To American audiences today, the graceful image of Dana Reeve T is perhaps most often associated with her role as the loyal, loving wife of actor. Christopher Reeve We frequently see Dana at her husband’s side-a true life-long companion in marriage and in Christopher’s recovery from the spinal cord injury he sustained in May of 1995. Indeed, Dana Reeve’s beauty includes not only her pretty, smiling face and presence, but her refreshing amiable character. It is not surprising that Dana’s strength and commitment were honored by “CBS This Morning” when Dana was named one of America’s Outstanding Women of 1995. Dana has also been the recipient of the Visiting Nurses Association’s Caregiver’s Courage Award, an award which now has been named in her honor.
Though we know Dana so well as the steadfast companion of Christopher Reeve, Dana herself is an accomplished actress and a singer, who in past years has put much of her career on hold to help Christopher Recently, Dana has been able to do more with her many talents and the American audience has stood to reap the benefit of her on-stage presence.
Dana Reeve attended the California Institute of the Arts M.F.A. program in acting after graduating cum laude from Middlebury College. Her professional accomplishments include appearing on Broadway in the comedy “More to Love.” She has also appeared off-Broadway and regionally at the Yale Repertory Theater, Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, Ensemble Studio Theatre, the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival and the Williamstown Theatre Festival for seven seasons. Before co-hosting Lifetime Television’s daily show, “Lifetime Live.” Dana guest-starred on “Law and Order,” “All My Children” and “Loving.” She also had a recurring role on the CBS dramatic series “Feds,” as well as starring roles in the HBO films, “Above Suspicion” and, “Somebody Had to Be Benny.”
As a singer, Dana has performed on national television and at various New York venues. She sings the title song on the soundtrack of the Cable Ace Award-winning HBO drama “In the Gloaming,” direct ed by her husband, Christopher Reeve.
With her husband, Dana has become an active advocate for persons with disabilities and has rallied for an increase in funding for spinal cord injury and medical research. She volunteers for such organizations as The American Paralysis Foundation and The Reeve-Irvine Center for Spinal Cord Research. She serves on the boards of The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, Word T.E.A.M. Sports and The National Family Caregivers Association. In addition Dana champions other local and global causes and has served the board of the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival as well as be involved with Renew America, an environmental organization We also do not want to forget the other hat that Dana wears, she is the loving, proud mother of three children: Will, age seven, and stepchildren Matthew, 19 and Alexandra, 15. In addition, Dana has recently published a book, “Carepackages: Letters to Christopher Reeve From Strangers and Other Friends,” (Random House, 1999).
ABILITY had the pleasure to speak with Dana Reeve at the Second annual “Hope in Motion” bene fit held in Vail, Colorado to benefit the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. Also present for the gala event were such celebrities as Kelsey Grammer, Jane Seymour. Scott Wolf, Gloria Estefan, Robert Kennedy, Jr. and former president Gerald R. Ford. The fund-raiser was a huge success, raising over $500.000 for spinal cord injury research. As Christopher Reeve stat ed, the money raised for research also benefits conditions other than spinal cord injury paralysis, including Multiple Sclerosis. Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The funds were raised through live and silent auctions which included such items as a walk-on role in Reeve’s next directorial project, a walk-on role in the television series “Frasier” and dinner in San Francisco with Robin and Marsha Williams. The benefit is part of an American Ski Classic held in Vail, Colorado yearly. The Ski Classic features retired Olympic and World Cup ski races, celebrities and amateur participants.
Interview with Dana Reeve
Chet Cooper: So. I hear you have a new job?
Dana Reeve: (laughs) Yes. I am working as a co-host on a show called, “Lifetime Live.” It’s on the Lifetime cable network. My co-host is Deborah Roberts. She’s a news correspondent with 20/20. We are billed as a news and information show. It’s fun. I have only been at it for a short time. It is a whole new arena for me. One of the main rea sons I wanted to do it was because the time worked out well for me. It’s a noon show. It’s live. I can be home in the morning, go and do the show and be home in the afternoon.
CC: You are shooting the show in New York?
DR: Yes. It is in Estoria Queens Studios. In the mornings I drop my son off at school and then head to work. I am done at work by 2:00 p.m. and can head home. This arrangement works out well as my son gets home from school at 4:00 p.m. Chris works a lot out of our home and my job allows me enough time to be home for my family. Yet, it is also a “real” job. I also got a new recurring part on the series “Oz.”
CC: What character do you play?
DR: I play a campaign manager. I don’t think I will last long because I don’t think the guy gets elected!
CC: Does your new show have interviews?
DR: Yes. I just interviewed Mrs. Ford. She’s an amazing lady. Mrs. Ford was from a traditional back ground and yet was really such a trailblazer for women in the 70’s. She is very forthright and honest about her own problems and her own personal crisis. I was honored to talk to her.
CC: Are you going to get her live on the show or will that interview be taped?
DR: Well, I interviewed her today and that will be shown as a taped interview. Unfortunately, the interview will probably be cut down a bit in length.
CC: Do you have a background in news?
DR No. My own experience of being interviewed many times has taught me a lot about conducting interviews! The funny thing is I have been approached by a couple of network people for several years now about hosting a talk show or in evening show. The presumption is that if you’re a good guest, you must be a good host! I think that’s completely faulty logic and I think I’m proving it. It is hard to conduct interviews. Answering questions about yourself is one thing…
CC: …which you feel comfortable with….
DR: Right. When you are being interviewed you can flow and have fun. It is completely another thing to be good on your feet and be able to think of questions or something intelligent to say to someone. That is entirely a different skill.
CC: Our conversation today is live as well, so you won’t have the opportunity to, for example, go back and edit our interview. (laughs)
DR: (laughs) Sure. In print journalism too I know that you can sort of phrase a question in a certain way to get a certain answer. The person you are interviewing doesn’t have to know that you are doing that. I know that there are ways to edit material in the way you ask the question. I like what I do on Lifetime.
CC: Other than the interview with Mrs. Ford why are you in Vail?
DR: This is the second year The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation has held this event. The Vail Val ley Foundation invited us to be a part of the DLJ direct American Ski Classic which is held yearly. This year the Ski Classic is hosted by former president Gerald R. Ford. The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation will benefit from a dinner held one evening and will hold an auction. We do this partially to raise awareness and partially to raise money. Last year we raised $175,000. It also gives us a chance to come to ski, enjoy the Ski Classic and Colorado. CC: How is The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation moving along? DR: It’s doing really well. We are continuing to build. The word is getting out more and more about the foundation and the funding we are raising for medical research for spinal cord injury paralysis. We also are able to give out grants every year in amounts of $5,000 to $25,000 to various organizations who are contributing to the quality of life of persons with disabilities. Some of these organizations are grass roots and some are largen They are doing many things such as lobbying efforts, education, providing ramps or transportation to persons with disabilities, recreational sorts of things, etc, For these types of organizations it is a really, really good feeling to give a grant from our foundation and know it is having a direct effect. For example, someone will have phoned with a therapy driving program and they need to install a ramp for their program which costs $2,173. This is the type of grant we may be able to implement. So, we buy the ramp for them and know it will be having a direct effect on many people who need it.
CC: The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation was a generous contributor to the ABILITY House in Washington, DC, I wanted to thank you for that. We are building ABILITY Houses nationwide in our partnership with Habitat for Humanity. They, as you know are homes built for persons with disabilities of low income with an eye on accessibility, universal design, and sustainability-built by volunteers with disabilities.
DR: I love the ABILITY House project. That is one of my favorites. CC: We have received such a great response all over the country. It is a great project ABILITY is proud to be part of. What else is new with the foundation? DR: Did you know that part of the proceeds from my new book will go to The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation?
CC: Tell me about the book.
DR: The book is a collection of letters to Chris which is titled “Carepackages: Letters to Christopher Reeve From Strangers and Other Friends.” It’s a collection of letters from people to Chris right after the accident. It includes letters from average people, celebrities, and dear friends.
CC: This year is the 10th anniversary of the passage of the ADA. The disability community has much to be proud of, and much to still accomplish it seems.
CC: How old is your son?
DR: He is 7 years old.
CC: How is Christopher?
DR: He is doing well. He is very, very healthy. He’s really the healthiest he has been and traveling a lot and working a lot. The work that he is does in physical therapy is important and keeps him healthy. It is amazing that insurance companies often don’t want to pay for therapeutic items needed in spinal cord injury physical therapy such as muscle electric stimulation devices, bikes, tilt tables, etc. These items and physical therapy are greatly beneficial. Unfortunately people denied coverage for those things can be the victims. The insurance company’s thinking of, ‘why keep spinal cord injury patients in shape if they won’t be doing certain physical endeavors?’ is faulty logic on a number of counts. It ignores the possibility that for persons with spinal cord injury it’s not a matter of what they can do, but a matter of when. And if you put that thinking aside entirely and just look at the other peripheral health benefits of physical therapy, it is invaluable. The benefits include good mental health, for one, skin health, prevention of osteoporosis and many other things that accompany paralysis and that can be waylaid by vigorous physical therapy-not to mention as well the idea of continued hope. Insurance companies often will not acknowledge these things.
CC: Do you think you have made any progress with that?
DR: Well, I don’t think so, but I don’t think it is impossible. I think that and also trying to raise the cap. I think also what’s happening is private companies are jumping on the band wagon. Health Extra is a company that has done some promotions for us. They are basically a private company and a company. What they are providing is essentially disability insurance and health insurance above and beyond what we all ready have. It’s like a credit card. You get points just like you earn miles on some of your credit cards.
CC: Toward the insurance?
DR: Exactly. You have the private companies saying well look, we see how profitable insurance is? But people aren’t getting covered the way they need to get covered. Maybe the insurance companies will realize that the monopoly is ending and they will have to change their policies in order to continue. So perhaps denying coverage will be an idea of the past.
CC: With the amount of work that you are putting in, do you think you have too much on your plate?
DR: (laughs) No. Taking this job has not eased up my plate but it has made me more organized. I love working. The more sporadic jobs can really be hard on everyone, especially my son. It is hard when I have a schedule of performances like 8 shows a week, a commute back and forth and then am not home at night. With that schedule I get to see Chris because he’s obviously staying up later but I was really not seeing my son, Will, enough. My new job is a regular job that has regular hours. I can predict my time. I just feel more organized like I’ve got things in the right slot. I was stretched. I feel sometimes like I’m not quite giving enough for the boards that I’m on. I’m on the board of the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival and Art Faire and on the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation Board. We are on the board of World Peace Board and on the advisory boards of a couple other organizations. They are all incredibly worthy but you find yourself saying, “oh my God I have to go down to Washington for this event.” You can feel the pull in all different directions. But there is a lot of good work to be done out there.
CC: Do you feel overwhelmed?
DR: Well, if you are impassioned by it, if it feeds you, it is good. If it drains you completely than it is probably not good. But, even if you are tired and you feel good about what you are doing most of the time, then I think it is worth it.
CC: After experiencing the accident with Christopher, and in the aftermath of that, is there anything you can share with other wives or husbands in similar situations?
DR: Keep your sense of humor if at all possible because you can’t really change what has happened. I am also a big believer in looking towards the future and also living in the moment-not delving so much into the past. I find that the most useful. You have to sometimes put forth a conscious effort to be grateful for what you have, rather than bemoaning the fact that you have lost so much, or that you’re miles apart. There are certain people that may have a very deep spirituality and naturally feel thankful. But I think for the rest of us it takes a conscious frame of mind, a conscious effort and I think that it’s worth it because you can will yourself into a frame of mind that is positive. As soon as you have a positive frame of mind things start to look a little brighter and it becomes a sort of perpetual motion sort of thing, Care giving is a different situation. I am affiliated with the Advisory Board of The National Family Caregivers Association. Often caregivers are “invisible” and their job can be exhausting.
CC: Two people’s lives are always effected.
DR: At least two and very much so. Other advice I can give to people who are caregivers is to accept help from others when others want to give it. The thing to remember is to be specific in outlining for others what they can do. People may want you to know that they are a call away if there is something they can do and they would like to help. Sometimes that help can be as simple as giving them your grocery list. That help could free you up to do things like: (a) take a nap; (b) spend more time with your spouse or loved one; (c) read a book; (d) make a phone call you’ve been meaning to make; or (e) go to the doctor. Going to the doctor is an example of what caregivers often ignore their own health. I’m full of all sorts of advice. You really need to be specific. But generally keeping a good sense of humor is important.
CC: Are you involved with the Ski Classic competition?
DR: I was.
CC: How did you do?
DR: Well, I’m batting 500. I lost both of my races yesterday and I won both of them today!
CC: Did your son compete?
DR: No. He had a snowboarding lesson instead!
CC: How did he do?
DR: (laughs) He loved it!
CC: That’s great the first day is the hardest.
DR: Yeah, but I think he really went in there wanting to love it more so because everybody told him it is so cool, and it is. He liked it
CC: Tell me about the reaction of your friends and people in general about the Nuveen commercial Christopher appeared in during the Superbowl.
DR: That was really controversial. Chris went into it knowing that it would be. The amazing thing is, the company, Nuveen, got more press than its ever received in its entire 100 or so year’s history.
CC: They have been around that long?
DR: Yes. Isn’t that amazing? That’s a little less than one-half of the age of this country itself. But for them it was exactly what they needed which was what they wanted was publicity. And they got the publicity. It stirred shock and mixed feelings from the public. Some people criticized Chris’ decision to do the commercial. Some were saying, “Don’t begrudge him for his optimism just because you’re pessimistic” or, “Don’t begrudge him his belief in the sciences just because you have chosen not to believe it.” Some in the disability community criticized Chris for doing the commercial. In my opinion and the opinion of the foundation we focus on making important contributions to people with disabilities in the here and now; towards protecting the rights of people with disabilities whether it is in treatment, in working to eliminate job discrimination, housing discrimination, or financial help. It is also in working towards medical cures.
Chris was an extremely active, very physical man who had that part of his life completely taken away. Some people don’t understand his point of view: Still, Chris has an enriched experience of his life. He is not making judgments about other people’s experiences. If a person has been in a chair their whole lifetime perhaps they wouldn’t experience their life as being diminished by being in a chair. They would make their own judgment of their life. Chris sometimes experiences his own life as having been diminished. What makes Chris feel great is having a positive impact. Some days he’ll say that it’s amazing because he knows that at the end of his life he will have really made a difference. How many people can say that and what a gift that is? It is a very rare gift.
As far as being an example of the ability of people with dis abilities, Chris is a living example. He has a life which includes assisted living and breathing yet he maintains his public presence. He isn’t hidden away. He’s out there. He is vital. He’s working He’s a husband, a father, a lover. He is all things he is it. He is a perfect example.
Chris is not delusional by continuing to fight for research. For him it is an important idea which helps him get through the day. To say, “Look I thought that too, and my hopes have been dashed time and time again, but this is what I think now and this gets me through the day. How dare you make me go down that road so that my hopes are dashed.” I think that is a very powerful thing. I think we learned early on in this game that you need to take reality for what is in front of you The second you dare to hope a little better than what you’ve got may be the second you’re told it is not going to happen. That is often twice as hard to take.
The controversy over Chris’ participation in the Nuveen commercial illustrated differing views in America. There are some people who really have (and more power to them) adjusted to a different life and that is great. Some people say, “Look here is an opportunity that he [Chris] could be trying to direct several million dollars towards better living for the disabled, better opportunities for the disabled and instead, he is taking this road; throwing money at the potential for a cure.” They are not acknowledging that this is something Chris has had to adjust to-not being able to do many things, go to the rest room, get a drink of water, get his own lunch. Really he doesn’t complain about it but at the same time he doesn’t like it and he sees the potential for another route. But I think maybe there is something to the fact that we find the way that gets us through the day. Chris’ way is to constantly think forward and maintain hope. Chris is very well adjusted to his situation-he is as active as he can be, effecting change, inspiring, lobbying and really being out there.
CC: And so are you, Dana. Thank you. It has been a pleasure to chat with you today. Best wishes to you and Chris and to the future of the Foundation.
DR: Thank you.
story by Katie Ferguson
interview by Chet Cooper