Christopher D'Olier Reeve (September 25, 1952 - October 10, 2004) was an American actor whose most famous role was Clark Kent / Superman, and who showed that brilliant acting has a valuable place even in special-effect-heavy fantasy films like the Super Hero genre, but ended up being much more than that.
Originally from New York City, he initially studied at Juillard's theatrical arts program with his roommate Robin Williams (with whom he became lifelong friends), but eventually graduated from Cornell. His major professional gigs were simultaneously in the Soap Opera, Love Of Life and in the Broadway play, A Matter of Gravity. In the latter, he became a close enough friend to the play's star, Katharine Hepburn, to get the gossip columns fluttering (despite the fact that she was old enough to be his mother). Eventually, he left and eventually appeared in his first Hollywood film, Gray Lady Down.
His most famous role came after the producers had a frustrating hunt for the Super Hero and Reeve himself was rejected three times before director Richard Donner and producer Ilya Salkind finally had a face to face meeting with this unknown actor. At that, he was signed on with an exercise regime supervised by David Prowse (better known to the world as the guy wearing the Darth Vader costume). In the film, Reeve proved a more valuable asset than anyone could have guessed with such skill making the world feel that they could believe a man could fly considering he piloted a glider for a hobby and thus knew how to make his flying scenes seem real. Even more amazingly, Reeve showed that Clark Kenting can really seem to work if you are a good enough actor. At that, Reeve instantly eclipsed his top billed co-stars, Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, as the true star of Superman and a leading light of the rise of the modern fantasy film. For instance, after the The Muppet Show did their gloriously wacky Star Wars episode, the only way to follow up on that classic was to have the other contemporary fantasy superstar, Reeve, do the next one.
After the success of the first two Superman films it appeared that Reeve was poised to become one of Hollywood's next great leading men (John Wayne himself reportedly proclaimed him as such), but his career unfortunately proved turbulent with his artistic standards and desire for roles that would help offset any potential Superman typecasting leading him to turn down roles in American Gigolo, The World According to Garp, Splash, Fatal Attraction, Pretty Woman, Romancing the Stone, Lethal Weapon and Body Heat. Instead he starred in a mixed bag of films like Somewhere in Time, Street Smart, The Remains of the Day and Village of the Damned (1995), while the Superman series was gradually misused by the producers who dismissed Donner and replaced him with Richard Lester, who had a fatal contempt for the comics, which drove the franchise into the ground. His villainous role in Deathtrap is probably Reeve's best non-Superman performance.
Even his real life had heroic moments such as when he went to Chile, which was under the murderous tyranny of Augusto Pinochet, to help a group of artists that were under arrest. Later, he appeared in commercials for the 1988 referendum for the "No" side to urge the people to vote to strip the dictator of his power, which can be seen in the Academy Award-nominated Chilean film No.
On May 27, 1995, Reeve had a serious horseriding accident that led to a catastrophic spinal cord injury, rendering him quadriplegic. However, with the help of his wife and Williams, Reeve refused to surrender to his despair and became a universally hailed advocate for spinal cord research and the disabled. He even continued in his artistic career under the circumstances as a director and even starred in a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window on TV and guest appearances on Smallville.
Sadly, he died on October 10, 2004 at the age of 52, after being treated for an infected pressure ulcer a day earlier. At the end, he was hailed as a hero who never needed a cape after all.
Christopher Reeve and his works provide examples of:
- Disabled Character, Disabled Actor: After his accident, all of his roles became this trope by necessity. He was, though, the original inspiration for the creation of the trope page.
- I Am Not Spock: He was just starting to escape his role as Superman. A new generation of moviegoers was just coming up and most of them hadn't seen that movie. Then he gets crippled and the newspapers can't say anything but "best known for his role as Superman".
- Large Ham: Although he's primarily known for nuanced dramatic performances, he'd occasionally show off a sillier side and overact his heart out to get a laugh (his performance of Hamlet on The Muppet Show being a good example).
- Posthumous Credit: Despite his 2004 death, Reeve still managed to get a posthumous directorial credit for Everyone's Hero.
- Star-Derailing Role: In his autobiography, Still Me, Reeve claims that the failure of Switching Channels., along with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, The Aviator, and Street Smart (which he in part agreed to do Superman IV under the condition that he was allowed to star in this long time "pet project" of his), knocked him off the A-list in Hollywood and he would have to audition for major roles for the rest of his career. Reeve also expressed regret in making Switching Channels (Reeve took on the role because he felt that making a comedy would be a good distraction from the depression steaming from his split with his longtime girlfriend, Gae Exton), believing that he had "made a fool of himself" (Reeve played decidedly against type as Kathleen Turner's hapless fiancé) and had to act as a referee for constantly feuding costars Turner and Burt Reynolds. During his career, Reeve also turned down the lead roles in American Gigolo, The World According to Garp, Splash, Fatal Attraction, Pretty Woman, Romancing the Stone, Lethal Weapon, and Body Heat. Reeve even turned down the lead role in The Bounty after Katharine Hepburn recommended him to the director, Roger Donaldson, who ultimately went with his second choice, Mel Gibson.