More appropriate labels would be pioneer, warrior, father and husband. But the actor-turned-activist, who died from heart failure October 10 at the age of 52, will forever be remembered as the man who portrayed the title role in the 1978 film Superman and its three sequels. Leaping tall buildings in a single bound made him famous. Fighting for research to find a cure for paralysis made him legendary.
“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.”
Born September 25, 1952, in New York City to Barbara Johnson and Franklin Reeve, young Christopher was immediately thrust into a life surrounded by larger-than-life figures. His father, a novelist, poet and professor, often hosted fellow writers like Robert Frost at their home. After his parents divorced when Reeve was four, he fell in love with a different kind of storytelling. He landed parts in school plays, and acting became his top priority as a young teen. He worked during the summer at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts when he was 15. His time and success on the stage demanded that he hire an agent the following year.
Reeve attended Cornell University and majored in music theory and English, but he continued acting professionally. Work took him to Britain, to France and all across the United States. But he returned back home just before his senior year at Cornell, when he, along with Robin Williams, was selected to attend the Juilliard School of Performing Arts in New York. They were the only applicants selected that year for advanced placement at Julliard, and they went on to become roommates and close friends.
His work spilled over onto the silver screen with appearances on a television series and soap operas. In 1976, he earned a role in the Broadway play A Matter of Gravity, starring Katharine Hepburn. This chance of a lifetime cost him another chance of a lifetime—his time constraints with the play forced him to drop out of Juilliard. But the experience of working with Hepburn was something Reeve later said was well worth passing on graduation from the prestigious school.
“Don’t give up. Don’t lose hope. Don’t sell out.”
Two years after starring beside Hepburn, Reeve broke through as his own star when he was cast in the role that, for many, defined his career. He turned a comic-book drawing that had a cult-like following into a lifelike character in Superman. His six-foot-four muscular frame was perfect for the role of the tough yet loving action hero who disguised himself as reporter Clark Kent when not fighting evil. During the filming of the movie, he met Gae Exton. The couple later had two children, Matthew and Alexandra.
In addition to the three Superman sequels, Reeve was seen in romantic films like Somewhere in Time, Speechless, Deathtrap, The Bostonians, Street Smart, Noises Off, Above Suspicion and The Remains of the Day. But he never left the stage, continuing to work in plays between his movie obligations. Those roles included The Marriage of Figaro, Fifth of July, My Life, Summer and Smoke, Love Letters and The Aspern Papers.
Reeve continued to seek parts beyond the mold of the comic-book character, but nothing brought him out of the blue tights of Superman. He became synonymous with the action hero no matter how hard he worked to drop the cape. He had brought the character to life, performing his own stunts to make man’s never-ending fantasy of flying through the air under his own power seem possible. The suit fit him perfectly. The S on his chest might as well have been engraved.
Reeve was passionate about outdoor sports. He flew planes and gliders, sailed, skied and enjoyed scuba diving. But horses sparked the fire of his competitive nature as he entered his early 40s. He rode them in competition and did well, as he did in everything else.
Eastern Express was the horse Reeve was riding during an equestrian jumping competition in Culpeper, Virginia, on May 27, 1995. Approaching a three-foot-tall, man-made jump, Eastern Express stopped and bucked, propelling Reeve forward. His hands caught in the bridle, his head hit the ground first, and the force of the fall fractured his neck at the second cervical vertebra. The man known to many for fighting fictitious evil villains immediately entered a battle with quadriplegia. The man who put a face on a comic-book character now put a face on spinal cord injury.
Approximately 250,000 Americans, 82 percent of whom are male, currently live with spinal cord injuries. When the nerve cells of the spinal cord are damaged, they can’t divide and multiply to repair themselves. The injury prevents communication between the brain above and the body below, leaving the functioning of limbs severely limited or nonexistent. Because scientists can’t reconstruct the delicate web, the loss of function becomes permanent.
Reeve didn’t quit, though.
“Either you decide to stay in the shallow end of the pool or you go out in the ocean.”
Reeve’s actions revolutionized the way the world views people living with spinal cord injuries. From his motorized wheelchair, which he controlled by breathing into a straw, Reeve stood up for those who couldn’t. His wife, meanwhile, stood right by him. Dana cared for her husband after his six-month hospital stay and arranged their New York home to accommodate their new lifestyle. She also assisted in his newfound mission—to fight for an answer to spinal cord injuries. He and Dana started the Christopher Reeve Foundation, and the organization merged with the American Paralysis Association in 1999 to form the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. The foundation focuses on funding research for the development of new treatments and cures for paralysis. It also provides a platform to improve the lives of people with a range of disabilities, such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, strokes and spinal cord injuries. Reeve helped establish the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at the University of California-Irvine College of Medicine, which supports study of trauma to the spinal cord and diseases affecting it. The foundation has also given 617 Quality of Life grants, totaling 5.6 million dollars, to nonprofit organizations providing services that directly improve the daily lives of people with disabilities. ABILITY Magazine’s sister program, the nonprofit ABILITY Awareness, was fortunate to receive a Quality of Life grant to help support its hallmark program, the ABILITY House.
As the years passed by, Reeve’s condition didn’t diminish his drive to be on the stage. Demonstrating that people with severe disabilities are still employable, he starred in a television remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, an episode of the TV drama The Practice, and other projects. He also welcomed chances to direct and produce, with award-winning success. His final project, A&E’s The Brook Ellison Story, was based on the memoirs of an accomplished woman with spinal cord injury and aired shortly after his death.
Reeve traveled coast-to-coast for interviews, public appearances and speaking engagements. He appeared with Barbara Walters on 20/20 and spoke at the Atlanta Paralympics, the Academy Awards, the Democratic Convention and multiple seminars. No notes and no preparation were needed for his presentations—just passion.
But traveling and acting, which had long been Reeve’s appetite, took a backseat to conquering his new Mt. Everest. Not an hour passed when Reeve didn’t try to change his life’s script. Therapy took the place of his routine scuba dives, skiing trips and classical piano playing. Months dragged by, but the work allowed Reeve to breathe longer without a respirator. He remained obsessed with the goal to walk by the age of 50, despite his doctors’ predictions that he would never have movement below his neck. His 50th birthday danced by, and he didn’t reach his summit. But he did prove his medical experts wrong. He gradually gained small feeling in his left leg and arm—including hot and cold sensations—and his therapy allowed him eventually to have movement in his index finger, wrist and thumb.
“I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”
Working tirelessly for his foundation and his own personal future, Reeve carried the flag in lobbying for stem cell research. His nerve cells that had never repaired, he argued, might have had a chance had drastic research efforts been underway at the time of his accident. Using stem cells from human embryos to replace the damaged cells may someday allow nerve connections to regrow and reverse paralysis. Reeve’s efforts took him before the Senate in 2002. “For the last seven years,” he said in testimony during the Senate’s health committee hearing, “I have not been able to eat, wash, go to the bathroom or get dressed by myself. Some people are able to accept living with a severe disability. I am not one of them.”
He challenged politicians, looking to Congress for greater funding of stem cell and paralysis research. He faced doctors, seeking to gain their support and develop an army for the needed medical opportunities, while also striving to prove wrong their predictions about his own physical future. And once again, he provided life to a fairly young argument that had no icons to back it.
The debate became front-page news during the summer and fall leading up to the presidential election. Senator John Kerry supported the expansion of funds and loosening of restrictions for stem cell research; President George W. Bush sought to limit the spending on research and restrict projects to only the existing stem cell lines registered before August 2001 (with no further use of new embryos). The fact that the issue was on the lips of the two presidential candidates in one of the most divided elections in America’s history is a tribute to Reeve’s decade’s worth of work.
“We must. We can. We will.”
No yardstick can measure Reeve’s influence on what the future may hold concerning stem cell research and possible new treatments for people with spinal cord injuries. His message will continue to resonate, although his life came to an end Sunday, October 10, because of complications from a pressure wound that had become infected. Reeve fell into a coma, and the infection caused his heart to fail.
But if there was ever a man whose heart overflowed with passion, it was Reeve. He spoke for those who tried but were never heard. He took giant-like steps without moving his feet. The public’s perception of Reeve changed in an instant in 1995, but his lasting impression will never be erased. His final nine years of life transformed a dictionary of terms seldom addressed before—stem cell research, quadriplegia, paralysis—into progress for millions.
That’s precisely what a superhero does—provides solutions and a shoulder to lean on in times of need. Headlines and news stories reporting Reeve’s death noted his life-changing role in Superman just before discussing his life-changing accident and subsequent campaign to help those living like him. Ultimately he wasn’t the flying superhero he had brought to life in the movie theaters. He was a real man who made a real difference.
by Josh Pate
Christopher Reeve was a long-time friend of ABILITY Magazine and one of only two celebrities to grace the cover twice. He has shared with ABILITY his personal thoughts on spinal cord injury and quality of life issues, and the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation has supported the ABILITY House program, building accessible homes for families with disabilities, by volunteers with disabilities.
Christopher Reeve’s life served as an illustration of the evolution that can occur within a person who has experienced a life-changing disability. Together, we watched a man go from Hollywood icon to a man contemplating the value of life to a self-described disability advocate. Christopher Reeve proved that finding a cure and promoting quality of life issues need not be mutually exclusive. He was a champion and a friend. His life, his work, his dedication and his heart will be missed.
The following leaders have shared their thoughts on the passing of Christopher Reeve with ABILITY Magazine:
“Mr. Reeve was an example of personal courage, optimism and self determination. He was brave in the face of adversity and was greatly admired by millions of Americans. He will be remembered as an accomplished actor and for his dedicated advocacy for those with physical disabilities….”
President George W. Bush
“Christopher Reeve was introduced to many of us through one of his first major roles—Superman….The fact that Christopher also devoted so much of his time, energy and passion to spinal cord injury research and to improving the lives of others with his condition shows very clearly the great inner strength he possessed. He was a leader and an American treasure, and his passing leaves a void in the hearts of everyone who knew him, and many whom he never met.”
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
“We all got to know [Christopher Reeve] through his heroic acts on the big screen, but we came to admire him because of the heroism he showed in real life. In the face of personal tragedy, he found the hope, determination and will to live….Christopher Reeve will remain an inspiration for spinal cord patients, a motivation for doctors and scientists and a hero to us all.”
Senator Hillary Clinton
“Today, we lost a man who was truly America’s hero—Christopher Reeve….He was an inspiration to all of us and gave hope to millions of Americans who are counting on the life-saving cures that science and research can provide. He met every challenge with a courage and character that broke new ground in this struggle…. Because he had the strength to carry this cause, I know one day that we will realize that inevitable dream.”
Senator John Kerry
“Since his accident, Christopher dedicated his life to medical research, particularly embryonic stem cell research, which scientists think could lead to cures for spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s, juvenile diabetes and many other conditions….Christopher’s legacy as a leader and fighter for stem cell research and disability rights will live on and continue to inspire us to keep up the fight.”
Senator Tom Harkin