CHICAGO – After the terrible accident that broke his neck and sealed his fate, the metaphor came all too easily – Superman falls to earth.

But Christopher Reeve, 52, who died Sunday at a hospital in Mount Kisco, N.Y., transcended the irony. He went from the actor who had everything to the activist who would stop at nothing.

“That journey – it makes him a much more interesting intellectual figure,” said Dr. Henry Betts, past president and medical director of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the facility Reeve toured last week in what turned out to be his last public appearance.

Paralyzed in 1995 as the result of a horseback-riding accident, the actor who had gained fame as the Man of Steel in four “Superman” movies thrust himself into the debate over the search for a cure for spinal cord injuries, including the controversial use of embryonic stem cells.

Along the way, Reeve demonstrated how one kind of cultural figure – a dashing, much-envied movie star – can transform himself into an altogether different kind: a messenger of hope after catastrophic injury.

And he was able to do that, said friends and admirers, without losing track of his deepest passion: acting. Reeve, whose death came from cardiac arrest linked to an infection that had spread from a bedsore, was an inspiration to scientists and scene-stealers alike.

Through his writing, his public appearances, the foundation he established and the fierceness with which he sought a cure for paralysis, Reeve became a familiar figure – far more famous, arguably, than he had been as an actor, even with those high-flying “Superman” movies on his resume.

“The great contribution, to me, is that he became disabled and he kept acting and directing,” said John Belluso, a Los Angeles-based writer whose play “Pyretown,” which deals with disability issues, opens Wednesday at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater.

“He continued being an artist,” added Belluso, who uses a wheelchair because of a bone disorder. “That in itself was a great leap and challenged a lot of people’s perceptions.”

Indeed, after his accident, Reeve appeared in a 1998 remake of “Rear Window” and other productions. He also worked as a director.

It was show business, after all, that had first enthralled Reeve when, as a kid in Princeton, N.J., he escaped the pain of his parents’ rancorous divorce by getting involved in theater. As an adult actor he gave all indications that he’d be a perfect middle-tier performer, reliably debonair and handsome in a pleasant, vapid way.

In 1978 came “Superman.”

Reeve seemed born to play the part of the crimefighter with the bold “S” splayed across his chest, the one who liked to plant his fists on his hips and spread his feet and let his cape ride in the breeze. Reeve was tall and fit and firm of jaw; he had the kind of earnest, blinking innocence that kept the Superman character just this side of unbearable camp.

Then came the moment nine years ago when Reeve, a sportsman always ravenous for adventure, toppled off a horse that had stopped short. Reeve nearly died. The fall left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.

But he still yearned to perform, which didn’t surprise his old friends.

“He just loved acting,” recalled Robert Alpaugh, director of institutional advancement at Victory Gardens, who knew Reeve from the actor’s days in the late 1980s at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Mass., where Alpaugh was managing director.

“To those of us who knew him, we knew him as a great actor and a great human being,” Alpaugh added. “He’ll be remembered for what he’s done on behalf of stem-cell research – and for his passion for acting.”

While the “Superman” movie franchise was wildly popular, Reeve’s other films were not blockbusters. He never seemed to mind. In movies such as “Somewhere in Time,” (1980), a romantic tale of time travel and lost love, he played the eager swain with a touching hopefulness that, from anyone else, would have seemed smarmy. Perhaps his best film is one in which he had only a minor role: “The Remains of the Day” (1993). Reeve played a U.S. congressman who buys the British estate of a Nazi collaborator. His acting in the film is deft and subtle, tinged with the twilit sadness of a man who has seen the world slide into madness.

The same qualities that made him a solid performer – his obvious zest for life, along with an intelligence that lived just behind his eyes – made him an effective advocate for the disabled.

“He chose to do this wonderful thing – to highlight the need for research on spinal cord injuries,” said Betts.



Dr. Zev Rymer, the Research Institute of Chicago’s director of research, said Reeve was “clearly the most visible and important spokesman for spinal cord injury research worldwide. This is a terrible loss.” Several RIC research projects receive funding from the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, a non-profit organization the actor established in 1999, Rymer added.


Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry – who, like Reeve, advocates embryonic stem-cell research and who mentioned Reeve in Friday’s debate with President Bush – spoke of the actor at a Monday rally.

“Without leaving his wheelchair, he was able to make great strides toward a cure for conditions like his,” Kerry said.

Bush also praised Reeve on Monday, calling the actor “an example of personal courage, optimism and self-determination” and lauding his “dedicated advocacy for those with physical disabilities.”


Yet for some in the disability community, Reeve’s single-minded devotion to finding a cure for spinal cord injury was troubling.

“Because of Reeve, the media implies that to have hope as a person with a spinal cord injury means to have hope to walk again,” said Mike Ervin, coordinator of the Access Project, the drama series under whose aegis “Pyretown” is being produced. The Access Project, which has received funding from Reeve’s foundation, supports work by writers with disabilities or works with disability themes.

“But the point is not whether a cure is possible or not,” said Ervin, who has muscular dystrophy. “The point is, what’s it worth to wait for a cure? I have always felt that time spent waiting to walk again is much better spent doing things you enjoy. I think the time is better spent figuring out who you are as a new person.”

Reeve, Ervin said, had come to understand that living with disability could be as creative and fulfilling as yearning constantly for a cure.

“His foundation now recognizes that programs like ours help people find enjoyment and fulfillment in their lives in other ways.”

(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Christopher Reeve

AP-NY-10-11-04 2223EDT

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