He was born in New York City to a journalist (his mother) and a teacher, novelist and poet (his father), but his parents divorced when he was just four years old and he lived with his mother in Princeton, New Jersey thereafter. He was sent to an elite and highly selective private school where he excelled academically, on the sports field and on stage, gaining his first role, aged nine, in an amateur production of ‘The Yeoman of the Guard’. He went on to act in many student plays, with his height and mature looks giving him an advantage over other actors in gaining certain older roles.
He was such a talented young man that he was accepted into an array of elite American universities: Brown, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, Cornell, Northwestern, and Princeton. He opted for Cornell, where he joined the theatre department and was so adept in a range of roles, from Pozzo in ‘Waiting for Godot’ to Hamlet in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’, that before he had completed his first year of university he was head-hunted by a high powered agent named Stark Hesseltine, who represented such greats as Robert Redford, Susan Sarandon and Michael Douglas. However, Reeve wanted to pursue his studies, so he made an arrangement to visit New York once a month to meet with producers and casting directors so he could gain work during the summer vacation. In fact, he secured a part in a touring summer production of ‘Forty Carats’ alongside Eleanor Parker.
By his third year of university, he was so besotted with acting that he took a three-month sabbatical to tour the UK watching plays and talking with actors, even helping some with honing their American accents. He then went to Paris, he spoke French fluently of course, and immersed himself in the culture and attended many stage productions.
On his return to the US he had decided that acting was the only thing he wanted to do, and he utilised all his charisma and charm to convince the right people that he would make a first year at Juilliard (possibly the most highly regarded performing arts school in the US) count as the final year of his Cornell degree, thus securing his undergraduate degree. In 1973, Reeve was one of only two students accepted for Juilliard’s advance programme. The other was none other than Robin Williams, and the two became great friends.
By 1975 he was in his first professional show, appearing on stage alongside Katharine Hepburn in ‘A Matter of Gravity’. Unfortunately he did not have the greatest of entrances, although it was certainly a memorable one. He was such a dedicated and busy student that he did not put any time into eating, but instead lived off an on-the-go diet coffee and sweets (candy), sending his blood sugar spiking and troughing constantly. By the time he stepped on stage for his first performance, he was so malnourished that he managed to utter only one line before collapsing. Hepburn is then said to have turned to the audience and exclaimed: ”This boy’s a goddamn fool. He doesn’t eat enough red meat.”
To most people Reeve is synonymous with Superman. He was the first to play the role on the big screen and he moved so effortlessly from being the geeky Clark Kent to the utterly confident superhero, that it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role, although several have tried. But his route there was not quite as simple as his on-screen persona made the role appear.
The film’s casting director had to put Reeve’s resume on the top of the pile on three separate occasions only for it to be cast aside by the producers each time. With enough persistence, and a lot of pleading and persuasion, she managed to secure Reeve a meeting with the producer and director and following that a screen-test in London, which immediately got him the part. But he was a very skinny 6’4” and did not look anything like a superhero. He had an intensive two-month training regimen given to him by David Prowse, the 6’6” bodybuilder and weightlifter who went on to play the role of Darth Vader in the Star Wars trilogy. This training including a morning run, two hours of weight training and and then ninety minutes of trampolining. Reeve added 14 kg / 30 lbs to his slender frame.
Reeve felt that it was important to show the superhero’s vulnerable and tender side, and in fact based his portrayal on Cary Grant’s performance in ‘Bringing Up Baby’. He was also well aware of Superman’s uniqueness in the comic-book world in that his natural state is the superhero, but he has to play at being his alter-ego, Clark Kent; Reeve plays Superman playing Kent.
He was a keen horserider, but tragically fell in 1995 resulting in a cervical spinal injury that caused him to become a quadriplegic, unable to walk or even breathe for himself. After a period of convalescence in which he seriously considered asking his wife to let him slip away from this life, he became a new man and his character shone through. He became a vocal and dedicated advocate of stem cell research and was elected as Chairman of the American Paralysis Association and Vice Chairman of the National Organization on Disability, even founding his own research centre with partner U.C. Irvine who said of Reeve that he “did more to promote research on spinal cord injury and other neurological disorders than any other person before or since”. He also lobbied government for funding, spoke personally with and encouraged patients who had suffered catastrophic injuries.
Reeve also spoke out about the need for Hollywood to make movies about the really important and current issues in life. He spoke at many events, hosted the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta, and even appeared on Time Magazine.
He went on to write novels and screenplays, produced and directed, and even returned to acting, winning awards for all these disciplines. And all the while putting in hours of work every day towards physical therapy because he believed that he could rewaken his nervous system, and indeed one day he was able to move his index finger again.
Christopher Reeve played a fictional beacon of hope for humanity in his screen persona as Superman, and then a devastating life event, making redundant his superhero body, transformed him into a real-world beacon of hope for people around the world. He was a gentleman on and off the screen and a force for good. We salute him!