When considering that this week would have been Christopher Reeve’s 66th birthday, we find ourselves reflecting on an interview he gave in which a reporter asked, “How do you define a hero?” Christopher considered the question a moment before responding. Finally he noted, “For me, personally, a hero is somebody who will make sacrifices for others without expecting a reward.”
“Superman is all that,” mused the interviewer.
“That’s what I try to play,” Christopher replied.
Then came the biggie: “How about Christopher Reeve? Is he a hero?”
The answer was an honest one. “I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t start leaping to those conclusions.”
Thankfully, the rest of the world can and did, given the global response to the actor’s passing on Oct. 10, 2004, nearly a decade after the horseback riding accident that paralyzed him from the neck down. Lesser men might have given up, but Christopher — following the initial realization that he would likely never walk again — began an effort that he carried through on until his final days. Together with his wife Dana Reeve, who would subsequently pass away from breast cancer in 2006, he began The Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center, a New Jersey facility dedicated to teaching independence to paralyzed people. Additionally, they created the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, which funds research on a cure for paralysis and for which the actor tirelessly lobbied congress for additional funds for research. The Foundation ultimately received $55 million in research grants and $7.5 million in quality-of-life grants.
So, Christopher Reeve a hero? Many would say that he genuinely embodied the word.
Born on Sept. 25, 1952, he attended Cornell University as a member of the class of 1974, though he transferred over to Julliard Drama School and studied under the late John Houseman. In 1975, he co-starred with Katharine Hepburn in the Broadway play A Matter Of Gravity, a show he remained with for its full one-year run. Other stage roles followed, as did a stint on the soap opera Love of Life and the feature film Gray Lady Down (1977). Naturally, it was his being cast as the Man of Steel in 1978’s Superman: The Movie that would transform his career and his life.
Director Richard Donner, who ultimately cast Christopher in the dual roles of Clark Kent and Superman, explained that the casting process on the first film was pretty much a nightmare.
“We had seen just about every actor imaginable, from television to motion pictures to everything else,” he recalled. “Nobody fit the costume. Nobody could fly. If you saw Robert Redford flying, it would be Robert Redford flying. There was no sense of reality. That was the key to it, the flying. You had to believe that a man could fly. I tested quite a few of the actors, but nothing worked. The producers even sent over their dentist. I swear to God that’s true.”
Script Consultant Tom Mankiewicz added, “We didn’t know who would possibly play Superman. We had Jon Voight in the wings for a lot of money while we were trying to find somebody.”
Things were looking pretty hopeless until Christopher walked into the casting office. “I met Christopher Reeve in New York,” reflected Donner. “I had gotten a call from someone who said, ‘There’s a kid who’s terrific. Would you like to see him?’ He was about 20 or 30 pounds lighter, his hair was a sandy color and he had dressed in the burliest clothes he could find to make him look good. He just had this great look and I gave him my glasses to wear and he looked so much like the part it was unbelievable. Nobody wanted to go with him because he was an unknown, but the idea to me was that we should go with an unknown so that you could make it believable. It ended up just that.”
“I still have photos from his screentest,” he warmly added. “He was this string bean, this skinny, skinny kid in blue leotards with an ‘S’ cut into the front of it, sweat pouring out from his arms, and black shoe polish on his hair to give it a black look. But he swore to me he was an athlete and that he could put on weight and build up, so we hired him. We gave him a given amount of time, set him up with this Olympic body trainer and poured all kinds of protein into him, and one day he flew in to our office and was perfect.”
Upon the film’s release in 1978, the actor explained his views on the character to the late movie critic Gene Siskel. “The key word for me on him is ‘inspiration,’” said Christopher. “He is a leader by inspiration. He sets an example. It’s quite important that people realize that I don’t see him as a glad-handing show-off; a one-man vigilante force who rights every wrong. Basically, he’s a pacifist, a man who comes along and says, ‘What can I do to help?’ He stands on the sidelines until there is real trouble. He does not want to get involved unless it’s absolutely necessary, because he thinks people should learn to make their own decisions.”
Noted Donner, “People often asked me, ‘Where did you find Christopher Reeve?’ I say, ‘I didn’t find him. God gave him to me.’”
And Christopher — both on screen and off — gave several generations of fans the belief that a man could fly.
Scroll down for a look back at Christopher Reeve’s film career!