Christopher Reeve
Still Flying

At the 1979 Academy Awards, a stunningly handsome "Man of Steel" turned the heads of many Hollywood heavyweights.

His demeanor was smart, educated – a class act.

From his seat, John Wayne looked him over. He then turned to Cary Grant. "This is our man," Wayne reportedly said to Grant. "He's taking over."

Back then, the man known as "Superman," Christopher Reeve, was still a new kid on the block. A transplant from the New York stage, he previously played Shakespearean characters, a soap opera heartthrob and a part on Broadway with Katharine Hepburn. Reeve's future in film and television looked promising.

But Reeve had different ideas.

Not wanting to be typecast as a comic book hero, he took challenging roles as villains and socio-paths. He turned down tempting offers from big production companies and chose smaller films that allowed him to perfect his craft.

Then, there were causes to fight for: an environment to protect, children to save, fellow artists to support. He was active in Amnesty International, Save the Children and the National Endowment for the Arts. He spoke before the United Nations on drift net tuna fishing. He traveled to Chile and bravely led a protest against the Pinochet government's death warrants of 77 artists.

And he had planes to fly. Boats to sail. Mountains to ski. Horses to ride. Stunts to practice and perfect.

Three children to kiss and tuck into bed each night.

But in May 1995 Reeve was thrown from his horse, landing headfirst at an equestrian competition in Virginia. He fractured the vertebrae in the upper part of his spine. Since then, Reeve has been confined to a wheelchair. His life took a major turn. And Reeve was never one to take the conventional path.

"If someone said to me . . . years earlier that I'd be paralyzed, I would have said, 'Just shoot me.' Well, then it happened," Reeve said.

When the spinal cord is damaged, messages that should cause bodily movement do not get transmitted from the brain, causing paralysis. In the United States, there are about 7,800 spinal cord injuries a year. People with spinal cord injuries have a higher chance of dying the first year of their injury than in subsequent years.

Upon learning he was paralyzed, Reeve went through a brief bout with depression.

"In the early days of being injured, some power has rejected you from the physical world. No more dancing or making love or riding a horse or touching anybody," he said. "The physical world is taken away. And that's a severe blow."

But he was able to pull himself from it. "Really, your attitude makes a difference, you have a choice. You can be passive and never leave your house and basically retire from your life, or say 'I'm going to use everything I've got and try to do something.' "

It's been five years since the accident and Reeve approaches life with as much gusto as before. Life since the accident has not been about mere, raw survival. Reeve has thrived.

In fact, Reeve believes the earlier part of his life prepared him for now.

"Chris" Reeve was born on Sept. 25, 1952 in New York City. His mother, Barbara Johnson, was a journalist. His father, Franklin Reeve – known as F.D. Reeve in the academic world – was a writer and professor, whose circle of friends included intellectuals like Robert Frost, whom Reeve spent time with growing up.

As a young child, his parents divorced and Johnson moved Reeve and his brother to Princeton, NJ. She soon remarried an investment banker who funded most of Reeve's education, beginning with the prestigious Princeton Day School – where he first fell in love with the theater – through Cornell University and The Juilliard School – where he roomed with and formed a lifelong friendship with fellow thespian Robin Williams.

Before he could finish his graduate work, Reeve's stepfather could no longer afford to financially support his education. The determined Reeve hit the pavement and got his first real taste of acting – the numerous auditions and frequent rejections. Reeve said he remembers times when he would audition at least 20 times before landing one, small part. "But I still had to believe in myself."

In 1978, Reeve landed the role of a lifetime, the lead in Superman. His hard work paid off, though it still may have been a dress rehearsal for his greatest role.

"Acting was the perfect profession to prepare me for a spinal cord injury," Reeve said. "And that's because acting is all about projection, frequent failure and emotional agony, so these are all good to know – if you break your neck!" Reeve said. "Acting requires the discipline to give your best eight times a week on stage, even if you don't feel like it."

During those times of success, Reeve said he remembers being selfish and unaware of the world that surrounded him.

"I'd walk down the streets of New York City and there'd be homeless people at the doorways. And I'd remember I walked right by them and never really thought a lot about why did they end up there, what is this doing to their life, why are they living (from) a garbage bag. It's very, very easy to turn away from people who are living a different life, but the key is to project yourself into somebody else's shoes."

Not until his accident did Reeve learn success depends on "another dimension," a lesson he preaches publicly today. "If you become the CEO at an early age or make millions of dollars or achieve your personal level of what you think success is, and yet your children (hardly) see you; or you have a bad relationship with your wife or your husband or your relatives; you're spending more time thinking about your own life than those around you – then you're really not a success. Because it would be better to be absolutely broke and have your house filled with love than to be the richest man in the world."

Prior to his accident, Reeve said his life traveled at a speed of 60 mph; now it's three mph. "That's a better speed because it's easier to stop, look and listen."

Reeve has, in a sense, become the poster-boy for the civil rights movement of people with disabilities. Less than a year after his accident, he made public appearances in support of the cause. He learned all he could about spinal cord injuries. He has appeared before Congress, pushing for increased medical research funding.

He is the chairman of the board of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, a merger of the American Paralysis Association and the Christopher Reeve Foundation. The circle of friends that includes Mel Gibson, Judith Light, Paul Newman, Rene Russo, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Joanne Woodward and Robin Williams raises money for research to find a cure for spinal cord injuries and quality of life improvements for those afflicted with them. "People who are disabled or disadvantaged in any way should not be left in the margins," Reeve said.

Reeve hopes his influence on spinal cord injuries will raise awareness and research money for a cure. He said he is optimistic this will happen because it has in the past.

"When FDR created the National Institutes of Health and asked them to find a vaccine for polio, that was considered impossible but was accomplished that year," Reeve said.

"In 1984, the government spent no money on research into AIDS," he added. "Today the National Institutes of Health spent $1.8 billion a year on research. The result is people are now living today."

He criticizes the "haves" who turn the other direction in midst of the "have nots." "We must be compassionate – it's in our nature to be compassionate."

In public appearances he encourages people to find a passion and pursue it – like he did with acting. "And should an accident befall you, you'll be able to get through it from the discipline of pursuing (your) passion."

Human potential has no boundaries. "I really believe that whatever your belief is, you believe it fully and passionately and don't let anyone stop you. You'll surprise yourself."

He urges people to push themselves to the maximum. "When they say, 'Do it for 20 minutes,' do it for 30."

In addition to public speaking engagements, Reeve still works in Hollywood. He made his directorial debut in 1997, directing the award-winning In the Gloaming for HBO. In 1999, he received a GRAMMY Award for his spoken word album, Still Me. That same year he also received a Screen Actors Guild Award for Rear Window, a remake of the Alfred Hitchcock film, in which Reeve starred. "Nothing's impossible," he said. "Take the high road, demand the best of yourself and demand the respect of people around you."

And the actor who was once a superhero on the silver screen lived that part later on, when he found spotlight again upon him. Though this spotlight was nosy and skeptical and expected Reeve to crumble. But he didn't. He softened that light with dignity and grace.

"You can build a life. I went on as an actor and director. You're missing a lot of stuff, but I also see a way out of this. I also see it's something I can endure and I'm not unique in that way at all. It's just the resources inside that you can call upon when the time comes. It takes the care of friends and family."

- Laura Hancock is a free-lance writer based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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