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Reeve, Christopher

Category: Performer

Dana and Christopher Reeve

Christopher D'Olier Reeve (September 25, 1952 – October 10, 2004) was an American actor, film director, producer, screenwriter, author, environmental campaigner and activist.

Reeve achieved stardom for his acting achievements, in particular his motion picture portrayal of the comic book superhero Superman.  However, he also appeared in other critically acclaimed films such as Street Smart (1987) and The Remains of the Day (1993). He received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the television remake of Rear Window (1998).  In 1997, Reeve made his directorial debut with the HBO film In the Gloaming with Robert Sean Leonard, Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Bridget Fonda and David Strathairn. The film won four Cable Ace Awards and was nominated for five Emmy Awards including "Outstanding Director for a Miniseries or Special."

 

On May 27, 1995, Reeve became a quadriplegic after being thrown from a horse during an equestrian competition in Culpeper, Virginia. He was confined to a wheelchair and required a portable ventilator.

He spent the rest of his life, campaigning on behalf of people with spinal cord injuries and for human embryonic stem cell research, founding the Christopher Reeve Foundation and co-founding the Reeve-Irvine Research Center.

His wife, Dana Reeve, headed the Christopher Reeve Foundation after his death. She was diagnosed with lung cancer on August 9, 2005, and died at age 44 on March 6, 2006.  They were survived by their son, William, and Reeve's son Matthew and daughter Alexandra, both from his relationship with Gae Exton. Matthew and Alexandra now serve on the board of directors for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.

Matthew Reeve, Alexandra Reeve Givens and Will Reeve

Before the accident

At the time he auditioned for Superman and although standing 6'4" (193 cm), Reeve was a self-described "skinny WASP."  He was by this time a talented all-around athlete, blue eyed with handsome features, but he needed to look the part so he went through an intense two-month training regimen supervised by former British weightlifting champion David Prowse, who played Darth Vader in the original Star Wars films.

 

The training regimen consisted of running in the morning, followed by two hours of weightlifting and ninety minutes on the trampoline. In addition, Reeve doubled his food intake and adopted a high protein diet. He added thirty pounds (14 kg) of muscle to his thin 189 pound (86 kg) frame. He later made even higher gains for Superman III (1983).

Reeve was also a licensed pilot and flew solo across the Atlantic twice. During the filming of Superman III, he raced his sailplane in his free time. He joined The Tiger Club, a group of aviators who had served in the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain. They let him participate in mock dogfights in vintage World War I combat planes. The producers of the film The Aviator approached him without knowing that he was a pilot and that he knew how to fly a Stearman, the plane used in the film. Reeve readily accepted the role. The film was shot in Kranjska Gora, and Reeve did all of his stunts.

In the late 1980s, Reeve became even more active. He was taking horse-riding lessons, and trained five to six days a week for competition in combined training events. He built a sailboat, The Sea Angel, and sailed from the Chesapeake to Nova Scotia.

But, even before the accident, Reeve used his celebrity status for several philanthropic causes. Through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, he visited terminally ill children and he joined the Board of Directors for the worldwide charity Save the Children.

 

He served as a board member for the Charles Lindbergh Fund, which promotes environmentally safe technologies. He lent support to causes such as Amnesty International, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and People for the American Way.

He joined the Environmental Air Force, and used his Cheyenne II turboprop plane to take government officials and journalists over areas of environmental damage.  He also received the Obie Prize and the Annual Walter Brielh Human Rights Foundation award. Reeve's friend Ron Silver later started the Creative Coalition, an organization designed to teach celebrities how to speak knowledgeably about political issues. Reeve was an early member of the group, along with Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, and Blythe Danner.

In 1994, Reeve was elected as a co-president of the Creative Coalition. The organization's work was noticed nationwide, and Reeve was asked by the Democratic Party to run for the United States Congress. He replied, "Run for Congress? And lose my influence in Washington?"

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was released in 1987. After Superman III, Reeve vowed that he was done with Superman. However, he accepted the role on the condition that he would have partial creative control over the script. The nuclear disarmament plot was his idea. The film was both a critical failure and a box-office disappointment, becoming the lowest-grossing Superman film to date. A sad reflection of our times, but no reflection on Christopher.

But you can see from this that there was a gentler inner man – a man of kindness, ‘innocence’, vulnerability and good intentions – the perfect Superman in fact, showing that the body is not the man.

The accident

Fate and destiny are strange partners.  Shortly before his accident, Reeve played a paralyzed police officer in the HBO special Above Suspicion. He did research at a rehabilitation hospital in Van Nuys, and learned how to use a wheelchair to get in and out of cars.

Reeve began his involvement in horse riding in 1985 after learning to ride for the film Anna Karenina. He trained on Martha's Vineyard, and by 1989 he began eventing.


 

Reeve bought a 12-year-old American thoroughbred horse named Eastern Express, nicknamed "Buck", while filming Village of the Damned. He trained with Buck in 1994, and planned to do Training Level events in 1995 and move up to Preliminary in 1996. Though Reeve had originally signed up to compete at an event in Vermont, his coach invited him to go to the Commonwealth Dressage and Combined Training Association finals at the Commonwealth Park equestrian center in Culpeper, Virginia. Reeve finished at fourth place out of 27 in the dressage, before walking his cross-country course. He was concerned about jumps 16 and 17, but paid little attention to the third jump, which was a routine three-foot-three fence shaped like the letter 'W'.

On May 27, 1995, Reeve's horse made a refusal. Witnesses said that the horse began the third fence jump and suddenly stopped. Reeve fell forward off the horse, holding on to the reins. His hands somehow became tangled in the reins, and the bridle and bit were pulled off the horse. He landed headfirst on the far side of the fence, shattering his first and second vertebrae. This cervical spinal injury, which paralyzed him from the neck down, also halted his breathing. Paramedics arrived three minutes later and immediately took measures to get air into his lungs. He was taken first to the local hospital, before being flown on by helicopter to the University of Virginia Medical Center.

For the first few days after the accident, Reeve suffered from delirium, woke up sporadically and would mouth words to Dana such as "Get the gun" and "They're after us." After five days, he regained full consciousness, and his doctor explained to him that he had destroyed his first and second cervical vertebrae, which meant that his skull and spine were not connected. His lungs were filling with fluid and were suctioned by entry through the throat; this was said to be the most painful part of Reeve's recovery.

Rehabilitation

I would like you to now imagine the inner reserves of courage needed to go through this.  This is what an actual superman does.  But supermen are often helped by the friendship and companionship, love and caring support of their children, their wives and husbands, their friends and their helpers.

After considering his situation, believing that not only would he never walk again, but that he might never move a body part again, Reeve considered suicide. He mouthed to Dana, "Maybe we should let me go." She tearfully replied, "I am only going to say this once: I will support whatever you want to do, because this is your life, and your decision. But I want you to know that I'll be with you for the long haul, no matter what. You're still you. And I love you." Reeve never considered this as an option again.

Reeve went through inner anguish in the ICU, particularly when he was alone during the night. His approaching operation to reattach his skull to his spine (June 1995) "was frightening to contemplate. ... I already knew that I had only a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the surgery. ... Then, 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." The man announced that he was a proctologist and was going to perform a rectal exam on Reeve. It was Robin Williams, reprising his character from the film Nine Months. Reeve wrote: "For the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay."

Dr. John A. Jane performed surgery to repair Reeve's neck vertebrae. He put wires underneath both laminae and used bone from Reeve's hip to fit between the C1 and C2 vertebrae. He inserted a titanium pin and fused the wires with the vertebrae, then drilled holes in Reeve's skull and fitted the wires through to secure the skull to the spinal column.

On June 28, 1995, Reeve was taken to the Kessler Rehabilitation Center in West Orange, New Jersey. He was given several blood transfusions in the first few weeks because of very low hemoglobin and protein levels. Many times his breathing tube would become disconnected and he would be at the mercy of nurses to come in and save his life.

At the Institute, one of his aides was a Jamaican man named Glenn Miller, nicknamed Juice, who helped him learn how to get into the shower and how to use a powered wheelchair, which was activated by blowing air through a straw.

Activism

Reeve left Kessler feeling inspired by the other patients he had met and enormously grateful for the care he had received. Because he was constantly being covered by the media, he decided to use his name to put focus on spinal cord injuries.

In 1996, he appeared at the Academy Awards to a long standing ovation and gave a speech about Hollywood's duty to make movies that face the world's most important issues head-on. He also hosted the Paralympics in Atlanta and spoke at the Democratic National Convention. He travelled across the country to make speeches, never needing a teleprompter or a script. In the same year, he narrated the HBO film Without Pity: A Film About Abilities. The film won the Emmy Award for "Outstanding Informational Special."

Reeve was elected Chairman of the American Paralysis Association and Vice Chairman of the National Organization on Disability. He co-founded the Reeve-Irvine Research Center, which is now one of the leading spinal cord research centres in the world.

He created the Christopher Reeve Foundation (currently known as the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation) to speed up research through funding, and to use grants to improve the quality of the lives of people with disabilities. The Foundation to date has given more than $65 million for research, and more than $8.5 million in quality-of-life grants. The Foundation has funded a new technology called "Locomotor Training" that uses a treadmill to mimic the movements of walking to help develop neural connections, in effect re-teaching the spinal cord how to send signals to the legs to walk.

Of Christopher Reeve, UC Irvine said, "in the years following his injury, Christopher did more to promote research on spinal cord injury and other neurological disorders than any other person before or since."

Throughout this time, Reeve kept his body as physically strong as possible by using specialized exercise machines. He did this both because he believed that the nervous system could be regenerated through intense physical therapy, and because he wanted his body to be strong enough to support itself if a cure was found. In 2000, he began to regain some motor function, and was able to sense hot and cold temperatures on his body. His doctor, John McDonald of Washington University in St. Louis, asked him if anything was new with his recovery. Reeve then moved his left index finger on command.

 "I don't think Dr. McDonald would have been more surprised if I had just walked on water," said Reeve in an interview.

In 2001, Reeve was elected to serve on the board of directors for the company TechHealth, headquartered in Tampa, Florida, which provided products and services for severely injured patients. While serving on the TechHealth board, Reeve participated in board meetings and advised the company on strategic direction. He refused compensation. He made phone calls to the company's catastrophically injured patients to cheer them up. Reeve served on TechHealth's board until his death in 2004.

In 2002, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Centre was opened in Short Hills, New Jersey. Its mission is to teach paralyzed people to live more independently. Reeve said

"When somebody is first injured or as a disease progresses into paralysis, people don't know where to turn. Dana and I wanted a facility that could give support and information to people. With this new Center, we're off to an amazing start."

Death

 

In early October 2004, Reeve was being treated for an infected pressure ulcer that was causing sepsis, a complication that he had experienced many times before. On October 9, Reeve felt well and attended his son Will's hockey game. That night, he went into cardiac arrest after receiving an antibiotic for the infection. He fell into a coma and was taken to Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, New York. Eighteen hours later, on October 10, 2004, Reeve died at the age of 52.  His doctor, John McDonald, believed that it was an adverse reaction to the antibiotic that caused his death.

In conclusion

No one can imagine what it must have meant for someone like Christopher to go from being an adventurous active man to a complete invalid.  Reeve had excelled academically and athletically, at school.  He played soccer, baseball, tennis and hockey. But he was no mystic or poet, not someone who could retire into his dreams after the accident.  He was briefly involved with Scientology, but it was a very passing phase, quickly rejected.  But he had one thing in his character that probably saved him and his sanity once he became paralysed.  He cared about other people more than himself.

On the plane ride to London for his audition for Superman, he imagined how his approach to the role ought to be. He later said,

"By the late 1970s the masculine image had changed... Now it was acceptable for a man to show gentleness and vulnerability. I felt that the new Superman ought to reflect that contemporary male image."

Gentleness and vulnerability.  Two gifts from heaven.  And as we have seen kindness and love of his fellow man.  And the critics did notice:

Newsweek
Christopher Reeve's entire performance is a delight. Ridiculously good-looking, with a face as sharp and strong as an ax blade, his bumbling, fumbling Clark Kent and omnipotent Superman are simply two styles of gallantry and innocence."

And he wasn’t really acting.

References

On April 25, 1998, Reeve's autobiography, Still Me was published. The book spent eleven weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list and Reeve won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album.

In April 2004, Reeve's second book, Nothing Is Impossible was published. This book is shorter than Still Me and focuses on Reeve's world views and the life experiences that helped him shape them.

Observations

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