Superman Is Dead. Long Live Superman.
By Walter Oleksy
Author of Christopher Reeve (People in the News)
That’s what the British say when a king dies.
Christopher Reeve, who died on Sunday, was not a king, but he was at the very least a hero. First, he gave every kid in the world a movie hero by playing Superman, the caped crusader for justice. He not only looked like Superman — an athletic, clean-living 6-foot-4-inch actor who performed all his own stunts in the movie series — he was believable because of innate character traits.
Those character traits soon revealed themselves off-the-screen in personal heroism. In authoring a biography on Christopher Reeve for Lucent Books in 2000, my research led me to learn something most people don’t know about him.
He was a hero when he volunteered in 1987 to go to Chile and lead a public rally pleading for the lives of 77 of that country’s leading actors, directors, and playwrights who had been sentenced to death by the dictator Augusto Pinochet. Their crime was having criticized his regime in their theatrical works.
Knowing he might be risking his life, Reeve went to Chile and led the rally that was punctuated by government machine-gun fire outside the garage where it was held.
His daring effort worked. The next day, Pinochet canceled his execution order. When Reeve’s heroism was reported in the press, many credited him with saving the lives of his fellow actors and artists.
Reeve was more humble about his role in the real-life drama. “This was not Superman to the rescue,” he said. “It was me as a private citizen, and as an actor in a country where we take freedom to perform for granted, helping fellow professionals in a country where they do not.”
Several months later, Pinochet resigned. Reeve was later given two awards for bravery from the Walter Briehl Human Rights Foundation, a group that works with torture victims.
But Reeve’s even greater innate character traits were tested when he was thrown from a horse during a jumping event in 1995 and broke his neck. The injury caused spinal cord inflammation that steadily destroyed the essential functions of his body: breathing, bladder and bowel control, and any motion below the neck.
Reeve had been a very active, adventurous, and young 43-year-old — sailing, flying his own plane, and traveling all over the world. As the extensiveness of his injury became clear to Reeve in a hospital, the thought of spending the rest of his life paralyzed and in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic made him contemplate suicide. But he quickly overcame that thought when he saw the love and encouragement of his wife and children. “I could see how much they needed me and wanted me,” he told interviewer Barbara Walters.
Reeve became determined to survive his near-fatal accident. While in rehabilitation following his accident, he gained inner strength from realizing his productive life need not be over, even though he was a quadriplegic. Others in his condition had not given up. Why should he? Summoning amazing inner courage, he made up his mind that if he might never make another movie or appear on the stage again, his life could still have meaning if he continued his activism, this time from a wheelchair.
About 250,000 Americans alone suffer from paralysis due to spinal cord injuries. Some 10,000 such injuries happen each year from sports such as horseback riding, diving, motorcycling, or from other accidents. Reeve learned that if the brain is not damaged, as it fortunately was not in his case, many who are paralyzed can lead happy and successful lives.
Reeve not only began nine years of medical treatment and therapy, he lobbied Congress for better insurance protection against those suffering catastrophic injury.
Congress repeatedly rejected his efforts, but he never stopped lobbying on behalf of paralysis victims. And in 1996 he became a member of the board of directors of the American Paralysis Association which funds spinal cord injury research, and later became its chairman. He also became president of the Christopher Reeve Foundation, which raises money for the American Paralysis Foundation and also supplies to paralysis victims necessary equipment and services that are not covered by their insurance. His efforts led to President Bill Clinton allocating $10 million to the National Institutes of Health for spinal cord injury research.
From a wheelchair, on a breathing respirator, Reeve moved an Academy Award audience to tears with a plea for more movies about social issues.
“Hollywood needs to do more,” he said at the 1996 Oscar awards ceremony. “Let’s continue to take risks. Let’s tackle the issues. In many ways our film community can do it better than anyone else. There is no challenge, artistic or otherwise, that we can’t meet.”
Reeve applied that heroic philosophy to his own career, which had seemed ended after his accident.
He could only speak a little and not well, but was determined that his life as an actor was not over. He directed movies and even returned to acting in 1998 in a television production of “Rear Window,” winning him a Screen Actors Guide award for best actor.
In 2000, Reeve was able to move his index finger, and a specialized exercise program strengthened his arms and legs. He vowed he would walk again.
“I refuse to allow a disability to determine how I live my life,” he said. “I don’t mean to be reckless, but setting a goal that seems a bit daunting is actually very helpful toward recovery.”
Reeve became a leading crusader for stem cell research which has become a major campaign issue between President Bush and John Kerry. Kerry said, just last Friday at the candidates’ “town hall” debate, that embryonic stem cell research might help his friend Chris Reeve and others with spinal cord injuries.
Unable to walk and barely able to talk or breathe, Reeve mastered a computer that understood verbal commands, so he could send e-mail and fax messages to friends. It also enabled him to communicate with political and medical leaders on behalf of spinal cord injury research.
Little did we expect that only three days after Kerry spoke Reeve’s name at the “town hall” debate, Christopher Reeve would be dead, at the still-young age of 52. He had fallen into a coma Saturday after going into cardiac arrest while at his home in New York. He had been treated at a hospital for a pressure wound, a common complication for those with paralysis. The wound became severely infected and spread throughout his body.
There are many reasons to honor Chistopher Reeve’s life of heroism, but he may be remembered best for his speech from an artificial breathing apparatus and in a wheelchair at the 1996 Democratic Party’s national convention in Chicago, when he said,
“The last few years we’ve heard a lot about something called family values. And like many of you, I’ve struggled to figure out what that means. Since my accident, I found a definition that seems to make sense. I think it means that we’re all family. And we all have value.
“Now, if that’s true, if America really is a family, then we have to recognize that many members of our family are hurting… one in five of us have some kind of disability. You may have Parkinson’s disease, or a neighbor with a spinal cord injury, or a brother with AIDS. And if we’re really committed to this idea of family, we’ve got to do something about it.
“In my room when I was in rehab, there was a picture of the space shuttle blasting off. [Reeve’s wife Dana put it there, to inspire him.] It was autographed by every astronaut at NASA. On top of that picture it says, ‘We found nothing is impossible.’
“Now that should be our motto. It’s not a Democratic motto, not a Republican motto. It’s an American motto. It’s not something one party can do alone. It’s something we as a nation have to do together.
“If we can conquer outer space, we should be able to conquer inner space, too. And that’s the frontier of the brain, the central nervous system, and all the afflictions of the body that destroys so many lives and robs our country of so much potential.”
Reeve could not have made a more impassioned plea on behalf of embryonic stem cell research if he had made it the hour before his death. John Kerry says yes to that plea. President Bush says no.
Superman is dead. Long live Superman, and the Superman in all of us.
Christopher Reeve Tributes/Pages
- Christopher Reeve Homepage – A very comprehensive and regularly-updated unofficial site. Includes biography, photo gallery, movie reviews, interactive features, links to many related sites, and much more.
- Internet Movie Database – Biography, filmography, links, and more related to Christopher Reeve’s film career.
- Relationships With Christopher Reeve – Analyze your relationships with Christopher Reeve for presence and strength of mutual passion, intimacy, commitment, and synergy.
Where To Find Or See Christopher Reeve Films
Books By or About Christopher Reeve
- Still Me – by Christopher Reeve
- Nothing Is Impossible: Reflections on a New Life – by Christopher Reeve
- Care Packages: Letters to Christopher Reeve from Strangers and Other Friends – by Dana Reeve
- Christopher Reeve (A & E Biography) – by Megan Howard
- Christopher Reeve (People in the News) – by Walter G. Oleksy
- Christopher Reeve – by Libby Hughes
- Christopher Reeve – by Philip Abraham
- Man of Steel: The Career and Courage of Christopher Reeve – by Adrian Havill
- Superhero: A Biography of Christopher Reeve – by Chris Nickson
- Christopher Reeve: Hollywood’s Man of Courage – by Laura Lee Wren
Christopher Reeve Movie Posters On The Web
From our Classic Movies Poster Store
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All Christopher Reeve Posters from our Classic Movies Poster Store.