Thursday 20 June 2019

A true Superman, but Christopher Reeve was also a mere mortal

Christopher Reeve and his wife Dana in 2003, just a year before he died
Christopher Reeve and his wife Dana in 2003, just a year before he died
Christopher Reeve as Superman

Jonathan de Burca Butler

On the tenth anniversary of the death of Christopher Reeve, Jonathan de Burca Butler looks at the life and career of a fine actor and a very determined fighter.

Christopher Reeve, who died ten years ago this week, liked to take risks. In 1995,the then 42-year-old actor had decided to move to Ireland with his second wife Dana Morosini and their two-year-old son William. The man who made Superman as famous as Superman made him had been cast in the lead role for Kidnapped, an interpretation of the Robert Louis Stephenson novel, which was due to start shooting in Wicklow that summer. The couple were excited and planned to have their second child in Ireland.

One of Reeve's great- great-grandparents on his father's side, William D'Olier, had been born in Ireland, possibly Mayo, in 1843. Reeve's birth certificate carried the name Christopher D'Olier Reeve. His Irish ancestry fascinated him and here was an opportunity to spend some time in the land of his ancestors.

Days before boarding the plane across the Atlantic he entered an equestrian competition in Culpeper, Virginia. Reeve was an accomplished horseman. Although he initially was allergic to horses he was determined to ride and he had been doing so since 1985.

After the first round dressage, he and his horse were in fourth place. Reeve came to the second round cross-country event full of confidence but at the third fence his horse lost his nerve and pulled out of a jump. The actor was thrown forward and landed head-first on the top rail of the jump.

When he awoke in hospital some days later, doctors informed him that his first and second vertebrae had been destroyed, meaning that his skull was no longer connected to his spine. He would spend his remaining years in a wheelchair, unable to move anything from the neck down.

Reeve was born in Manhattan, on September 25th 1952. His father, Franklin D'Olier Reeve, was a well-respected poet and novelist who taught Slavic Languages and Creative Writing at Colombia Univesity. His mother, Barbara Pitney, was a journalist.

Reeve's parents divorced in 1956, two years after the birth of Reeve's younger brother Benjamin. After the divorce the boys went to live with their mother in Princeton where they attended the illustrious Princeton Country School. Reeve kept himself busy. He was an excellent student and he also became known for his athleticism. He played piano and would later go on to study music theory, as well as English Literature, at Cornell University.

At the age of nine he discovered where his real passion lay when he was cast in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Yeoman of the Guard. Acting soon became his purpose in life. At sixteen he found an agent and while at Cornell he took a year out to travel to Europe, where he did his theatrical apprenticeship as a backstage observer at the Old Vic in London and at the Comedie-Francaise in Paris.

In his final year at university, he enrolled in the advanced drama programme at the Juillard School for Drama in New York. Ever the go-getter, he convinced his Dean of Studies at Cornell to let him enrol at Juillard in lieu of his final year at Cornell.

At Juillard, Reeve met Robin Williams with whom he became life long friends. A few years after his accident, Reeve revealed how Williams came to visit him in hospital as he lay on his bed alone.

"At an especially bleak moment, the door flew open and in hurried a squat fellow with a blue scrub hat and a yellow surgical gown and glasses, speaking in a Russian accent," Reeve wrote in his 1998 autobiography Still Me.

"For the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay."

In 1975 the newly-graduated actor got his first part on Broadway. He played the role of a grandson named Nicky opposite Katharine Hepburn in Enid Bagnold's A Matter of Gravity. The two became firm friends and though talk of a romance between the two was merely hearsay, Hepburn became something of a mother figure to the aspiring actor.

In 1978, Reeve played a bit part in a submarine disaster movie, Gray Lady Down. It was forgettable but it was nonetheless a movie and it gave him experience on the big screen. His next role was to be more successful.

The producers of Superman had seriously considered over two hundred actors for the lead role. They gave screen tests to ten but when they saw Reeve standing at over 6ft 4in tall, with his square jaw and his blue eyes they knew they had their man. He lacked only one thing, muscle, and because he refused to wear fake padding under his costume, he forced himself into a two month weight-lifting regime that saw him put on 30 lbs in weight and achieve the ideal Superman physique.

Superman's huge success made Reeve a star, but he found that producers now went to him only for action movies. He tried, somewhat in vain, to escape from the cape but inevitably he was drawn back to it with varying degrees of success. Over the next eight years, three more Supermans were made and by Superman IV, which Reeve described as a Richard Pryor comedy, he'd had enough.

As an actor Reeve was sometimes accused of being wooden and one dimensional. Perhaps that was the reason for his success as Superman.

"In a way, the stereotype of the wooden acting phenomenon actually helped to solidify the persona of Superman," says Pat Brereton, Head of Communications at Dublin City University and author of Hollywood Utopia: Ecology in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema.

"He was trans-human; able to perform robot-like stunts while being a brilliant extra-terrestrial but also a mere mortal. If he had too many expressive performative ticks, audiences might not have been able to connect with his superman persona. He would have been seen as too human in a way."

There were other movies during the 1980s and 1990s. He won critical acclaim for his part in The Bostonians (1984). He appeared in Remains of the Day (1993) which was nominated in eight Oscar categories. But he could never escape the bumbling Clark Kent and his heroic alter ego.

Thus, when his tragic accident occurred, headline writers across the globe announced that Superman would never walk again. He was determined to prove them wrong and vowed to be back on his feet by the age of fifty.

He now concentrated all his efforts on campaigns related to stem cell research and issues surrounding disabilities. In August 1996 he made the cover of Time magazine and he travelled the globe giving speeches on medical research.

Cinema was never far from his life though and in 1998 he produced and starred in a remake of Rear Window which saw him nominated for a Golden Globe.

Inevitably, Reeve's body began to attack him. On several occasions he had fought off infections that should have killed him but in early October 2004 he had a heart attack after he was given an antibiotic for an infected pressure ulcer. He died on October 10th 2004 aged 52.

Less than a year later, his wife Dana, who had nursed him throughout his illness, was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died on March 6th, 2006.

Sunday Independent

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