Christopher Reeve, who became famous playing a character who could fly around the world, and as a man whose wheelchair did not limit his flights of idealism, died Sunday. He was 52. In the years since he was paralyzed in a riding accident in 1995, he became the nation’s most influential spokesman for research on spinal cord injuries, and never lost the hope that he would someday walk again.
Only a week ago, on Oct. 5, Reeve was in Chicago to help observe the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Institute. Talking to the Sun-Times’ Bill Zwecker, he said “little miracles are happening every day” at the Institute, and hailed recent advances in physical therapy for those with paralysis.
Reeve died in Northern Westchester Hospital, his publicist Wesley Combs said, after he had a heart attack while being treated at home for an infected bedsore. He went into a coma from which he never emerged.
At his side was his wife, Dana.
Reeve became famous after starring in “Superman” (1978), which began the current cycle of movies about superheroes; with “Spider-Man 2,” it was one of the two best films in the genre. At the time he took the role, he told me at the time, it looked like possible career suicide, because previous Superman movies had been cheesy B features. But director Richard Donner, working from a screenplay by Mario Puzo (“The Godfather”) and David Newman and Robert Benton (“Bonnie and Clyde”), assembled an A-list cast including Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder and Trevor Howard.
Reeve turned out to be perfectly cast as the Man of Steel. After a highly publicized talent search, the producers “found the right guy,” I wrote in my 1978 review. “He is Christopher Reeve. He looks like the Superman in the comic books (a fate I would not wish on anybody), but he’s also an engaging actor, open and funny in his big love scene with Lois Lane, and then correctly awesome in his showdown with the arch villain Lex Luthor.”
He starred again in “Superman II” (1981), which I liked as much as the original, and in “Superman III” (1983) and “Superman IV” (1987), where the franchise began to run out of gas. Like all actors who are associated with an archetypal role, Reeve found it hard to shake the Superman image, but he was a skilled classical actor, at home on the stage.
He was impressive in mainstream roles in “Street Smart” (1987), as a writer whose research in street life gets him in deep trouble; “The Remains of the Day” (1993), as a U. S. Congressman with strong words during a dinner with a British lord who supports the Nazis; and “The Bostonians” (1984), based on the Henry James novel, with Reeve as a lawyer thrown into the middle of the suffragette movement. One of his most popular movies was “Somewhere in Time” (1980), where he plays a modern playwright who visits the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, sees a photograph of an actress who played there in 1912, and travels through time (or perhaps only thinks he does) to meet her.
His riding accident left him unable to move from the neck down or even breathe for himself. Yet he kept up a busy schedule, traveled, gave interviews, and worked as an actor and filmmaker. He recently completed directing “The Brooke Ellison Story,” which premieres Oct. 25 on the A&E network. Lacey Chabert stars as a woman with injuries like Reeve’s only, unable to breathe on her own since the age of 11, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays the mother who supports her in a journey that leads to her graduation from Harvard in 2000.
Reeve was an activist in favor of stem cell research, which might someday be able to regenerate damaged spinal cells, and was outspoken in his testimony before Congress after President Bush set limits on the research. During last Friday’s Presidential Debate, Senator John Kerry said Reeve was “a friend of mine…[who] exercises every single day to keep those muscles alive for the day when he can walk again.” He said it is “respecting human life to reach for that cure,” but the President’s policy “makes it impossible for our scientists to do that.”
Reeve told Zwecker that opponents “don't understand the stem cells that scientists want to work on are taken from the 400 in vitro fertilization clinics across the country where -- on a daily basis -- 35 to 40 percent of excess embryos [unneeded after couples conceive] are thrown away as medical waste. Those discarded cells could be used to cure and treat millions of people.''
Reeve had two children, Matthew, 25, and Alexandra, 21, from a long-term relationship with Gae Exton, and had joint custody. He married Dana Morosini, a cabaret performer, in 1992, and their son, Will, is 11.
Reeve was born in 1952, the son of two writers, and attended Cornell before winning an invitation to spend his senior year at the Julliard School for the Performing Arts. His stage work included roles opposite Katharine Hepburn and Celeste Holm, and as a young man he worked backstage as a “dogsbody” at the Old Vic in London and the Comedie Francaise in Paris.
Reeve told friends that when he first learned the extent of his injuries, he considered suicide. Then he determined to do all he could despite his limitations, and to work for recovery. He was cheered by the fact that he regained some sensation over 70 percent of his body, although he could not move below the neck. The best thing about regaining some feeling, he said, is that he could feel it when his family hugged him.
Contributing: Sun-Times wire services