Best known for his lead role in four of the Superman Movies, Christopher Reeve was a fictional character with superhuman characteristics and abilities, which were used to benefit mankind. But in 1995, sadly Reeve’s fictional powers, couldn’t save him from his greatest challenge ahead, after an equestrian accident, left him paralyzed from the neck down.
Christopher Reeve was born September 25, 1952 the oldest of two sons. His father Franklin D. Reeve, was a Novelist, Translator and University Professor, and his mother Barbara Pitney Lamb Johnson, a Journalist. Reeves parents decided to divorce when Reeve was four years old. He together with his brother and mother, moved to Princeton, New Jersey. After remarrying a investment banker, both boys enjoyed a privileged childhood, but it did nothing to repair the anger and tension that remained between both his parents and their relationship.
In his youth, Reeve would pass his time playing the piano, swimming, sailing or engaging in some type of activity. Theatre was in Reeves blood from a very early age. Reeve traced his love of acting back to the early years of his childhood when he and his younger brother would climb inside cardboard grocery boxes and pretend they were pirate ships. By age eight, he had appeared in school plays, become interested in music, and was taking piano lessons. At age nine, he was picked to be in a Gilbert & Sullivan Operetta “Yeoman of the Guard” for Princeton’s professional theater, the McCarter Theatre. At 15, Reeve had a summer apprenticeship at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts and at 16 he already had his own agent. Whilst at Princeton Day School, Reeve was President of the Drama Club and Student Director of The Gee Club.
Reeve: “I loved the theatre so much, I also played on the ice hockey team, I was in the school orchestra, I even sang with the choir”.
After this, he was hooked. Reeve as a teenager always had a problem lacking in self confidence, however acting helped him overcome this insecurity. As a teenager, whilst most kids were lapping up the holiday season doing sports and playing with friends, Reeve would rather be immersed in the theatre, either as a student or an actor.
Reeve had a special love for ice hockey. He thought of pursuing the sport and turning it into a career until his freshman tryout gave him clarity. On the first day of tryout, he noticed the team had only two American’s on it, the rest were Canadian. He was in the goal, and the whole team were told to line up on the blue line, each with a puck, and they were told to take turns from left to right taking a slapshot. The team started to get out of sequence, and before he knew it, he was dodging pucks left, right and center. Sometimes more than one coming at him at a time. He felt threatened and retreated to the safety of the theatre department. It was the end of a career in hockey, but at least he still had all his teeth.
1970 saw Reeve graduate from High School. As part of his studies at Cornell University, where he majored in Music Theory and English, Reeve got to spend time studying theatre in Britain and France. His first job was that of “dogsbody” at London’s prestigious Old Vic Theatre. He recalls being a glorified errand boy, but regardless, he was grateful for the experience.
In lieu of his final year at Cornell, Reeve and fellow student Robin Williams (from Mork and Mindy fame) were both selected to advanced standing at New Yorks famous Juilliard School of Performing Arts.
Reeve’s first major acting assignment at the age of 22 came shortly after his graduation from Cornell, as he joined the cast of “Love of Life” a long running American Soap Opera which aired on CBS from September 1951 to February 1980. He played the adult role of “Ben Harper” during 1974 to 1976. The role was very important to Reeve as it enabled him to pay back the money his stepfather loaned him for his education, as well as gaining valuable television acting experience, that was very different to that of what he was use to whilst juggling roles in theatre.
Reeve had very fond memories of his soap opera days. At the time he was appearing on the show, he also had a role of “Nicky” in the 1976 Pre-Broadway play “A matter of Gravity” starring along side of Katherine Hepburn for a six week duration, which was later extended to 12 weeks.
Until the play came to New York, an average day for Reeve would go something like this:-
Up at 2.30am to catch a 4.00 plane to New York, and whilst on the plane, he would learn his lines for the days taping of “Love of Life”. He had to arrive at CBS studios by 7.30am and work the day until 5.00pm. Then he would hop on another plane at 6.00pm and shuttle back to that nights performance of the play. He would average 4 -5 hours of sleep a night. Because of his highly demanding career, Reeve was forced to give up his final year at Juilliard.
Reeve had such a realistic portrayal of his character, that one particular time, an impassioned viewer and fan of the show “Love of Life” confused Reeve with his soap opera character and whacked him over the head with her pocketbook shouting, “how dare you treat your poor pregnant wife that way?”
It was in fact Katherine Hepburn who convinced Reeve to take on a new challenge. Reeve’s next part was his first feature film debut in “Gray Lady Down” alongside Charlton Heston, Stacey Keach and David Carradine. Gray Lady Down was a disaster movie of the 70’s about a US submarine that sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after colliding with a Norwegian submarine causing damage and casualites to the US crew on board.
Very soon after and whilst appearing in the off-broadway production “My Life” Reeve auditioned and successfully screen tested for his most memorable “dual role” of Clark Kent/Superman in “Superman: The Movie”. (1978). This role was very important to Reeves, as he saw it as a stepping stone where he would gain greater recognition as an actor and he could bypass the cattle call. He wanted to portray Superman as a superhero with not only brains, but heart.
Reeves – “What makes Superman a hero is not that he has power, but that he has the wisdom and the maturity to use the power wisely”.
It took 18 months of shooting mostly in England for the Superman Movie, and whilst there, Reeve began a relationship with modeling executive Gae Exton. They never married but the union produced two children, a boy Matthew and a girl Alexandra.
After his success with Superman the Movie, Reeve was offered the lead in several major films, including ‘American Gigolo” and “Body Heat”. Instead, Reeve chose to star in “Somewhere in Time”. In this movie, Reeve plays Richard Collier, a playwright who becomes smitten by a photograph of a young woman at the Grand Hotel. Through self hypnosis, he travels back in time to the year 1912 to find love with actress Elise McKenna, but her manager fears that the romance will derail her career and decides to do whatever it takes to stop him.
In 1980, Reeve spent the Summer doing theatre in the broadway production of “Fifth of July” and he resurrected his character of Superman for the movie “Superman 2”.
In 1987, Reeve and his then partner Gae Exton, parted. Although unmarried, they were agreeable to sharing joint custody of their two children, which at times proved very trying, with the Atlantic Ocean separating the two parents.
It was during the Summer whilst Reeve was in Williamstown, he met his soul mate Dana Morosini whilst she was performing in a cabaret. For Reeve it was love at first sight, for Dana, she was less impressed. Reeve knew if he wanted to win Dana over, he would have to fight for her, and what a fight it was. Within four months they were living together, and in 1992 they were married with a son, William.
Reeve continued a very successful career, appearing in a total of 17 feature films, a dozen television movies, and about 150 plays. In addition, he hosted and narrated numerous documentaries and television specials. Reeve was known to turn down big paychecks opting to appear in small films, with highly respectable directors.
There was also another side of Reeve. The political side, where Reeve took a firm stand and was extremely active in various political causes. It started whilst in High School, where Reeve protested against the Vietnam War. Whilst at Cornell, he became involved in environmental issues. And then as an adult, he became involved in the First Amendment issues and funding for the arts. Reeve addressed the United Nations in the hope of banning “drift net fishing” and he also played a crucial role in securing a landmark agreement to protect the Hudson River and New York City’s reservoir system.
Throughout Reeves life, he set obstacles for himself and then tried to overcome them. An accomplished pianist, Reeve would practice and compose songs for many hours in the day. He also was an extremely superb athlete, and preferred to do his own stunts in his movies rather than use professional stuntmen. In his early twenties, he earned his pilots licence and flew “solo” twice across the Atlantic in a small plane. He flew gliders, was an expert sailor, scuba diver, and skier.
It was in the 1990’s he had a new passion for horses. After being introduced to the sport “eventing” there was no turning back for Reeve. “Eventing” combines the precision of dressage with the excitement of cross-country and show jumping.
Now it’s 1995 and at the age of 42, during the cross-country portion of an event at Culpeper, Virginia, Reeve’s throughbred, “Eastern Express”, balked at a rail jump, pitching his rider forward. Reeve’s hands were tangled in the horses bridle and he landed head first, fracturing the uppermost vertebrae in his spine. He was wearing a helmet and a protective vest at the time. Reeve was instantly paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe. It was only the prompt medical attention given at the site that saved his life combined with the delicate surgery stabilizing the shattered C1 and C2 vertebrae and literally reattaching Reeve’s head to his spine.
After regaining consciousness and realizing the extent of his injuries, he mentioned to his wife Dana that maybe the fight for life is over and they should just let him go, whereupon Dana uttered the words that gave him the will to live, “but your still you and I love you”.
After 6 months at Kessler rehabilitation Institute in New Jersey, Reeve returned to his home in Bedford, New York where Dana had just completed major renovations to the home to accommodate all of Reeves needs. In addition to his condItion, it also put him at constant risk of pneumonia, infections, blood clots, wounds that do not heal, and a dangerous condition involving blood pressure known as autonomic disreflexias, all of which Reeve at some point or another, would experience.
Even whilst at Kessler, Reeve took a bad situation and turned it into a positive one, where he could increase public awareness about spinal cord injury and raise money for research into a cure. Never a man to turn from a challenge, Reeve accepted invitations to appear at the Academy Awards in 1996, to host the Paralympics 1996, and the Democratic National Convention 1996.
At high profile appearances, Reeve often faced the risk of embarrassment of loss of speech, should his tracheostomy tube be slightly out of position, or if his body suddenly spasmed and jerked about uncontrollably, as it did just before the curtain went up at the Oscars, but this never fazed Reeve, he had a job to do, and it had to be done. Despite enormous expenses related to his ongoing medical care, Reeve was adamant, he was going to remain financially self sufficient.
When Reeve accepted public speaking invitations, he would travel with a team of aides and nurses. In addition to public speaking, Reeve also continued to act, taking on various roles that would accommodate his disability. Reeve also raised 55 million in research grants and more than 7 million for nonprofit organizations that help improve the quality of life for people living with disabilities. After facing such adversity, Reeve still found the strength to use his tragedy to help others and because of this superhuman effort, there were many that really believed Reeve was “Superman”.
Life at home went on in the usual way, and with Reeve’s support and encouragement, Dana resumed her singing and acting career. The press often called her “Superwoman” but as far as Dana was concerned, there was nothing superhuman about caring for the man she loved. Reeve may have lost the movement of his body, but his mind was as sharp as the day they met. To Dana, she was one of the lucky ones, because she still has her husband, yes circumstances are different, but the love they have for each other was stronger than ever.
Reeve – “This accident has been difficult for all of us. But it hasn’t frightened anybody away. We all miss the activities. My daughter, Alexandra, and I loved to ride together. My son, Will, and I would play piano and sing together. Matthew and I loved to play tennis. We all used to sail together. I’d be kidding you if I said I didn’t miss that. Ultimately, you have to accept that being together is more important than doing together.”
In the years after his accident, Reeve gradually regained some sensation in parts of his body, mainly in his left leg , areas of the left arm, and down his spine, but he remained dependent on the ventilator to breathe and was unable to move any part of his body below the shoulders.
In 1998 Reeve released his much anticipated autobiography “Still Me”.
Seven months later Reeve received praise for his talent and courage when he reclaimed his leading man status after starring in an updated version of “Rear Window”. Around the same time, his second book “Nothing is Impossible, Reflections on a new life” was published. Reeve also regained the ability to move his index finger on one hand, and couldn’t wait to demonstrate it on Larry Kings Television Show.
In 2003, Reeve became the third person to receive the experimental treatment called diaphragm pacing via laparoscopy to stimulate his phrenic nerve and allow him to breathe more easily without a respirator; although he continued to need the machine’s help while speaking. Reeve’s oldest son Matthew a filmmaker was contracted to document and direct his fathers progress in recovery for three television specials which premiered around the world in 2002/03. The public got to see Reeve walking on a treadmill while suspended from a special harness, one of his greatest pleasures after his injury. Dana Reeve supplemented the family income by taking a number of acting and singing jobs within commuting distance of their home, and for a season, she hosted a daytime talk show.
In early October 2004, Dana Reeve travelled to Los Angeles to appear onstage in “Brooklyn Boy”. It was the first time she had been away from her son and husband for an extended period. Reeve was being treated for a pressure wound, no big deal, a common complication for people with paralysis that Reeve himself had experienced many times before, though this time the wound had become severely infected, resulting in a systemic infections, yet there seemed no cause for concern.
On Saturday 9 October, Reeve attended one of his sons hockey games. That night after receiving a antibiotic, Reeve went into cardiac arrest. He fell into a coma and was rushed to Northern Westchester Hospital. With help from Robin Willams wife, Dana was able to board a plane and rush cross country to join Alexandra and William at her husband’s bedside, arriving just in time to be with him, even though comatose before his death on October 10. Reeve passed away age 52.
Reeves struggles, activism and much publicized comeback way outshined his prior celebrity and Dana was there for the ride every step of the way. She became a public figure and devoted advocate for research, treatment and possible cures for spinal cord paralysis through the “Christopher Reeve Foundation”. After Reeve’s death, Dana became chairman of the foundation and established the “Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center”.
Sadly tragedy was to strike twice, when just 10 months after her husbands death, Dana discovered that she had lung cancer, though she was not a smoker.
Dana Reeve died on March 6, 2006 at the age of 44 in New York City. She is survived by her son, William and stepchildren Matthew and Alexandra.