Christopher D'Olier Reeve (September 25, 1952 - October 10, 2004) was an American actor best-known for portraying Clark Kent / Superman. In a professional sense he showed that brilliant acting always has its place — even in special-effect-heavy fantasy films like the superhero genre — but also left behind an awesome personal legacy of perseverance and advocacy.
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.
While it would become his Star-Making Role, Reeve was rejected three times for the role of Superman during the producers' frustrating hunt for the Super Hero. It wasn't until his face-to-face meeting with director Richard Donner and producer Ilya Salkind that he was chosen. Even then, 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: as a hobby, Reeve piloted a glider; this made his "flying" scenes feel realistic. Even more amazingly, Reeve demonstrated the plausibility of Clark Kenting when practiced by a good enough actor. Both skills, as well as general acting prowess, allowed Reeve to instantly eclipsed his top-billed co-stars Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman as the true star of Superman. Overnight, he became the 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). However, his career unfortunately proved turbulent. His artistic standards and his desire to avoid typecasting led 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). At the same time, the Superman series was gradually cheapened by producers who dismissed Donner and replaced him with Richard Lester; Lester's fatal contempt for the comics eventually drove the franchise into the ground. His villainous role in Deathtrap is generally highlighted as Reeve's best non-Superman performance.
Even his real life had heroic moments: he once went to Chile, which was under the murderous tyranny of Augusto Pinochet, to help a group of arrested artists. Later, he appeared in commercials for the 1988 referendum to urge the people to vote for the "No" side and strip the dictator of his power (this can be seen in the Academy Award-nominated Chilean film No).
On May 27, 1995, Reeve had a serious horseriding accident. This accident led to a catastrophic spinal cord injury, rendering him quadriplegic. However, with the support of his wife and long-time friends like Williams, Reeve refused to surrender to his despair and instead went on to become a universally hailed advocate for spinal cord research and the disabled. He continued his career as a director, as well as starred in a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window on TV and later made a guest appearances on Smallville.
Sadly, he died on October 10, 2004 at the age of 52, a day after being treated for an infected pressure ulcer. Before and since his death, he has been praised as a hero without a cape.
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.
- He Really Can Act: Before Reeve's portayal, the idea no one recognized Superman was Clark Kent without his glasses was a running joke. Reeve showed exactly how it could work, and has since been incorporated into every later portrayal.
- 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.
- Tough Act to Follow: His portrayal of Superman is widely considered the best take on the character. To this day, many compare all of the alien's later actors to Reeve's performance to measure how well their portrayal is.
- What Could Have Been:
- During the height of his career, Reeve 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 was originally slated for the lead role in The Bounty after Katharine Hepburn recommended him to David Lean (the original director of the project) but Reeve dropped out at the last minute and was replaced by Mel Gibson.
- During his post-injury career, he had accepted the role of Mason Verger in Hannibal and was enthusiastic about the opportunity. But — not having read the book beforehand — when he found out that he was to play a facially disfigured child rapist, he withdrew from the project in disgust.