Christopher Reeve - 'Superman' and Real-life Hero
Created | Updated Jun 19, 2014
The actor who portrayed 'Superman' on celluloid became a real-life hero when he campaigned for the rights of people affected with disability, after a tragic accident which robbed him of his own mobility.
All of the quotes in this entry are Christopher Reeve's own unless otherwise stated.
Christopher Reeve was born in New York, USA, on 25 September, 1952. Reeve was the elder son of Franklin Reeve, the Professor of Slavic languages at Columbia University, and Barbara Johnson, a journalist. Chris and his younger brother Benjamin had to endure a family life of rows and silences between their warring parents. When Chris was only four years old, his parents separated.
They had a tendency to use me like a chess piece.
Chris attended an exclusive private school and by the time he was eight, he knew he wanted to be an actor. He studied English and Music Theory at Cornell University, before being selected to study Drama at New York's elite Juilliard School alongside another aspiring star, Robin Williams. Chris became an accomplished pianist, practising classical music for several hours each day, and he also composed his own music. He once said in an interview that had he not become an actor, he would have liked to have tried his hand at becoming a professional musician.
His first noted role was a small part in the soap opera Love of Life but it was his first Broadway role in the 1976 A Matter Of Gravity playing opposite Katharine Hepburn which was to get him noticed.
Chris was a good-looking man, tall at 6'4" (1.93m), dark-haired with piercing blue eyes and athletic body proportions. The entire package made him an ideal candidate for the film role of the 'Man of Steel'.
He played the bumbling Clark Kent role to great comedic effect and the skin-tight Superman outfit did justice to his muscular frame, winning him legions of fans. Four films and $300m in box-office takings later, Chris was one of Hollywood's most famous stars, but although he had achieved his ambition to act, he was unable to escape the cape - his own words on being typecast.
Somewhere In Time
In between the first two Superman films, Chris forged a life-long friendship with Jane Seymour, his co-star in Somewhere In Time. She held him in such high esteem that she named one of her twin sons after him and asked him to be the child's godfather.
The romantic time-travel film, which won three 'Saturn' awards1 earned Chris a new legion of fans, and he received a 'Fantafestival' award for Best Actor in 1981. Devotees of the film attend annual conventions at the fabulous Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan, the hotel around which the film is based. In 1997, the INSITE fan club paid for Christopher Reeve's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Chris was one of those rare actors who would perform his own stunts in films. A passionate outdoorsman, he was an expert sailor, scuba diver, and skier. His other activities included windsurfing, off-road bicycling, figure-skating, football, gliding, parasailing, sport climbing and mountain climbing. He earned his pilot's licence in his early twenties, and twice flew solo across the Atlantic in a small plane.
Throughout his life Chris was involved with many causes and charities close to his heart. These involved the Arts, the environment, children, and human rights. A few of them are: Amnesty International, Save the Children, The National Resources Defence Council, The Lindbergh Foundation, The Environmental Air Force, and People for the American Way; and he was one of the National Endowment For The Arts most passionate supporters.
In 1987, I asked Chris to travel with myself and my team to Chile, where 77 artists had been facing death warrants issued by the Pinochet government. We faced tear gas and real personal danger but we were successful and won the freedom of the artists.
- Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman.
For that act of bravery Chris received a special Obie Award in 1988, an annual award from the Walter Briehl Human Rights Foundation, and the Bernardo O'Higgins Medal (Chile's highest decoration) in 1998. Chris once addressed the United Nations, appealing to ban drift net tuna fishing2; and he played a vital role in winning a protection order for the wildlife of the Hudson River, and New York City's reservoir system.
In 1977 when he was dressed in full 'Superman' regalia, he accidentally stood on a more delicate foot belonging to Gae Exton, a British model agent. Gae had recently separated from her husband, businessman David Iveson, and at first was reluctant to get involved with the charming Chris, but before long they were having a relationship. Chris purchased a flat in Knightsbridge, London, so he would have a UK base, and it wasn't long before Gae moved in. When she fell pregnant unexpectedly with their first child in early 1979, Chris later commented:
It was the nicest mistake we ever made.
Chris had a phobia about anything concerning blood and medical matters, and almost stayed away from the birth. He managed to conquer his fear and witnessed Matthew's entry into the world on 20 December, but left almost immediately afterwards for a skiing holiday in Switzerland. Gae developed post-natal depression, which her partner couldn't help her with; like a lot of men, he either didn't or couldn't understand.
The family moved back to New York and then to Hollywood, where Chris continued to enjoy hell-raising sessions with his old friend Robin Williams. Although he never settled into domesticity, Chris was delighted when Gae announced that she was pregnant again in 1983. With Chris away filming in Yugoslavia, Gae moved back to London for the birth of her baby. As soon as Chris got the news that Gae was in labour, he left the film-set and flew to attend the birth of their daughter Alexandra, then immediately returned to finish his film.
To all intents Chris lived the life of an unattached celebrity and in all honesty never put Gae and their children first. The temptations which go hand in hand with fame were too strong and Gae wasn't the kind of woman to follow a man around with children in tow. They were living separate lives when 34-year-old Chris fell madly in love with 26-year-old singer and actress Dana Morosini.
Dana Morosini (1961 - 2006)
Chris and Dana met when they were both acting in a Shakespeare play for nominal fees at a New England theatre. Chris was bowled over by Dana and he became a born-again romantic. Within a few months they were living together in New York. The couple married in April 1992 and their son Will was born on 7 June, 1992.
Due to his happiness in his private life, Chris became something of a home-bird, taking work such as acting in TV movies, and making commercials for corporations wanting to cash-in on his old 'superhero' alter-ego. With his career in free-fall the family had to down-size their apartment in New York, because Chris was reluctant to take better-paying Hollywood film roles which would take him away from his family for any length of time.
When he was offered the role of a paraplegic policeman in the TV film Above Suspicion he researched the role thoroughly, even visiting specialist hospital spinal-injury units and talking to paraplegic people. He commented:
I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.
When producers wanted to film a 'happy' ending with the fictional paralysed policeman regaining the use of his legs and walking again, Chris refused, saying:
Things like that don't happen in real life.
Chris was 42 years old when he was involved in a horseriding accident at the Commonwealth Park showjumping event near Charlottesville, Virginia, on 27 May, 1995. His horse, thoroughbred Eastern Express, refused the third fence and threw Chris to the ground. He landed on his head and broke his neck in the worst possible place. In what is known as a 'hangman's injury', the top two vertebrae were fractured; it's an injury which paralyses but more usually results in death. By the time an emergency medical technician reached the stricken man, he had stopped breathing, the colour had drained from his face and his lips were turning blue.
The CPR brought Chris back from the brink of death - although later he would sometimes get so depressed he wished he'd died. The paramedics transporting him to hospital thought they would arrive with a corpse. Dana and their son Will had been watching the showjumping and she raced after the ambulance transporting her husband to a nearby hospital, from where he was almost immediately airlifted to a specialist unit.
A neurosurgeon removed many fragments of bone from the injured area in an operation lasting several hours. The severed nerves in his spinal cord had effectively disconnected his body from his brain. Incredibly Chris suffered no brain damage - although thankfully he had no memory of the accident.
For five days Chris hovered between life and death, but with the world's press clamouring for information, Dana, still in shock, refused to release any news: rumours spread through the gossip columns like wildfire, with some even speculating that 'Superman' had been felled by AIDS.
The 'Curse of Superman'
The accident which paralysed Chris elicited much excitement in the media. Before long, the 'Curse of Superman' became a modern-day conspiracy theory akin to the journalistic fabrication of the 'Curse of Tutankhamun', after the discovery of his intact tomb by Howard Carter in 1922; and the subsequent death of Carter's patron, Lord Carnarvon.
- George Reeves (1914 - 59), television's first 'Superman', committed suicide.
- Margot Kidder ('Lois Lane'), had a nervous breakdown in 1996 and went missing for several days.
- Marlon Brando (1924 - 2004), who played Superman's father Jor-El in Superman: The Movie, had a tragic family life. He outlived his daughter Cheyenne, who committed suicide; and his son Christian was sentenced to ten years in jail after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. In later life a grossly obese Brando suffered from liver cancer, congestive heart failure and diabetes and was confined to a wheelchair towards the end. He died from lung failure caused by pulmonary fibrosis.
- Richard Pryor (1940 - 2005), a villain in Superman III, was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and died following a heart attack.
- Lane Smith who played newspaper boss Perry White in the TV series Lois & Clark, was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) in April 2005 and died two months later.
'Committing Kryptonite' is now a Hollywood term for what the superstitious believe can happen to a person's life after being associated with 'Superman'.
The 2006 film Superman Returns has fared no better in the luck stakes:
- Producer Rob Burnett was set upon and mugged by a gang of four men who broke his ribs and blacked his eye.
- Editor Adam Robitel damaged his spine and punctured a lung after falling through a window.
- Cameraman Todd Stanley suffered a skull fracture and the loss of the tip of a small finger when he fell down some stairs.
Of course it's only fair to mention the resurgence of the career of Teri Hatcher (a previous Lois Lane) thanks to her casting as Susan in the worldwide smash-hit Desperate Housewives.
Life After the Accident
Chris was confined to a wheelchair in the Kessler Rehabilitation Institute in New Jersey while he recovered from the operation. When he contemplated his future as a quadriplegic, even with the loving Dana by his side and Robin Williams clowning around in his room dressed as a doctor, Chris couldn't fight the bleak outlook and he sank into a deep depression. The worst time was when he was asleep, for he'd dream of doing things from his former life, such as skiing, giving his children piggyback rides and making love to his wife. Then he'd wake and remember he couldn't move.
Then he contracted a kidney infection and pneumonia set in and a bad reaction to new medication damaged his heart muscle. No-one except Dana held out much hope; after he asked her whether they should 'just let me go', she told him:
I'll be with you for the long haul, no matter what. You're still you and I love you.
From somewhere in the back of his mind there came the memory of a conversation he'd had with a paraplegic man while researching the acting role before his accident:
This could happen to anyone.
The realisation of his own mortality hit home and he realised there was only one way to go - and that was up. Chris counted his blessings: he had a devoted wife, three healthy children, and he was still alive. Now his attitude was Where there's life, there's hope. The determination which coursed through his body amazed everyone who had been involved with him medically. He slowly managed to regain some speech and with Dana's help, read everything he could on spinal and neck injuries.
To prevent muscle and tendon shrinkage, his arms and legs were stretched and then he would be strapped into a power-assisted cycle machine which forced his legs to exercise. The treatment and rehabilitation costs were staggering - upwards of a thousand pounds a day - but two-thirds was paid by insurance and the remaining third was settled by a few showbusiness unions.
Chris was Master of Ceremonies at the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta. His compelling autobiography, Still Me, was released in early 1998 and was an instant bestseller. Appearing on a chat show in May 1998, Chris described his injury to David Letterman:
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. 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 door and then cut down, sent to rehab and told to have a nice life.
Back to Work
Anxious to give his life some direction, Chris did some film directing and in 1998 returned to acting, taking the starring role in a new production of Rear Window - a remake of the Hitchcock thriller. He was a guest star in an episode of The Practice; following this with regular appearances in Smallville playing Dr Virgil Swann, a prominent scientist from New York, who tries to help the young Clark Kent (Tom Welling).
An operation in 2003 allowed Chris to breathe unaided for hours at a time and, through rigorous exercise, he gradually recovered some feeling and slight movement in various parts of his body. Slow recovery and partial regeneration of the nervous system, after that kind of trauma, had not been recorded before. Chris was regarded as something of a medical miracle and new papers were being written for medical journals. It also gave the Reeve family hope for the future. Chris regained sensation - enough to allow him and Dana a somewhat-adapted love life.
The greatest thing is being able to feel the hugs of my wife and children again.
Less than a year after the accident, Chris started going to conferences and, even though he had great difficulty speaking, addressed huge gatherings of researchers and doctors concerned with brain damage, spinal and neck injuries, and paralysis. The authentic voice of a patient struck down in such a debilitating manner was more powerful than any advertising campaign. People thought of him as the man of steel yet here in front of them was a living combination of fate and mortality. If it could happen to Chris Reeve - it could happen to any of us.
Chris was able to utilise his celebrity to massive advantage and his high profile granted him audiences with US President George W Bush. He campaigned relentlessly against disability discrimination, lobbied politicians to increase insurance benefits for catastrophic injury and promoted stem cell research.
Chris started his own paralysis foundation to help find an eventual cure for the condition. Due to his fame and willingness to appear at charity events, donations poured in, funding scientific research attempting to overturn established medical opinion that the spinal cord does not regenerate itself. He knew any breakthrough would probably be too late to help his own situation, but hopefully it would help sufferers in the future. This work continues in his name and is a fitting epitaph.
Chris is one of the most intense individuals I've ever met in my life. Before him there was really no hope. If you had a spinal cord injury like his there was not much that could be done, but he's changed all that. He's demonstrated that there is hope and that there are things that can be done.
- Dr John McDonald, Director of the Spinal Cord Injury Programme at Washington University, St Louis, Missouri.
Remembering Chris and Dana
After all the battling, Chris contracted blood poisoning from bed sores, which are quite common in paralysed people. This led to heart failure and he died on 10 October, 2004.
On behalf of our entire family, I want to thank Northern Westchester Hospital for the excellent care they provided to my husband. I also want to thank his personal staff of nurses and aides, as well as the millions of fans from around the world who have supported and loved my husband over the years.
- Dana Reeve, widow of Christopher Reeve.
Over 900 people attended a memorial for Chris in New York.
Christopher Reeve was an example of personal courage, optimism and self-determination, admired by millions of Americans. He will be remembered as an accomplished actor and for his dedicated advocacy for those with physical disabilities.
- US President George W Bush.
The costume that Chris wore in the Superman films is kept at the Smithsonian Institution, along with his wheelchair.
Dana Reeve continued the fund-raising and campaigning on behalf of her late husband but the stress of almost a decade of caring for her beloved husband took its toll on her own health. Non-smoker Dana was diagnosed with lung cancer just nine months later, in August 2005, and after a courageous battle, she died in March 2006, aged 44 years. Their orphaned son Will, who was 13 at the time, now lives with the family of a schoolfriend, in accordance with the wishes of his mother.
The 2006 film Superman Returns is dedicated to the memory of Christopher and Dana Reeve.