The Superman films
Christopher Reeve, with that cute curl flopping over his forehead, was a familiar face in the late 1970s and 1980s because he was SUPERMAN. Superman was a real hero from Krypton who was stranded on Earth and used his amazing superpowers to benefit humankind. In the films Superman pretended to be a human called Clark Kent – as if donning a large pair of glasses would make him unrecognizable! Clark worked as a journalist and had a tentative relationship with fellow journalist Lois Lane.
Christopher Reeve made the part of Superman very much his own, appearing in four Superman films. His acting career, however, was much more than just being Superman. His first love was working in live theater, and he spent his late teenage years fitting acting around his college education. He spent time at Cornell University and Juilliard drama school. While a student there he became great friends with actor Robin Williams.
1975 saw the newly graduated Reeve acting with Katharine Hepburn in the play A Matter of Gravity on Broadway. Simultaneously he held down a part in the TV soap opera Love of Life. 1978 saw Reeve’s first film role. It was a ‘blink and you miss it’ part in the movie Gray Lady Down. He played a junior submarine officer.
That same year, Reeve was to have his name put forward for the role of Superman. He was not an automatic choice, but the film’s casting director persevered until the producers finally called Reeve to London for an audition. Reeve got the part. At 6 feet 4 inches, he was tall and imposing, but slim. He needed to add extra bulk and undertook a training regime lasting two-months. This was supervised by David Prowse, a weight-lifting champion from Britain who went on to play Darth Vader in the Star Wars film franchise. As a natural athlete Reeve was not detered by the running, weight-lifting and trampoline work he was expected to do. He had been a keen sportsman at college, playing a range of different sports. He could also pilot gliders.
Christopher had never been a fan of Superman on TV or in comic books. This meant he could approach the role with no preconceived ideas. As the role involved him playing a character with two identities he found the part both challenging and satisfying. He was Superman and also he was Superman playing the role of Clark Kent. The movie titled Superman was released in 1978 and proved to be a worldwide hit. It did well at the box office and Reeve earned critical acclaim for his role. Reeve was awarded a BAFTA for his role.
Superman II was the next film in the franchise to be released. It had been filmed at the same time as the first film. Originally, the footage was to form one film, but as a result of disagreements with the director and the appointment of a new director, it was agreed that extra footage would be shot and some of the original footage would be re-shot. In this way the original planned blockbuster became two separate films. Superman II was a box office success but was less well received by the critics. Superman III appeared in 1983 and in it he co-starred with comedian Richard Pryor. While Reeve was praised for his role in the film, the film itself was panned. The same fate befell Superman IV when it was released in 1987. The budget for the fourth film had been cut by 50% and as a result did not meet the production standards of the earlier films. As well as its panning by critics it was also a failure at the box office. There were plans to produce a fifth Superman film, this time through Warner Brothers, but the fourth film’s poor box office showing and Christopher Reeves’ accident, meant nothing came of them.
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In 1980 Reeves starred in a fantasy movie called Somewhere in Time with Jane Seymour. Reeves loved this movie, often saying it was his favorite. The movie initially was a commercial failure, but over the next ten years became a cult favorite. Video rentals soared and it still gets played on free-to-view channels.
In 1982 Reeve appeared with Michael Caine in the film Deathtrap. That same year he played a priest in Monsignor. 1984 saw him appear with Vanessa Redgrave in The Bostonians. This was considered to be an art house film, and Reeve accepted a much lower salary. The film was an unexpected hit and showed that Reeve was able to take on roles far removed from his superhero image.
In The Aviator which was released the same year Reeve, who was a qualified pilot, flew a Stearman plane. His skill as a pilot enabled him to do all is own stunts! He followed this with more theater work and on TV he hosted a documentary called Dinosaur! In 1986 he made Street Smart with Morgan Freeman. The film was loved by the critics but did not get the publicity it needed and so bombed at the box office.
His personal life took a blow in 1987 when he and his long-time partner Gae Exton separated. To alleviate his sadness he took on a comic role in Switching Channels with Kathleen Turner and Burt Reynolds. The making of the film was marred by the arguments between his co-stars and Reeve switched to theater work for the next few years.
To distract himself from his family woes he took up horse-riding and competed in a variety of equestrian events. He also built himself a sailing boat which he named “The Sea Angel” and sailed from Chesapeake Bay to Nova Scotia in Canada.
By 1990, Reeve was ready to return to film-making. He starred in The Rose and the Jackal, a Civil War era movie. His role was that of Allan Pinkerton who headed up the newly formed Secret Service. Reeve was next offered a part in The Remains of the Day. Reeve felt that the script was one of the best he had read, and jumped at the chance to play the role of Lewis. The film was an unqualified success, gathering eight Oscar nominations. It is still considered a classic film.
In 1992 he married his long-time girlfriend Dana, who was an actress and a singer.
Reeve then moved towards TV work, appearing in three made-for-TV films in the early 1990s. He was also offered the opportunity by CBS to launch his own TV series. He declined as it would take him further away from his children. Two more films followed – Speechless with Michael Keaton, and Village of the Damned. Ironically, Reeve then undertook some research into wheelchair use at a rehabilitation center in Van Nuys. He learned the best way to get from a wheelchair into a car. This showed how thoroughly Reeve would research a role. In this case he had agreed to play a police officer who was paralyzed in Above Suspicion for HBO
Accident and Injury
In 1985 Reeve had to learn to ride a horse for his part in the film Anna Karenina. He loved horse-riding, and by the end of the 1980s was doing eventing. After his break-up with Gae Exton he spent more time on his horse-riding. He bought a throughbred horse affectionately known as “Buck” in 1994 and began to train with him for events around the country. In 1995 his coach encouraged him to attend an event at Commonwealth Park in Culpeper, Virginia. The event combined dressage with a cross-country competition. After finishing 4th in the dressage, the competitors moved on to the cross-country section.
The third fence on the cross-country was just 3 feet 3 inches high and W-shaped. This was not the sort of fence that normally caused horses any problem, but Buck refused just as he began to jump. Reeve fell forward with the reins still caught up in the reins. He landed on the other side of the fence. Unfortunately he landed on his head, and in doing so fractured his spine. In just 3 minutes the paramedics were in attendance. Reeve was having trouble breathing, so action was taken to get him breathing properly again.
Everyone in attendance realized the injury he had sustained was serious. He was hospitalized and took 5 days to fully recover consciousness. He had survived the accident, but now had to face complex surgery and life as a disabled person. His initial doubts about surgery were soon dispelled and with help from his family and friends, such as Robin Williams, he faced his new future with courage.
For some months he relied on a ventilator to help him breath, and he undertook specialized exercises for four to five hours a day to keep his muscles tones and supple. Eventually he managed to breath on his own and make some tiny movements in his fingers and toes. His doctors were amazed by this and suggested it had been achieved through exercise and determination.
Life after the accident
He was able to move back to his home but still required round-the-clock care. He continued with his work in the film industry as a director, actor and writer. He appeared in Rear Window in 1998, remaking the famed Alfred Hitchcock thriller. On TV he appeared in Smallville on two occasions as a doctor who proves to Clark Kent who he really is.
During the last ten years of his life, Reeves produced two autobiographical books. “Still Me” was published in 1998 while “Nothing is Impossible” appeared in 2004. He was also a frequent guest on Sesame Street on TV.
Reeve developed a busy and fulfilling lifestyle. He worked tirelessly for disabled rights as well as human rights and in support of political principles of which he approved. He had always been willing to stand up for his beliefs, and being diabled just made him more determined.
On several occasions Reeve suffered adverse reactions to the drugs he received. Each time he was able to recover, although on one occasion he reported have an out-of-body experience. October 2004 saw him suffering from an infected pressure ulcer, and he was given antibiotics to clear the infection. On October 9 2004 he watched his son Will play hockey. His was given an antibiotic later that night and went into a coma after suffering cardiac arrest. He did not regain consciousness and died the following day. He was just 52 years old.
And so Christopher Reeve came to the end of his life. He had achieved so much as a film and stage actor that he will be long remembered. His smile lit up every occasion where he appeared.
We really hope you enjoyed this video about his life.
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