Okay. Don't laugh now.
Christopher Reeve loves to fly.
We're not talking Superman I, II or XVII. We're discussing the actor, the guy who used to get whiplash when he was a kid in New York watching the planes roar overhead on their way to LaGuardia. We're talking about the fellow who has his flying license and his own plane to fly around in. So he can go places and do things like compete in sail plane contests.
No wonder they chose him to play Superman. No wonder they wanted him to star in the film "Aviator."
None of this, of course, has anything to do with why they wanted him to play opposite Jacqueline Bisset in "Anna Karenina."
But he's enthusiastic about that too.
"It's a well-written script," he said of James Goldman's condensation of Leo Tolstoy's novel, which airs at 8 Tuesday on CBS. "I think one has to accept the limitation of cutting a long novel to a three-hour movie. But I think we've done pretty well. In getting it down to 2 hours and 17 minutes of playing time, some things have to be left out. That's unfortunate. But," he added, "there's a lot of integrity behind it."
Starring as Anna's cold and distant husband is Paul Scofield, who won both a Tony and an Oscar in stage and screen versions of "A Man for All Seasons." There are a host of others whose faces will be familiar, especially to PBS viewers. Among them: Judi Bowker, the Irish immigrant of "Ellis Island" and the postulant nun in "In This House of Brede"; Joanna David, from "Rebecca" and "Rumpole at the Bailey," and Ian Ogilvey, who played Claudius' father in "I Claudius" and who followed Roger Moore in the role of "The Saint."
Reeve noted the heavily British accent of the cast. "The show will have an unfamiliar look to an American audience," he said. "Many of the players are not familiar names in the United States but are very big at the Old Vic in London."
The film was shot in Hungary, with the enthusiastic support of the country's film board, the leader of which was generally thought to be an agent of the KGB.
"The film shows the Soviet Union in a favorable light," said Reeve. "Very noble and dignified. It's completely exploitive from their point of view."
And it's exploitive from a production standpoint. Costs are dramatically lower overseas. "You can get 450 extras at a train station for the cost of 50 in L.A. or New York," said Reeve.
The production, extras and all, came to a halt one day at the station in Budapest as a contingent of Russian troops boarded a train, apparently headed home. The cameras had to be shut down as long as the soldiers were in sight.
Small price to pay for the enthusiastic cooperation. Among the favors extended were the use of authentic 19th century Russian army uniforms and the use of native horses for steeplechase work.
The cast and crew spent about two months in Hungary, time enough, said Reeve, to meet and talk to many Hungarians. "Behind their backs, we found the Hungarians hate the Russians," he said. "They learn the language as kids and then forget it. They were very interested in American culture."
From the earliest days Reeve can remember, he's been interested in flying. He remembers watching planes fly in and out of LaGuardia from his home on East 88th Street. But he did more than watch: He took lessons after moving to Princeton. One after another his aviation tickets were punched -- private license, multi-engine rating, instructor. "I have 2,500 hours and a commercial license," he said. "In the late '70s I got interested in gliding and now I fly competition sail planes here and in the U.K. It all helped in putting over Superman as a human airplane."
He now flies his own plane, a six- seat, twin-engine Beechcraft Baron. Home hangar for the plane is in New Jersey, not far from the New York house Reeve shares with designer/agency executive Gae Exton and their 5-year-old son Matthew and year-old daughter Alexandra.
"The plane goes where I go," he said. "All of New England is accessible. It's a 45-minute flight to our New England summer place instead of a six- hour drive. And we take it to the Bahamas -- I'm an avid diver -- and to Stowe to ski." Also to California and, on three occasions, across the Atlantic.
He still sounds excited when he recalls some time he spent at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where he was a guest at the base high school's senior prom. The real fun started when he took a seat in a T-38 jet trainer.
"I thought I was just going along for a ride," he recalled, "but the captain was hands-off all the time. I was at 45,000 feet, doing inverted loops, flying supersonic and flying in formation with another plane. We were out over the Pacific, almost to Hawaii."
It was only natural that he should also be asked to star in "Aviator."
"They approached me and said, 'Here's a story about a pilot and you can fly yourself.' Even more than 'Superman,' that was an I-love-to-fly movie."
It may be the first time a leading man has done his own flying, he said, except, of course, that he wasn't at the controls for the big crash scene.
When it comes to flying on film, the persistent question is, will he do a "Superman IV"?
"I feel differently on different days," he said, "depending on my sense of humor and outlook on the world."
There are the occasional dumb jokes, he said, to remind him of his permanent identification with the Man of Steel, and there's a lingering regret over the way the third film in the series turned out -- "I didn't think it was in the right style. It was too broad and joking."
But there are also some delightful encounters with awestruck children to lend encouragement and his own favorite scenes to remind him of the potential of the character. Reeve recalls, for instance, the balcony scene in the first "Superman," the one in which Superman lands outside Lois Lane's window and takes her on a tour of Metropolis by night at several thousand feet. "There was a wholesomeness and sexuality there that's surprising if you thought of it as a kiddy flick," said Reeve. "That was my audition scene."
He says he has no fear of typecasting, a phenomenon many actors regard the way Suerman looks upon Kryptonite.
"When Sydney Lumet cast me in 'Deathtrap,'>" Reeve recalled with satisfaction, "he said, 'Anyone who can make me believe he's Superman can be in my movie.' "
And every now and then the problem of finding good roles beyond "Superman" has more to do with how the actor looks at himself than how Hollywood looks at him. That's why he passed up "Body Heat." "I put myself down too much," said Reeve. "I didn't think I'd be convincing as a seedy lawyer."
Regrets? Sure, but "Bill Hurt's a friend, and I'm glad for him."