The two warring images will be linked forever, each denying -- and completing -- the other: Christopher Reeve, built and beautiful in his Superman suit, roaring invincibly into the stratosphere. And Christopher Reeve, strained and drawn, hooked to a ventilator and living another motionless day in his wheelchair. The cartoon hero had suffered a horrible fall and emerged as a real-life hero.
And yet Reeve, who died of heart failure Sunday at 52, always sounded a little appalled at the thought that people might consider him heroic. A devastating May 1995 riding injury had left him paralyzed, to be sure; in some quarters he bore the lurid title of the most famous quadriplegic in history. But he always pointed out that when the accident happened, he was a famous, well-off and well-connected movie actor who had advantages that were unavailable to most. "I haven't had to sell my house and end up in a nursing home," he said in a 1998 interview marking the publication of his memoir, "Still Me." "So that sets me apart from the people I regard as heroes. I truly mean that."
On that afternoon six years ago he was doing what he could to stimulate book sales, certainly, but what kept him speaking for 31/2 hours was a higher and broader purpose: Reeve was by then the nation's most visible advocate for paralysis research. (He retained that mantle for the rest of his life and was a vigilant advocate of stem-cell research.) It had become nearly a full-time job, and he saw every interview, every camera setup as an opportunity to promote the cause.
"The cure," he said, "is just around the corner."
Toward that end he was forever in training -- legs one day, arms the next, abs the next. "All the scientists who are working on solving the problem of curing paralysis say that it won't do you any good if you don't keep your body in shape," he noted.
Reeve sat tall in his industrial-strength wheelchair, and his broad, immobilized musculature was somehow a little daunting. But the smile was immediate, and his attitude friendly and helpful throughout.
"If you need to tape this," he said at the start, "just put the recorder here on my thigh."
In his book but also in person, Reeve was forthright about the hardships and indignities of paralysis: the getting-up and getting-to-bed rituals that could run to five hours on a bad day, the utter lack of spontaneity, the daily manipulation of his bowel. ("I'm turned on my side, and the aide pushes on my stomach with his fist in order to force stool down through the intestines. . . . Sometimes it can take nearly an hour.")
But his wheezy, labored speech and a certain reticence tended to keep his emotions hidden from outsiders. Though at one point he did calmly murmur, "It saddens me sometimes that just when everything had come together I went out and ruined it." (His "everything" had much to do with his 1992 marriage to his wife, Dana, whose devotion to him has been quite visible through the years.)
Still, tearing through the Virginia countryside on horseback -- he fell during a cross-country race in Culpeper -- was utterly in character. Though he insisted he was never foolhardy, Reeve's recreational pursuits were always marked by a touch of daring -- sailplanes, skiing, two solo flights across the Atlantic. The same streak showed up in his career: He was a solid, somewhat underrated actor who was not at all afraid to be shown up by the best.
"Vanessa Redgrave, Katharine Hepburn, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins are all people who can easily blow me off the screen," he said, ticking off a list of his co-stars. "But I'd rather enjoy the challenge of working with them. . . . You learn more and you do better."
From the start, it appears, Reeve was self-assured and unflappable, the rather uncommon sort of person who simply decides what he wants to do and then makes it happen. His parents divorced early in his life and he grew up in Princeton, N.J., living with his mother. He was called Tophy in those days, and when his parents remarried, bringing an assortment of half-brothers and stepbrothers into the picture, he vowed to maintain his place in the family by being "as perfect as possible."
Certainly he always looked about as perfect as possible, which was no small help in attracting early attention. At 22, while studying at Juilliard, he landed the role of a bad boy on the soap opera "Love of Life," jacking up the show's ratings in the process. A couple of years later, in 1976, he made his Broadway debut in "A Matter of Gravity," an inane comedy that rode to success on Hepburn's star coattails.
Still, Reeve's chiseled flawlessness was out of sync in Hollywood, where Hoffman, Pacino, Nicholson and De Niro made up the new ruling class. But "Superman" (1978) called for a throwback; nobody was thinking of Dustin Hoffman to play that part. Over the next decade or so, Reeve sustained a kind of medium-level movie stardom. In the late '80s, however, the fourth and final "Superman" installment bombed, and "Switching Channels," with Kathleen Turner and Burt Reynolds, did no better. It took several years of careful choices -- mostly television, though "The Remains of the Day" was a much-admired feature -- to set his course right.
You have to be tough to make it as an actor, and Reeve insisted that his theatrical background was good preparation for his later catastrophe. Remembering his days of auditioning, he said, "You walk in to face a disinterested row of faces, knowing they're going to see someone else five minutes later, and you get one chance to do your thing. They're certainly not welcoming. If you weren't there, it wouldn't make any difference. And you have to come in believing, 'I'm worth something. You should pay attention!' "
Reeve, then 45, was brandishing a much-publicized goal the day of the 1998 interview: to walk again by the time he turned 50 in September 2002. ("I think if everything goes well, we may be ahead of schedule.") Yes, the man was an actor, but it was impossible to question his conviction that it would happen.
Even then, skeptics would shake their heads and, meaning no insult, call him delusional. And it is true that although he showed progress on several fronts in the years to come, he never realized his dream.
Perhaps that means Christopher Reeve was more Don Quixote than Superman, but he was a terrific Quixote. His example inspired a lot of people both here and abroad, and he raised many millions of dollars for research. And besides, how many people get to play both of those parts in one lifetime?
We celebrate life, we love life, we tell ourselves life is good. And yet very often when someone dies, we force a smile and whisper, "You're free." Whatever the person's pain or rage or thwartedness, it's powerless and gone, never to return. It's a comforting perspective when you look at Christopher Reeve. And it's even nicer to think that maybe somewhere he's awakened this morning, frisky as a colt, and gone off for an aimless run.