Obituary: Christopher Reeve

Actor whose talent and determination to fight quadriplegia made him more than a Superman

It is a tragic irony that the actor Christopher Reeve, who has died of heart failure aged 52, was renowned for two such contrasting roles: Superman, the supreme physical specimen, and a man paralysed from the neck down. Unfortunately, the latter was all too real.

In 1995, with his film career flourishing, Reeve, a keen rider, broke his neck when he was thrown from his horse during an equestrian competition in Virginia. After years of therapy, and despite pessimistic prognostications, he remained determined to walk again, and became a symbol of hope for quadriplegics like himself. "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 actually is very helpful toward recovery."

In 2000, Reeve was able to move his index finger and breathe for longer and longer periods without a respirator. He also regained sensation in other parts of his body. He dedicated almost all his energy to lobbying the US Congress for better insurance protection against catastrophic injury, and giving support to stem cell research.

It would be a pity, however, if his heroic and heartrending situation obscured Reeve's many acting achievements. After all, he appeared in a total of 17 feature films, a dozen television movies and about 150 plays.

Reeve was born into an intellectual family in New York; his father FD Reeve is a noted novelist, poet and scholar of Russian literature; his mother, the journalist Barbara Johnson. He enjoyed a stimulating childhood environment that included Sunday dinners with the poets Robert Frost and Robert Penn Warren, and the politician and academic Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The atmosphere was such that Reeve's father was disappointed to learn that the role of Superman that his son had been offered was not one in the George Bernard Shaw play, Man And Superman.

Reeve started acting while a pupil at the exclusive Princeton day school. "I never once asked myself, 'Who am I?' or 'What am I doing?,'" he recalled. "Right from the beginning, the theatre was like home to me. It seemed to be what I did best. I never doubted that I belonged in it." Appropriately, after high school he toured the country as Celeste Holm's leading man in The Irregular Verb To Love.

While at Cornell University, New York state, he majored in music theory and English, and spent time studying theatre in Britain and France. In London, he worked at the Old Vic. "I was a glorified errand boy, but it was a very exciting time. I helped by teaching the British actors to speak with an American accent. Then I went to Paris to work with the Comédie Française."

In lieu of his final year at Cornell, Reeve was one of two students (Robin Williams was the other) accepted at the Juilliard School of Performing Arts, New York. There, he studied under the celebrated John Houseman, supporting himself financially with a role in the long-running television soap, Love Of Life. His looks and his athletic, 6ft 4in frame made him perfect material for a soap-opera hero.

In 1976, he won the coveted role of Katharine Hepburn's grandson in a Broadway production of Enid Bagnold's A Matter Of Gravity. That same year, he got a small part in Gray Lady Down, a submarine adventure film.

It was while appearing in an off-Broadway production that Reeve successfully screen-tested for the 1978 movie Superman - the most inspired casting of an unknown in a series since Sean Connery's James Bond. Reeve portrayed Superman as "somebody that you can invite home for dinner ... What makes [him] a hero is not that he has power, but that he has the wisdom and the maturity to use the power wisely. From an acting point of view, that's how I approached the part."

Of playing Clark Kent, Superman's alter ego, Reeve reckoned that "there must be some difference stylistically between Clark and Superman. Otherwise, you just have a pair of glasses standing in for a character." Though he played the two roles without any sign of camp, he revealed a deft Cary Grant-inspired comic timing.

Unfortunately, the three sequel films were a matter of diminishing returns and, after Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987), Reeve determined to "escape the cape". As he explained, "I've flown, become evil, loved, stopped and turned the world backward. I've faced my peers, befriended children and small animals and rescued cats from trees. What else is there left for Superman to do?"

Away from his role as the man of steel, he portrayed a wide range of characters in films that included the love fantasy Somewhere In Time (1980); the thriller Death-trap (1982); Monsignor (1982), where, in the title role, he wore a cape again; and two Merchant-Ivory period pieces, The Bostonians (1984) and The Remains Of The Day (1993).

He also showed his ability at farce in Switching Channels (1988) and Noises Off (1992). Further proof of his versatility came on stage in The Aspern Papers, in London with Vanessa Redgrave and Dame Wendy Hiller, Beaumarchais' The Marriage Of Figaro in New York, and Tennessee Williams' Summer And Smoke in Los Angeles, as well as touring in Love Letters.

Before his accident, Reeve seemed to have everything. He was an accomplished pianist and a superb athlete. He earned his pilot's licence in his early 20s, and twice flew solo across the Atlantic. He also flew gliders and was an expert sailor, scuba diver and skier, though horses were his great passion. He returned to acting in 1998, in a TV movie update of Hitchcock's Rear Window, which, though a remarkable feat, was treated as a freak show.

He is survived by his parents; by his wife Dana Morosini, whom he married in 1992, and their son; and by a son and daughter from an earlier long relationship with modelling executive Gae Exton.

Christopher Reed writes:
Christopher Reeve's nine-year campaign for medical research into paralysis brought encouragement to millions worldwide, and he even forecast that he would walk again one day. His fame and personal efforts - such as a surprise appearance at the 1996 Oscar award ceremony in his wheelchair - substantially boosted money for research.

Under the slogan "Stand up for those who can't", his Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation (CRPF), which, in 1999, merged with the American Paralysis Association, gave away millions of dollars to fund research and improve the quality of life for people suffering such injuries.

Last July, the CRPF announced a grant of $779,000 to 126 non-profit organisations as part of its annual donations to help sufferers. When the programme began in 1999, only 20 groups benefited. Last May, the foundation donated $2m for individual research initiatives in Israel, a world leader in the field of paralysis injuries.

Professor Geoff Raisman, director of the spinal repair unit at University College London, had been due to visit Reeve in December to discuss his work. Raisman and his team hope to start human trials in the next three years to help restore movement to people severely disabled like Reeve, using cells from the nasal cavity. "Reeve was an inspiration," said Raisman. "I knew him, and he had had a lot of hope in what we were doing."

Another important project was the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act, a law proposed in the US Congress to help paralysed Americans and fund research, which received bi-partisan support when it was launched last year.

· Christopher Reeve, actor and campaigner, born September 25 1952; October 10 2004


Ronald Bergan

The GuardianTramp

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