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Christopher Reeve

 
 

Christopher Reeve

Christopher Reeve (September 25, 1952 – October 10, 2004) was an actor, director, producer and writer renowned for his film portrayal of Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent in four films from 1978-1987.

On May 27, 1995 Reeve was rendered a quadriplegic during an equestrian competition near Culpeper, Virginia, and was confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. He became a spokesman for disabled people and a vocal supporter of stem cell research. Reeve lobbied tirelessly for stem cell research to aid victims of spinal cord injuries.

In 2003 and 2004, Reeve was fighting off a number of serious infections believed to be originated from the bone marrow and recovered from three that could have been fatal. On October 10, 2004 after suffering cardiac arrest brought on by an infection and falling into a coma, Christopher Reeve died of heart failure at 52 years of age. In the week prior to his death, Reeve was being treated at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, New York for a pressure ulcer, a common ailment for paralytics, that had subsequently become seriously infected.

Reeve was born in New York City to writer Franklin Reeve and journalist Barbara Johnson. Reeve graduated from Princeton Day School in Princeton, New Jersey. He attended Cornell University as a member of the class of 1974, but left before earning his degree and began studying at the Juilliard Drama School under John Houseman. While at Juilliard, he became friends with Robin Williams, as well as with Kevin Conroy (who would later be the voice actor for the animated Batman television series).

With his height, looks, and articulate voice, Reeve was destined to be an actor. Reeve's first big break as an actor came in 1975 when he was selected to co-star opposite Katharine Hepburn in the Broadway play A Matter Of Gravity. Reeve stayed with the play throughout its year-long run and was given very favorable reviews. He and Hepburn became very close and stayed in contact until her death in 2003. A romance was rumored, but Reeve laughed it off saying, "That was wild, that thought. She was 66 and I was 22. But that, you know, that could be fun." He did admit to having a boyhood crush on her. "When I was a kid I would have crossed the country on my hands and knees just to say hi." Reeve credited the legendary actress with giving him many valuable lessons on acting. Hepburn in turn praised her young co-star. She predicted great things for him and joked that he would "support me in my old age." Reeve is reported to have joked back, "I don't think I'll live that long Miss Hepburn."

Reeve continued to work on the stage, as well as on the soap opera Love of Life. His first role in a Hollywood film was a small part as a submarine officer in the disaster movie Gray Lady Down in 1977.

With his stunning good looks and tall stature at 6'4", Reeve is said to have drawn eyes when walking into auditions. This paid off when he beat out thousands of others for the role of Superman in the 1978 film directed by Richard Donner. This film was an enormous success and inspired three sequels. Coincidentally, Christopher Reeve's good friend Robin Williams also became a star that same year with the television show Mork & Mindy. Contrary to myth, Christopher Reeve is not related to George Reeves, who played Superman on television in the 1950's. George Reeves' real name was, in fact, George Brewer, and the similarity in their names is only coincidental.

Although he was certainly tall enough for the role, Reeve's build was decidedly unmuscular, and he began a training regimen under former British weightlifting champion Dave Prowse, who, a short time later, would gain fame as the man who would give physical form to Darth Vader in George Lucas' immensely popular Star Wars films. Reeve had a driver who was paid to take him to the gym no matter how much he cursed and resisted. The training regimen consisted of several hours at the gym every day, and eating two of everything; two breakfasts, two lunches, and two dinners. Reeve put on 30 pounds of muscle to his thin 180 lbs frame, and put on even more for Superman III. Once he reached the peak of his bulk, he decided to put more emphasis on cardiovascular workouts and became leaner.

Superman was the kind of part Reeve usually disdained. He once said, "I want to challenge myself in my roles, not run around on screen with a machine gun." However, Reeve did find that he could play the character with depth and challenge himself with the role. He said that there had to be something more to the Clark Kent character, otherwise you just had a "pair of glasses standing in for a character." Christopher Reeve essentially redefined Superman, no small feat considering what a global icon the character was and still is. To this day, people see Superman in Christopher Reeve. After leaving the role, he was reportedly greeted and called Superman by those who recognized him in public, but he good naturedly accepted the association and acknowledged it as his most famous role. Additionally, many who knew him found that his real life personality closely matched Superman's, in that he was a genuinely kind, friendly man who was very down to Earth and easy going.

In 1980, Reeve co-starred with Jane Seymour in Somewhere in Time, a time travel romance. Although this film was not popular at the time it was released, it has since inspired a wide "cult" following. Seymour thought so highly of Reeve that she named one of her children after him.

In 1984, Reeve won critical acclaim for his role as a 19th century southern lawyer in The Bostonians. He often said this was the best movie role of his career. It was immediately afterwards that he scored another triumph on the stage. This time it was on a London stage. Reeve had always been fond of England and jumped at the chance to co-star with his friend Vanessa Redgrave in The Aspen Papers which was an adaptation of a Henry James novel. Critics were astounded by his performance and headlines blurted "Superman can act!"

In 1987 he travelled to Chile, at that time under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, to stand in solidarity with several dozen actors and writers who had been threatened with death for their left wing views. In the same year, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace was released. Reeve helped write the screenplay because he wanted to send a powerful message about world peace. The plot focused on Superman ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Superman IV was a box office failure and Reeve jokingly recommended that people skip it and only watch the first two movies and maybe the third. Also in 1987, Reeve starred in the gritty Street Smart as a reporter who falsified a story about a pimp. Morgan Freeman won an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor for his role as the pimp "Fast Black". Reeve's performance was dismissed by the critics; one even mocked, "Look up in the sky, it's a bird, it's a plane... it's Newsman!". In 1988, Reeve co-starred with friends, Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner, in the comedy Switching Channels. This was a modern day remake of the 1930s stageplay The Front Page and also provided a rare comedic role for Reeve. However, the movie flopped at the box office and Reeve was unable to land a major film role for the next four years. In his career, he was offered many roles such as Richard Gere's role in American Gigolo and Arnold Schwarzenegger's role in The Running Man, but he declined in favor of more meaningful films. After his accident, he would direct and star in several important movies about disabilities such as In The Gloaming and The Brooke Ellison Story. Before his accident he played a paralyzed man in Above Suspicion.

Reeve had a great love for the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He served as an apprentice and on its Board of Directors. Despite becoming famous as Superman, he returned each summer until his accident. Reeve often faulted fellow actors for shunning stagework claiming they were dishonoring their craft. Reeve appeared in over 150 plays during his career.

Injury

[A transcript of Christopher Reeve's appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, May 12, 1998]

LETTERMAN: Tell me exactly what it is. What is broken? What happened here?

REEVE: Well, I totally decimated my first cervical vertebra and my second, and so my body and my spine and my head were not connected. Only my neck muscles were holding my head on, and fortunately I didn't suffer any brain damage, at least none that I can detect. [laughter] But, you know, that's what they tell me at any rate. But they literally had to put my head back on my body, and a wonderful surgeon, Dr. John Jane at the University of Virginia, was the one who operated on me, and they had to make it up. They had never done anything like this before, because this is what is called a hangman's injury, you know, like if you get dropped through the trap down and then cut down, sent to rehab and told to have a nice life.

LETTERMAN: This is where, is it the brain stem comes out of the brain, and is that the beginning of the spinal cord? Is that what that is?

REEVE: Yes, yes. Now, if you injure your brain stem you're in really big trouble, because you can't even move your face, but I'm what's called a C2 incomplete which means the second cervical vertebra, there's a gap between the second and the third. It's only 20 millimeters wide, and that's why I am a prime candidate for recovery when they have regeneration.

Later life

On May 27, 1995, Reeve was paralyzed from the neck down after being thrown from his horse, "Eastern Express," in a cross country riding competition in Culpeper, Virginia. Reeve later admitted that he briefly thought of suicide after realizing the extent of his disability. He credits his wife Dana Reeve with pulling him out of his depression. She told him, "I still love you no matter what. You are still you." Reeve has often said that these were the words that literally saved his life. He largely retired from the production of films after his paralysis, instead devoting his time to rehabilitation therapy. With his wife Dana, he opened the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center, a facility in Short Hills, New Jersey, devoted to teaching paralyzed people to live more independently. He and Dana also chaired the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, which funds research on paralysis and works to improve the lives of the disabled. To date, the Foundation has awarded $55 million in research grants and $7.5 million in quality-of-life grants. After Chris' death, Dana continued to chair the Foundation. Reeve also lobbied against the U.S. government's restrictions on stem cell research (and, based on this, his widow endorsed John Kerry for president in 2004 shortly after his death).

Reeve also appeared in television movies after his accident. For example, in 1998 he appeared in a remake for TV of the famous film Rear Window, originally directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This remake is set in the time in which it was made and is characterized by its depiction of adaptive devices for wheelchair users. This clearly distinguishes the film from the original. For example, in the new film he sends emails by using speech recognition software (instead of the telephone used in the original).

On April 25, 1998 Random House published Reeve's autobiography, Still Me.

On February 25, 2003, he appeared in the television series Smallville as Dr. Swann, who provides young Clark Kent with insightful clues as to his origins. The episode, "Rosetta," was warmly received by critics and the viewing public as a fitting connection from one generation's Superman to the next. Reeve appeared in the role again in the April 14, 2004 episode "Legacy". The character of Dr. Swann died in the episode "Sacred," which aired on February 23, 2005. Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane in the Superman films continued the plot as Swann's assistant. Her character, Dr. Bridgette Crosby, was eventually killed in the episode entitled "Spirit", which aired on April 20, 2005.

On October 25, 2004, A&E aired Reeve's second directorial project, The Brooke Ellison Story. The film, starring Lacey Chabert and based on a true story, is about the life of an 11-year old girl who becomes a quadriplegic in a car accident (and becomes the first quadriplegic to graduate from Harvard University.)

Selected quotes

"I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles." - referring to the number of disabled patients he met when he was first injured.

"I was worried that only acting with my voice and my face, I might not be able to communicate effectively enough to tell the story, but I was surprised to find that if I really concentrated, and just let the thoughts happen, that they would read on my face. With so many close-ups, I knew that my every thought would count."

"So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable."

"If there is no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do."

"In 1977, Christopher Reeve convinced me that a man can fly. Now he's convinced me that he will walk again." (Richard Donner, Superman: The Movie director)

Bio from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Reeve