Christopher D'Olier Reeve (September 25, 1952–October 10, 2004) was an American actor, director, producer, and writer. He established himself early as a Juilliard-trained stage actor before portraying Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent in four films, from 1978 to 1987.
On May 27, 1995, Christopher Reeve was paralyzed in an accident during the cross country portion of an Eventing competition. He was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He lobbied on behalf of people with spinal cord injuries, and for human embryonic stem cell research after this accident. He founded the Christopher Reeve Foundation and co-founded the Reeve-Irvine Research Center. Reeve died at age 52 on October 10, 2004 from cardiac arrest caused by a systemic infection.
Reeve married Dana Morosini in April 1992, and they had a son, Will. Reeve also had two children, Matthew and Alexandra, from a previous relationship with Gae Exton. Dana Reeve died of lung cancer in March 2006.
Franklin Reeve's interests in socialism and English language and literature became increasingly important to him, and he and Barbara divorced in 1956. She moved with her two sons to Princeton, New Jersey, where they attended Nassau Street School. Franklin Reeve married Helen Schmidinger in 1956, a Columbia University graduate student. Barbara Pitney Lamb married Tristam B. Johnson, a stockbroker, in 1959. Johnson had Christopher and his brother, Benjamin, enroll in Princeton Country Day, a private school. Reeve was one of the few kids to excel in both academics and sports; he was on the honor roll and played soccer, baseball, tennis and hockey. Reeve later admitted that he put pressure on himself to act older than he actually was in order to gain his father's approval.
Reeve found his true passion in 1962 at age nine when an amateur group held tryouts for the play The Yeomen of the Guard, and he was cast; it was the first of many student plays that he would act in. In the summer of 1968, at age fifteen, Reeve was accepted as an apprentice at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The other apprentices were mostly college students, but Reeve's older appearance and maturity helped him fit in. In a workshop, he played a scene from A View From The Bridge that was chosen to be presented in front of an audience. After the performance, actress Olympia Dukakis said to him, "I'm surprised. You've got a lot of talent. Don't mess it up. The next summer, Reeve was hired at the Harvard Summer Repertory Theater Company in Cambridge for $44 per week. He played a Russian sailor in The Hostage and Belyayev in A Month in the Country. Famed theater critic Elliot Norton called his performance as Belyayev "startlingly effective." The 23-year-old lead actress in the play, a Carnegie Mellon graduate, turned out to be Reeve's first romance. She was engaged to a fellow Carnegie Mellon graduate at the time; they mutually ended the relationship when he made a surprise visit to her dorm room at seven in the morning and found Reeve with her. Reeve's romance with the actress fizzled a few months later when the age difference became an issue for them.
Reeve joined the theater department in Cornell and played Pozzo in Waiting for Godot, Segismundo in Life Is a Dream, Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Polixenes in The Winter's Tale. In the fall of his Freshman year, Reeve received a letter from Stark Hesseltine, a high-powered agent who had discovered Robert Redford and represented actors such as Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon and Richard Chamberlain. Hesseltine had seen Reeve in A Month in the Country and wanted to represent him. The two met and decided that instead of dropping out of school, Reeve could come to New York once a month to meet casting agents and producers to find work for the summer vacation. That summer, he toured in a production of Forty Carats with Eleanor Parker.
The next year, Reeve received a full-season contract with the San Diego Shakespeare Festival, with roles as Edward IV in Richard III, Fenton in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Dumaine in Love's Labour's Lost at the Old Globe Theatre.
Before his third year of college, Reeve took a three-month leave of absence. He flew to Glasgow and saw theatrical productions throughout Scotland and England. He was inspired by the actors and often had conversations with them in bars after the performances. He helped actors at the Old Vic with their American accents by reading the newspaper aloud for them. He then flew to Paris, where he spoke fluent French for his entire stay; he had studied it from third grade until his second year in Cornell. He watched many performances and immersed himself into the culture before finally going back to New York to reunite with his girlfriend.
In 1973, around two thousand students auditioned for twenty places in the freshman class at Juilliard. Reeve's audition was in front of ten faculty members, including John Houseman, who had just won an Academy Award for The Paper Chase. Reeve and Robin Williams were the only students selected for Juilliard's prestigious Advanced Program They had several classes together in which they were the only students. In their dialects class with Edith Skinner, Williams had no trouble mastering all dialects naturally, whereas Reeve was more meticulous about it. Williams and Reeve developed a close friendship; they were able to laugh together, and were also able to confide in each other about their relationship problems.
In a meeting with John Houseman, Reeve was told, "Mr. Reeve. It is terribly important that you become a serious classical actor. Unless, of course, they offer you a shitload of money to do something else." Houseman then offered him the chance to leave school and join the Acting Company, among actors such as Kevin Kline and David Ogden Stiers. Reeve declined as he had not yet received his Bachelor's degree from Cornell.
In the spring of 1974, Reeve and other Juilliard students toured the New York City middle school system and performed The Love Cure. In one performance, Reeve, who played the hero, drew his sword out too high and accidentally destroyed a row of lights above him. The students applauded and cheered with approval. Reeve later said that this was the greatest ovation of his career. After completing his first year at Juilliard, Reeve graduated from Cornell in the Class of '74.
In the fall of 1975, he auditioned for the Broadway play A Matter Of Gravity. Katharine Hepburn watched his audition and cast him as her character's grandson in the play. With Hepburn's influence over the CBS network, Reeve was able to work out the schedules of Love of Life and the play so that he would be able to do both. Due to his busy schedule, he ate candy bars and drank coffee in place of meals, and suffered from exhaustion and malnutrition. On the first night of the play's run, Reeve entered the stage, said his first line, and then promptly fainted. Hepburn turned to the audience and said, "This boy's a goddamn fool. He doesn't eat enough red meat." The understudy finished the play for him, and Reeve was treated by a doctor who advised him to eat a healthier diet. He stayed with the play throughout its year-long run and was given very favorable reviews. He and Hepburn became very close. She said, "You're going to be a big star, Christopher, and support me in my old age." He replied, "I can't wait that long." A romance between the two was rumored in some gossip columns. Reeve said, "She was sixty-seven and I was twenty-two, but I thought that was quite an honor...I believe I was fairly close to what a child or grandchild might have been to her." Reeve said that his father, who was a professor of literature and came to many of the performances, was the man that Hepburn was most captivated by. When the play moved to Los Angeles in 1976, Reeve dropped out, to Hepburn's disappointment. They stayed in touch for years after the run of the play. Reeve later regretted not staying closer instead of just sending messages back and forth.
Although Reeve was tall enough for the role and had the blue eyes and handsome features, his physique was slim. He refused to wear fake muscles under the suit, and instead went through an intense two-month training regimen supervised by former British weightlifting champion David Prowse, the man under the Darth Vader suit in the Star Wars films. The training regime consisted of running in the morning, followed by two hours of weightlifting and ninety minutes on the trampoline. In addition, Reeve doubled his food intake and adopted a high protein diet. He put on thirty pounds of muscle to his thin 190 pound frame. He later made even higher gains for Superman III (1983), though for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) he decided it would be healthier to focus more on cardiovascular workouts.
Reeve was never a Superman or comic book fan, though he had watched Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves. However, he found that the role offered a suitable challenge because it was a dual role. He said, "there must be some difference stylistically between Clark and Superman. Otherwise, you just have a pair of glasses standing in for a character.
On the commentary track for the director's edition of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz spoke of how Reeve had talked to him about playing Superman and then playing Clark Kent. Mankiewicz then corrected Reeve, telling him that he was always, always playing Superman and that when he was Clark Kent, he was "playing Superman who was playing Clark Kent." Mankiewicz described it to Reeve as a role within the role.
During the production of the first two films, both Reeve and actor Jack O'Halloran (who played Kryptonian criminal Non in both productions) clashed in a dispute. In a October 2006 interview with Starlog Magazine, O'Halloran stated that Reeve had been polite to some of the crew and rude to others. O'Halloran would later go record as describing Reeve as an egotist. Despite this dispute, O'Halloran would later give high praise to Reeve for his work in spinal cord research and the helping of others with spinal cord injuries.
The film grossed $300,218,018 worldwide (unadjusted for inflation). Reeve received positive reviews for his performance:
Reeve used his newfound celebrity for good causes. Through the Make-a-Wish Foundation, he visited terminally-ill children. He joined the Board of Directors for the worldwide charity Save the Children. In 1979, He served as a track and field coach at the Special Olympics, alongside O.J. Simpson.
Superman III, released in 1983, was filmed entirely by Lester. Reeve believed that the producers ruined it by turning it into a Richard Pryor comedy. He missed Richard Donner and believed that Superman III's only saving grace was the junkyard scene in which evil Superman fights Clark Kent in an internal battle.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, released in 1987, was initially never going to be made; after Superman III, Reeve vowed that he was done with Superman. However, he accepted the role on the condition that he would have partial creative control over the script. The nuclear disarmament plot was his idea. The production rights were given to Cannon Films, who cut the budget in half to $17 million. The film was a major flop and Reeve later said, "the less said about Superman IV the better."
Reeve's first role after Superman was as Richard Collier in the 1980 romantic fantasy Somewhere in Time. Jane Seymour played Elise McKenna, his love interest. The film was shot on Mackinac Island in May 1979 and was Reeve's favorite film to ever shoot. Early reviews and screenings were favorable. However, the film did not do well at the box office and was Reeve's first public disappointment. He immediately returned to London to shoot Superman II. Since then, Somewhere in Time has developed a wide cult following. INSITE, the International Network of Somewhere in Time Enthusiasts, has thousands of members. Thanks to the activism of these members, Reeve was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1997. The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island became a much larger tourist actraction. Jane Seymour remained a life-long friend of Reeve's and named one of her sons after him.
Gae Exton, Reeve's girlfriend at the time, gave birth to their son, Matthew Exton Reeve, on December 20, 1979 at Welbeck Hospital in London, England. After finishing Superman II, the family left London and rented a house in Hollywood Hills. Soon after, Reeve grew tired of Hollywood and took the family to Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he played the lead in the successful play The Front Page, directed by Robert Allan Ackerman. In the fall, Reeve played a disabled Vietnam veteran in the critically-acclaimed play The Fifth of July. In his research for the role, he was coached by an amputee on how to walk on artificial legs.
After The Fifth of July, Reeve stretched his acting range further and played a psychopath opposite Michael Caine in Sydney Lumet's film Deathtrap. The film was well-received. Reeve was then offered the role of Basil Ransom in The Bostonians alongside Vanessa Redgrave. Though Reeve ordinarily commanded over one million dollars per film, the producers could only afford to pay him one-tenth of that. Reeve had no complaints, as he was happy to be doing a role that he could be proud of. The film exceeded expectations and did very well at the box office for what was considered to be an art house film. The New York Times called it "the best adaptation of a literary work yet made for the screen." Katharine Hepburn called Reeve to tell him that he was "absolutely marvelous" and "captivating" in the film. When told that he was currently shooting Anna Karenina, she said, "Oh, that's a terrible mistake.
Reeve was a licensed pilot and flew solo across the Atlantic twice. During the filming of Superman III, he raced his sailplane in his free time. He joined The Tiger Club, a group of aviators who had served in the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain. They let him participate in mock dogfights in vintage World War I combat planes. The producers of the film The Aviator approached him without knowing that he was a pilot and that he knew how to fly a Stearman, the plane used in the film. Reeve readily accepted the role. The film was shot in Kranjska Gora, and Reeve did all of his stunts. At this time, Gae Exton gave birth to their second child, Alexandra Exton Reeve, in December 1983 at Welbeck Hospital in London, England.
In 1985, Reeve hosted the television documentary Dinosaur! Fascinated with dinosaurs since he was a kid (as he says in the documentary) he flew himself to New York on his own plane to shoot on location at the American Museum of Natural History. It is also reported that he asked to re-shoot several scenes during the shooting
In 1986, he was still struggling to find scripts that he liked. A script named Street Smart had been lying in his house for years, and after re-reading it, he had it green-lit at Cannon Films. He starred opposite Morgan Freeman, who was nominated for his first Academy Award for the film. The film received excellent reviews but performed poorly at the box office, possibly because Cannon Films had failed to properly advertise it.
Although Reeve's career was bottoming-out, these were some of the happiest times of his life. In the summer of 1987, Reeve returned to Williamstown, where he appeared in a production of The Rover at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. One night he attended a performance of WTF's Cabaret Corp at the Williams Inn, where Dana Morosini sang. Following the performance he attended a company party called "The Zoo". Seeing Morosini at the party, Reeve abandoned the actress who'd accompanied him to the show and after party and stood in rapt conversation with Morosini in the middle of the party for over an hour. His companion eventually just left. In Reeve's book "Still Me" he claimed that his "secret" relationship with Morosini began five months after separating from Gae Exton. However, that summer the National Enquirer carried pictures taken of the pair outside the Williams Inn accusing Reeve of having an affair behind Exton's back. During the course of the WTF Season Reeve made several singing appearances with Morosini in the theatre's Late Night Cabaret Series. By his own admission, Reeve was not much of a singer, but he did manage to talk-sing his way through several duets with Morosini including "You say Tomato...
In the late 1980s, Reeve became more active than ever. He was taking horse riding more seriously, and trained five to six days a week for competition in combined training events. He built a sailboat, The Sea Angel, and sailed from the Chesapeake to Nova Scotia. He campaigned for Senator Patrick Leahy and made speeches throughout the state. He served as a board member for the Charles Lindbergh Fund, which promotes environmentally safe technologies. He lent support to causes such as Amnesty International, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and People for the American Way. He joined the Environmental Air Force, and used his Cheyenne II turboprop plane to take government officials and journalists over areas of environmental damage. In the fall of 1987, 77 actors in Santiago, Chile were threatened with execution by the dictator Augusto Pinochet. Reeve was asked by Ariel Dorfman to help save their lives. Reeve flew to Chile and helped lead a protest march. A cartoon then ran in a newspaper showing him carrying Pinochet by the collar with the caption, "Where will you take him, Superman?" For his heroics, he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Bernardo O’Higgins Order, the highest Chilean distinction for foreigners. He also received the Obie Prize and the Annual Walter Brielh Human Rights Foundation award. Reeve's friend Ron Silver later started the Creative Coalition, an organization designed to teach celebrities how to speak knowledgeably about political issues. Reeve was an early member of the group, along with Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, and Blythe Danner.
Reeve bought a twelve-year-old American Thoroughbred horse named Eastern Express, nicknamed Buck, while filming Village of the Damned. He trained with Buck in 1994, and planned to do Training Level events in 1995 and move up to Preliminary in 1996. Though Reeve had originally signed up to compete at an event in Vermont, his coach invited him to go to the Commonwealth Dressage and Combined Training Association finals at the Commonwealth Park equestrian center in Culpeper, Virginia. Reeve finished at fourth place out of twenty-seven in the dressage, before walking his cross-country course. He was concerned about jumps sixteen and seventeen, but paid little attention to the third jump, which was a routine three-foot-three fence shaped like the letter 'W'.
On May 27, 1995, Reeve's horse had a refusal and he fell off, severely damaging Reeve's spinal cord and paralyzing him from the neck-down. He had no recollection of the incident. Witnesses said that Buck started the jump over the third fence, and then suddenly stopped. Someone said that a rabbit spooked the horse, and another person claimed that it might have been a shadow. Reeve held on and the bridle, the bit, and the reins were pulled off the horse and tied his hands together. He landed headfirst on the other side of the fence. His helmet prevented any brain damage, but the impact of his 215 pound (98 kg) body hitting the ground shattered his first and second vertebrae. Reeve had not been breathing for three minutes before paramedics arrived. He was taken to the local hospital, and then flown by helicopter to the University of Virginia Medical Center.
After considering his situation, believing that not only would he never walk again, but that he might never move a body part again, Reeve considered suicide. He mouthed to Dana, "maybe we should let me go." She tearfully replied, "I am only going to say this once: I will support whatever you want to do, because this is your life, and your decision. But I want you to know that I'll be with you for the long haul, no matter what. You're still you. And I love you." Reeve never considered suicide as an option again.
Reeve went through inner anguish in the ICU, particularly when he was alone during the night. As he lay there one day, the door opened and a man with glasses wearing a yellow surgical gown and a blue scrub hat entered. He said that he was a proctologist and was going to perform a rectal exam on Reeve. It was Robin Williams. Reeve said, "For the first time since the accident, I laughed." They had a long conversation and Williams assured Reeve that he would do anything for him. It was this support from family and friends that convinced Reeve that his life was still worth living.
Dr. John Jane performed the surgery that reconnected Reeve's head to his body. He put wires underneath both laminae and used bone from Reeve's hip to fit between the C1 and C2 vertebrae. He inserted a titanium pin and fused the wires with the vertebrae, then drilled holes in Reeve's skull and fit the wires through to connect the head to the spinal column.
In the physical therapy gym, Reeve worked on moving his trapezius muscle. Electrodes connected to him sent out readings to therapists, and every day he would try to beat his numbers from the day before. The most difficult part of rehabilitation was respiratory therapy. The therapist, Bill Carroll, used a hose to see how much air Reeve could suck in, measured in cubic centimeters as the vital capacity. In order to even consider getting off the artificial respirator, a patient needs a vital capacity of 750 cc's. Initially, Reeve could hardly get above zero. By the end of October, he was able to get around 50 cc's. This inspired him, and he felt his natural competitive edge coming back. The next day, he went up to 450 cc's. He reached 560 cc's the day after. Bill Carroll said, "I've never seen progress like that. You're going to win. You're going to get off this thing." On December 13, 1995, Reeve was able to breathe without a respirator for 30 minutes.
Reeve was elected Chairman of the American Paralysis Association and Vice Chairman of the National Organization on Disability. He co-founded the Reeve-Irvine Research Center, which is now one of the leading spinal cord research centers in the world. He created the Christopher Reeve Foundation to speed up research through funding, and to use grants to improve the quality of the lives of people with disabilities. The Foundation to date has given more than $65 million for research, and more than $8.5 million in quality-of-life grants. The Foundation has funded a new technology called "Locomotor Training" that uses a treadmill to mimic the movements of walking to help develop neural connections, in effect re-teaching the spinal cord how to send signals to the legs to walk. This technology has helped several paralyzed patients walk again.
In 1997, Reeve made his directorial debut with the HBO film In the Gloaming with Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Bridget Fonda and David Strathairn. The film won four Cable Ace Awards and was nominated for five Emmy Awards including "Outstanding Director for a Miniseries or Special." Dana Reeve said, "There's such a difference in his outlook, his health, his overall sense of well-being when he's working at what he loves, which is creative work. In 1998, Reeve produced and starred in Rear Window, a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film. He was nominated for a Golden Globe and won a Screen Actors Guild Award for his performance. On April 25, 1998, Random House published Reeve's autobiography, Still Me. The book spent eleven weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list and Reeve won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album.
Throughout this time, Reeve kept his body as physically strong as possible by using specialized exercise machines. He did this both because he believed that the nervous system could be regenerated through intense physical therapy, and because he wanted his body to be strong enough to support itself if a cure was found. In 2000, he began to regain some motor function, and was able to sense hot and cold temperatures on his body. His doctor, John MacDonald of Washington University in St. Louis, asked him if anything was new with his recovery. Reeve then moved his left index finger on command. "I don't think Dr. MacDonald would have been more surprised if I had just walked on water", said Reeve in an interview. In 2002, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center, a federal government facility created through a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention non-compete grant, was opened in Short Hills, New Jersey. Its mission is to teach paralyzed people to live more independently. Reeve said, "When somebody is first injured or as a disease progresses into paralysis, people don't know where to turn. Dana and I wanted a facility that could give support and information to people. With this new Center, we're off to an amazing start.
Reeve lobbied for expanded federal funding on embryonic stem cell research to include all embryonic stem cell lines in existence and for open-ended scientific inquiry of the research by self-governance. In an interview with Brian Williams, Reeve responded to the controversy by noting that the research would only use embryos that had already been discarded. He said, "We don't want to create embryos just for research. We want to rescue these cells from the garbage...I don't understand how you can be opposed to that. I don't." President George W. Bush limited the federal funding to research only on human embryonic stem cell lines created on or before August 9, 2001, the day he announced his policy, and allotted approximately $100 million for it. Reeve initially called this "a step in the right direction", admitting that he did not know about the existing lines and would look into them further. He fought against the limit when scientists revealed that most of the old lines were contaminated by an early research technique that involved mixing the human stem cells with mouse cells. In 2002, Reeve lobbied for the Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2001, which would allow somatic cell nuclear transfer research, but would ban reproductive cloning. He argued that stem cell implantation is unsafe unless the stem cells contain the patient's own DNA, and that because somatic cell nuclear transfer is done without fertilizing an egg, it can be fully regulated. In June 2004, Reeve provided a videotaped message on behalf of the Genetics Policy Institute to the delegates of the United Nations in defense of somatic cell nuclear transfer, which was under consideration to be banned by world treaty. In the final days of his life, Reeve urged California voters to vote yes on Proposition 71, which would establish the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and allot $3 billion of state funds to stem cell research. Proposition 71 was approved less than one month after Reeve's death.
On February 25, 2003, Reeve appeared in the television series Smallville as Dr. Swann in the episode "Rosetta". In that episode, Dr. Swann brings to Clark Kent (Tom Welling) information about where he comes from and how to use his powers for the good of mankind. The scenes of Reeve and Welling feature music cues from the 1978 Superman movie, composed by John Williams and arranged by Mark Snow. At the end of this episode, Reeve and Welling did a short spot inviting people to support the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.
Reeve also appeared in the Smallville episode "Legacy", in which he met again with fellow stage actor John Glover who played Lionel Luthor in the show. "Rosetta" set ratings history for The WB network.
Christopher Reeve’s campaign for stem cell research was satirized in South Park episode 702 titled Krazy Kripples which originally aired on March 26, 2003. In April 2004, Random House published Reeve's second book, Nothing is Impossible. This book is shorter than Still Me and focuses on Reeve's world views and the life experiences that helped him shape them. Also in 2004, Reeve directed the A&E film The Brooke Ellison Story. The film is based on the true story of Brooke Ellison, the first quadriplegic to graduate from Harvard University. Reeve at this time was also directing the animated film Everyone's Hero.
More than once he had a severe reaction to a drug. In Kessler, he tried a drug named Sygen which was theorized to help reduce damage to the spinal cord. The drug caused him to go into anaphylactic shock and his lungs shut down. He believed he had an out-of-body experience and remembered saying, "I'm sorry, but I have to go now", before it occurred. In his autobiography, he wrote, "and then I left my body. I was up on the ceiling...I looked down and saw my body stretched out on the bed, not moving, while everybody—there were fifteen or twenty people, the doctors, the EMTs, the nurses—was working on me. The noise and commotion grew quieter as though someone were gradually turning down the volume." After receiving a large dose of epinephrine, he woke up and was able to stabilize later that night.
In 2003 and 2004, Reeve fought off a number of serious infections believed to have originated from the bone marrow. He recovered from three that could have been fatal.
In early October 2004, he was being treated for a pressure wound that was causing a systemic infection called sepsis, a complication that he had experienced many times before. On October 9, Reeve felt well and attended his son Will's hockey game. That night, he went into cardiac arrest after receiving an antibiotic for the infection. He fell into a coma and was taken to Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, New York. Eighteen hours later, on October 10, 2004, Reeve died of a heart attack at the age of 52. His doctor, John McDonald, believed that it was an adverse reaction to the antibiotic that caused his death.
A memorial service for him was held at the Unitarian Church in Westport, Connecticut, where he and his wife had worshipped.
They are survived by their son, Will, and Christopher's son Matt and daughter Alex. Christopher is also survived by his parents and Dana by her father. Matthew and Alexandra now serve on the board of directors for the Christopher Reeve Foundation.
He was cremated and his ashes were scattered.