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Christopher Reeve, 1952-2004

A Leading Man for Spinal Cord Research

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2004; Page A01

Christopher Reeve, who brought a comic book hero to life in four "Superman" movies and who became a real-life crusader for medical research after a paralyzing, near-fatal horseback-riding accident, died Sunday.

Reeve, 52, had gone into a coma Saturday at his home in Pound Ridge, N.Y., after having a heart attack during treatment for an infected pressure wound, a skin ulcer common to those confined to bed or unable to move on their own. He was transported to Northern Westchester Hospital but did not regain consciousness, his publicist, Colleen Dermody, said.

Cheyenne Sandoval, 15, places a Superman action figure on Christopher Reeve's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Superman "has the wisdom and maturity to use [his] power wisely," Reeve said. (Ric Francis -- AP)

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Despite his paralysis, Reeve used his celebrity status during the past nine years to mobilize funding and support for spinal cord injury research. Last Tuesday, he was at the Rehabilitation Institute in Chicago speaking on behalf of the institute's work. In Friday's presidential debate, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) mentioned Reeve as a friend and fellow advocate for embryonic stem cell research.

The actor believed that such innovative medical procedures would allow him and millions of others with spinal cord injuries to someday walk again. He was an outspoken critic of President Bush's 2001 decision to limit federal funding to existing stem cell lines.

"Perhaps it's my job to offend some scientists," Reeve told the Lasker Foundation last year after receiving the group's annual award for public service. "I'm not asking them to be reckless or unprofessional, but I do want to reinforce a sense of urgency."

The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, based in New Jersey, has awarded more than $46.5 million in research funds to neuroscientists.

Christopher Reeve was born Sept. 25, 1952, in Manhattan to Barbara Johnson, a journalist, and Franklin Reeve, a writer and professor. His parents divorced when he was young, and he and his brother moved with their mother to Princeton, N.J., when she remarried.

From his early teens, he knew he wanted to be an actor, nothing else. By 16, he was a member of Actors' Equity and soon after acquired an agent.

Reeve received his undergraduate degree from Cornell University in 1974 but spent his senior year at the Juilliard School for Drama in New York City, where one of his teachers was Oscar-winner John Houseman. He took a role in the TV soap opera "Love of Life" to pay for a second year at Juilliard but dropped out of school when his soap opera character, a heartless bigamist named Ben Harper, assumed a larger role in the ongoing story.

In 1975, Reeve landed his first Broadway role, in "A Matter of Gravity" with Katharine Hepburn. The play -- and Reeve -- received mixed reviews. He told Newsday that he learned much from working with Hepburn.

"I'd always thought of acting as a way to lose yourself, disappear into a part and thus find a kind of freedom," he said. "She taught me that quite the opposite is supposed to happen. You must bring your own convictions, things you really love and hate to the character, and then adjust after that."

After the play closed, Reeve moved to California and wrangled a bit part in his first film, a submarine disaster movie called "Gray Lady Down."

When producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind bought the rights in 1974 to make a Superman movie, they had assumed they would find a "bankable" star to play the lead but had no such success. By mid-1976, they had hired Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman to play supporting roles and had decided they could risk going with an unknown Superman.

At first, the handsome, young actor wasn't interested, but after reading the script, he changed his mind. The film's director, Richard Donner, invited Reeve to London for a screen test, and the actor spent two weeks preparing.

During 18 months of filming, beginning in March 1977, Reeve transformed himself physically and mentally into the Man of Steel.

"What makes Superman a hero is not that he has power, but that he has the wisdom and maturity to use the power wisely," Reeve noted in the 1978 book "The Making of Superman" by David Michael Petrou. "From an acting point of view, that's how I approach the part."

"Superman" opened Dec. 15, 1978, and was an immediate success.

"Reeve's charm and assurance save the show from the potentially unfortunate consequences of epic pretensions," Gary Arnold wrote in The Washington Post. "Reeve is such a skillful and discreetly ingratiating actor that he transforms the burden into a cheerful light workout, finessing his incredible identities as deftly as Superman might divert a runaway locomotive."

The movie's success made the 26-year-old actor one of Hollywood's hottest. He took his acting seriously and often sought to play against type. He turned down a million-dollar offer to play the lead role in "American Gigolo" but accepted slightly more than $500,000 to play a love-struck time traveler in a small picture called "Somewhere in Time" (1980) with Jane Seymour.

When Superman II opened in the United States in 1981, it set a record by grossing more than $5 million on a single day, June 20. Most critics liked the Superman sequel as well -- and they liked Reeve.

Throughout the 1980s, Reeve struggled to, as he put it, "escape the cape." He appeared on stage on Broadway in 1980 in Lanford Wilson's "Fifth of July," in which he played a gay, embittered veteran who lost his legs in the Vietnam war.

Reeve went on to star in "Superman III" in 1983 and four years later "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace." He also starred in "Deathtrap," (1982) opposite Michael Caine, and "Street Smart" (1987), with Morgan Freeman, and played in Merchant-Ivory's Oscar-nominated "Remains of the Day" (1993) with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

Although the Superman films earned $300 million at the box office and made Reeve a global star, his career began to falter in the 1990s. He found himself appearing in made-for-TV movies and such instantly forgettable efforts as the 1995 remake of the horror film "Village of the Damned."

A month after the movie's release, on May 27, 1995, he was thrown from a horse during an equestrian event in Culpeper, Va. The horse balked at a rail jump and pitched Reeve forward. Reeve landed on his head and suffered multiple injuries, including two shattered vertebrae, resulting in a C2 spinal cord injury. He stopped breathing for three minutes, and the injury blocked almost all neural communication between his brain and his body.

Doctors initially predicted that Reeve would never have feeling or movement below his head, and the actor told Barbara Walters in a television interview that he considered suicide. He credited his wife, Dana, with insisting that he not give up.

Reeve, who had been politically active before his accident, became an advocate for stem-cell research, therapeutic cloning and increased funding for spinal cord injury research. With his wife, he opened the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center, a facility in Short Hills, N.J., that helps paralyzed people live more independently.

"Obviously, he did a tremendous job in furthering the cure, but he also was fixated on helping those with disabilities today, pending the wonderful arrival of that cure, which could be many years off," said Michael Deland, chairman of the National Organization on Disability. Reeve served as co-chairman of the organization.

In 1996, Reeve moved an Academy Award audience to tears with a call for more films about serious social issues. He also continued acting.

In his first major role since the paralysis, he directed and acted in a 1998 TV remake of the Alfred Hitchcock thriller "Rear Window." Last year, he appeared in the TV series "Smallville" as Dr. Swann, who helps the young Clark Kent learn more about his origins. He directed a made-for-TV movie, "The Brooke Ellison Story," about a young quadriplegic, that is scheduled to air this month.

According to his official Web site, he appeared in 17 feature films, 12 made-for-TV movies and about 150 plays. He also hosted numerous documentaries and TV specials.

Despite rigorous therapy, Reeve experienced virtually no improvement in his condition during the first five years after the accident, but after beginning an experimental regimen at Washington University in St. Louis in 1999, he experienced some movement in his left index finger. Whether the therapy led to Reeve's improvement is not known, although Reeve believed that it did. So did millions of others living with paralysis, who viewed the actor as a hero and an inspiration.

In addition to his wife, Dana Morosini Reeve, survivors include an 11-year-old son, Will Reeve; two children, Matthew Reeve, 25, and Alexandra Reeve, 21, from his relationship with former model Gae Exton; his parents; and a brother.

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