted. Years earlier, movieg rs had believed a man - this man - could fly. Off-screen, they also believed, like he himself did, that one day, Reeve would rise up again. That would tragically not be the case, but in his efforts to shine a spotlight on spinal cord injuries and the chance to find a cure, he had proven himself a greater, true-life hero than he could ever have portrayed on screen.
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Began lengthy recurring association with the Williamstown Theatre in Massachusetts
Broadway debut opposite Katharine Hepburn in "A Matter of Gravity"
Film acting debut in "Gray Lady Down"
Gained prominence in film in the title role of "Superman"
Played the leading role of Ken Talley in the Broadway production of Lanford Wilson's "Fifth of July"
London debut in "The Aspern Papers", opposite Vanessa Redgrave
TV-movie debut, "Anna Karenina"
Screewriting debut "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace"
Turned down lucrative offer to do cigarette commercials in Japan
Hosted the second season of the Discovery Channel's compilation documentary TV series, "The Hollywood Stuntmakers"
Paralyzed in a riding accident in May
Was interviewed by Barbara Walters on ABC newsmagazine "20/20" in September
First public appearance at The Creative Coalition's annual dinner in October
Signed by HBO to direct a TV-movie, "In the Gloaming" (aired in April 1997)
Made public appearance as a presenter at the Academy Awards
Received star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (April 15)
First acting role since being paralyzed, a TV remake of "Rear Window"
Narrated the IMAX extreme sports film "Extreme"
Wrote first post-paralysis memoir "Still Me," for which he won a Grammy for Spoken Word Album
Appeared in controversial commerical for biotech company Nuveen airing during the Superbowl which depicted Reeves (via CGI) walking again
Second interview with Barbara Walters helps ABC win the week's rating race
Wrote second memoir "Nothing is Impossible: Reflections on a New Life," a collection of anecdotes and public speeches for which he received a Grammy nomination for Spoken Word Album
Underwent surgery to have experimental electrodes implanted in his diaphragm, which extended his ability to breathe without a respiriator
Executive produced the PBS documentary series "Freedom: A History of Us"
Cast as Dr. Swann, a mysterious scientist with information on Clark Kent's origing, on the WB series "Smallville"
Directed the A&E special "The Brooke Ellison Story" based on the real life story of Brooke Ellison, who at age 11 suffered paralysis, but went on to earn her degree from Harvard
Reprised role as Dr. Swann on the WB series "Smallville"