Christopher Reeve (born 1952) is an actor who has worked on behalf of those with disabilities ever since he suffered an injury that left him a quadriplegic.
Inspirational, brave, determined this is how actor and activist Christopher Reeve has been described ever since a devastating accident in 1995 left him paralyzed from the neck down. Best known for his starring role in four Superman movies, Reeve saw his life change forever in a mere moment. His tireless efforts to secure funding for spinal cord research may one day lead to a cure for paralysis. "I think God sent Chris to be the man to do this because of his heart and courage and awareness and fight, " declared his longtime friend and fellow actor Mandy Patinkin in People magazine. "The ironies are unbelievable. He's more than Superman."
A native of Manhattan, Reeve was the oldest of two sons born to Franklin D. Reeve, a novelist, translator, and university professor, and Barbara Pitney Lamb Johnson, a journalist. Reeve's parents were divorced when he was about four years old and he moved with his mother and brother to Princeton, New Jersey. Although he grew up there amid affluence, following his mother's remarriage to a stockbroker, he nevertheless had to cope with the lingering anger and tension that characterized his parents' relationship.
Reeve would often pass the time away during his youth playing the piano, swimming, sailing, or engaging in some other solitary activity. And while he was still just a child around ten or so the stage began call. His very first role was in a Princeton theater company's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Yeoman of the Guard, and after that experience, Reeve was hooked. Later, as a gawky teenager lacking in self-confidence, he found that acting helped him overcome his feelings of clumsiness and inadequacy. "[My life] was all just bits and pieces, " Reeve explained to Time magazine reporter Roger Rosenblatt. "You don't want to risk getting involved with people for fear that things are going to fall apart. That's why I found relief in playing characters. You knew where you were in fiction. You knew where you stood."
Reeve starred in virtually every stage production at his exclusive private high school and also spent the summer months immersed in the theater, either as a student or an actor. By the time he was sixteen, he was a bona fide professional with an Actors' Equity Association membership card and an agent.
After graduating from high school in 1970, Reeve attended Cornell University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English and music theory in 1974. Meanwhile, he continued his drama education, serving as a backstage observer at both the Old Vic in London and the Comedie-Francaise in Paris before enrolling in the Juilliard School for Drama in New York City to pursue graduate studies.
Reeve's first major acting assignment came shortly after his graduation from Cornell when he joined the cast of the television soap opera "Love of Life." He remained with the program for two years, during which time he also performed on stage in the evenings with various New York City theater companies, including the Manhattan Theater Club and the Circle Repertory Company. Reeve made his Broadway debut in 1975 in the play A Matter of Gravity, an offbeat comedy starring Katharine Hepburn. Even though it received lackluster reviews and closed after only a few weeks, it provided Reeve with the opportunity to learn valuable lessons about his craft from one of the greatest actresses of the century.
Later that same year, Reeve headed to California and won his first movie role, a bit part in a 1978 nuclear submarine disaster movie titled Gray Lady Down. But when no other work was forthcoming, he returned to New York City and appeared in an off-Broadway play that opened in January 1977.
Then, to Reeve's surprise, Hollywood came calling with an offer to try out for the role of Superman in an upcoming film of the same title. (After approaching several big-name actors who turned them down or who just didn't suit the part, the project's producers and director had decided to go after an unknown.) At first, Reeve thought the idea was downright silly and very un-theatrical, but then he read the script and loved it. So when he was invited back for a screen test, he was determined to beat out the other hopefuls for the part. Reeve prepared for two solid weeks, experimenting with complete makeup and costume changes for both Superman and Clark Kent. He aced the screen test and the part was his.
Filming on Superman began in the spring of 1977 and took about eighteen months to complete, partly because of its technical complexity and certain logistical problems. When it premiered in December 1978, it met with almost universal critical acclaim and astounding box-office success. Suddenly, Reeve was a megastar with all of the baggage that entailed, including countless demands on his time, a total loss of privacy, and the danger of being typecast forever as the hunky "Man of Steel."
Deluged with offers, Reeve accepted a part in a low-budget romantic drama as his next project. Somewhere in Time, which also starred Jane Seymour and Christopher Plummer, was released in 1980 to less-than-enthusiastic reviews and a lukewarm reception at the box office. Since then, however, it has developed a cult-like following among those who find its dreamy quality and pretty scenery irresistible.
Reeve's next project was Superman II, which he had agreed to do when he signed on for the first film. It, too, was spectacularly successful upon its debut in mid-1981, setting what was then a record by taking in five million dollars on a single day. The critics also liked it, with some even saying that it was better than the first movie.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Reeve enjoyed an increasingly busy film career. Besides reprising his most famous role in Superman III (1983) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), which he also helped write, Reeve appeared in about a dozen other pictures, including Deathtrap (1982), Noises Off (1992), The Remains of the Day (1993), Speechless (1994), and Village of the Damned (1995). Reeve was also involved in a number of television productions during this same period, among them the movies Anna Karenina (1985), The Rose and the Jackal (1990), Death Dreams (1991), The Sea Wolf (1993), and Above Suspicion (1994). In addition, he appeared in several documentaries for which he served as host and narrator. He also appeared on Faerie Tale Theatre in a production of "Sleeping Beauty" and in an episode of Tales from the Crypt.
In between working in film and television, Reeve often returned to the stage, both on and off-Broadway and in regional venues such as the Williamstown (Massachusetts) Theatre. During the summer of 1980, for example, he appeared in Williamstown in The Cherry Orchard, The Front Page, and The Heiress. Later that same year, he opened on Broadway in the hit drama Fifth of July and remained with the cast for five months. He then returned to Williamstown in the summer of 1981 to perform in The Greeks. Reeve's subsequent stage appearances included The Aspern Papers in London in 1984 and New York productions of The Marriage of Figaro (1985) and Love Letters. In Williamstown, he performed in Holiday, John Brown's Body (1989) and The Guardsman (1992).
On May 27, 1995, Reeve's world was shattered in a matter of seconds when he was thrown from his horse head first during an equestrian competition in Virginia. The impact smashed the two upper vertebrae in his spine, leaving him completely paralyzed from the neck down and able to breathe only with assistance from a ventilator. Reeve remained in intensive care for five weeks as he fought off pneumonia, underwent surgery to fuse the broken vertebrae in his neck, and weathered several other life-threatening complications of his injury. Doctors initially gave him no more than a fifty percent chance of surviving. Once he was stabilized, he was then transferred from the hospital to a rehabilitation facility for six months of therapy and learning how to adjust to his paralysis.
With his characteristic grit and determination, Reeve set about the task of putting his life in order. He mastered the art of talking between breaths of his ventilator. He learned how to use his specialized wheelchair, which he commands by blowing puffs of air into a straw-like control device. Always hungry for the smallest sign of progress, he did countless exercises, competing against himself to improve and grow stronger. All the while, he later recalled, "You're sitting here fighting depression. You're in shock. You look out the window, and you can't believe where you are. And the thought that keeps going through your mind is, This can't be my life. There's been a mistake."'
Reeve astounded his friends and admirers by making his first public appearance on October 16, 1995, less than six months after his accident. The occasion was an awards dinner held by the Creative Coalition, an actors' advocacy organization he had helped establish. Reeve joked with the audience about what had happened to him and immediately put everyone at ease, then introduced his old friend Robin Williams, who was being honored for the work he had done on behalf of the group.
The awards dinner was just the beginning for Reeve, who has since channeled his considerable energies into a wide variety of endeavors. In March 1996, he appeared before a worldwide television audience at the Academy Awards to introduce a special segment on movies that display a social conscience. In August of that same year, Reeve was in Atlanta to serve as master of ceremonies at the Paralympic Games and then went on to Chicago, where he delivered an emotional opening-night speech to the Democratic National Convention. Reeve has also kept busy with countless speaking engagements, delivering motivational talks to eager audiences all over the country.
During the spring of 1996, Reeve took on his first acting job since his accident when he agreed to do the voice of King Arthur in an animated feature entitled The Quest for Camelot. Later that year, in the fall, he made a cameo appearance in the television movie A Step Toward Tomorrow playing a disabled patient who offers psychological support to a young man injured in a diving mishap. And in April 1997, Reeve demonstrated his talents behind the camera when he made his debut as a director of the Home Box Office (HBO) movie In the Gloaming about a family struggling to cope with the impending loss of a son to AIDS. Before his accident, Reeve was an activist on behalf of children's issues, human rights, the environment, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has since assumed the role of national spokesman for the disabled especially those people who, like him, have suffered spinal-cord injuries. As a famous actor and one of the most visible disabled people in the United States, Reeve is using his celebrity status not only to secure financial support for research but also to lobby for insurance reforms that would increase the lifetime benefits cap for catastrophic illnesses or injuries in employer-sponsored health plans from the industry average of $1 million to at least $10 million. He is also the founder of the Christopher Reeve Foundation, which raises funds for biomedical research and acts as an advocate for the disabled, and serves as chairman of the American Paralysis Association.
Meanwhile, Reeve continues to cope with the daily trials and occasional triumphs related to his quadriplegia. "You don't want the condition to define you, " he once commented, "and yet it occupies your every thought." While he may never be completely free of his respirator, he does manage to go without it for several hours at a time. He can move his head and shrug his shoulders, and he reports some sensation in one of his legs and one of his forearms. He exercises regularly to keep his body flexible and to prevent his muscles from atrophying, noting that "the more I do, the more I can do." Yet Reeve must also deal with unpredictable spasms that send his body into embarrassing and potentially dangerous contortions, and in 1997 he was hospitalized twice for blood clots.
Reeve is determined to walk again; one of his fondest dreams, has him standing up on his fiftieth birthday in the year 2002 and offering a toast to all of the people who helped him get to that point. "When John Kennedy promised that by the end of the 1960s we would put a man on the moon, " Reeve told Rosenblatt of Time, "everybody, including the scientists, shook their heads in dismay. But we did it. We can cure spinal-cord injuries too, if there's the will. What was possible in outer space is possible in inner space."
Further Reading on Christopher Reeve
Reeve, Christopher, Still Me, Random House, 1998.
Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1993; June 3, 1996.
Entertainment Weekly, November 15, 1996.
Good Housekeeping, August 1997.
Ladies' Home Journal, April 1996.
McCall's, September 1987; January 1991.
Newsweek, June 12, 1995, p. 43; July 1, 1996, p. 56.
New York Times, June 1, 1995; June 2, 1995; June 6, 1995; October 17, 1995; June 2, 1996; October 31, 1996.
People, June 12, 1995; June 26, 1995, pp. 55-56; December 25, 1995-January 1, 1996, pp. 52-53; April 15, 1996; December 30, 1996, p. 71; January 27, 1997, pp. 82-86.
Time, August 26, 1996, pp. 40-52.