Christopher Reeve Biography

[Last updated October 12, 2004]

Chris Reeve Christopher Reeve was born September 25, 1952, in New York City. When he was four, his parents (journalist Barbara Johnson and writer/professor Franklin Reeve) divorced. His mother moved with sons Christopher and Benjamin to Princeton, New Jersey, and married an investment banker a few years later. After the divorce, the boys also spent substantial visitation time with their father, who writing under the name F. D. Reeve, is a noted novelist, poet, and scholar of Russian literature. While with him, Chris and Ben were exposed to a stimulating intellectual environment that included Sunday dinners with F. D. Reeve's friends: Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Meanwhile, Reeve's stepfather, Tristam Johnson, generously paid tuition for the boys to attend an exclusive private school, Princeton Day School, for the academic challenge.

Reeve traces his love of acting back to the early years of his childhood when he and his younger brother would climb inside cardboard grocery cartons and pretend they were pirate ships. "To us they became pirate ships simply because we said they were." Reeve continues with "The ability to retain at least some of this childhood innocence is essential to fine acting." By age eight, he had appeared in school plays, become interested in music, and was taking piano lessons. At age nine, he was picked to be in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Yeoman of the Guard for Princeton's professional theater, the McCarter Theatre. "While I was growing up," Reeve recalls, "I never once asked myself, 'Who am I?' or 'What am I doing?' Right from the beginning, the theater was like home to me. It seemed to be what I did best. I never doubted that I belonged in it." Those he worked with were convinced as well. Milton Lyon, the Artistic Director of the McCarter Theatre who did Finian's Rainbow and South Pacific with Reeve, told him when he was about 14 years old: "Chris, you better decide what you want, because you're going to get it." At Princeton Day School, Reeve participated in various school activities including being President of the Drama Club and the Student Director of The Glee Club. Reeve later said about those years, "I loved the theater so much. But I began to feel guility. I thought I wasn't giving enough time to school. So I joined as many school clubs and teams as I could. I played on the ice hockey team. I was in the school orchestra. I even sang with a choral group!" He continued getting parts at school and at the McCarter. At age 15, Reeve got a summer apprenticeship at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts. By age 16, he had an agent.

A teenage Chris Reeve After graduating high school, Reeve toured the country as Celeste Holm's leading man in The Irregular Verb to Love, then went on to pursue a college education, although he continued to work simultaneously as a professional actor, "thanks to an understanding agent who'd set up auditions and meetings around my class schedule." As part of his studies at Cornell University, where he majored in Music Theory and English, he spent time studying theater in Britain and France. Of his work in England, where he obtained employment as a "dogsbody" at London's prestigious Old Vic theater, Reeve said: "I was a glorified errand boy, but it was a very exciting time there. I helped by teaching the British actors to speak with an American accent. Then I went to Paris to work with the Comedie Francaise." By the time of his graduation from college, Reeve had already performed in such widely respected theaters as the Boothbay (Maine) Playhouse, the Williamstown Theatre, the San Diego Shakespeare Festival, and the Loeb Drama Center. His roles included Victor in Private Lives, Aeneas in Troilus and Cressida, Beliaev in A Month In The Country, and Macheath in Threepenny Opera.

In lieu of his final year at Cornell, Reeve was one of two students accepted to advanced standing (Robin Williams was the other) at New York's famous Juilliard School of Performing Arts. Here he studied under the renowned John Houseman. When it became financially difficult for his stepfather to continue to pay for Reeve's education, he took the role of Ben Harper in the long-running television dramatic serial Love of Life. While Reeve continued his acting lessons and performed in the soap opera, he found time to audition for and win a coveted role in A Matter of Gravity, a new play slated for Broadway starring Katharine Hepburn in 1976. By this time, the demands of his career had become so great that Reeve was forced to give up his final year at Juilliard, but Reeve said this of working with Hepburn: "In Gravity, I had the privilege of spending nine months working with one of the masters of the craft."

In 1976, Reeve went to Los Angeles and got a small part in Gray Lady Down, a submarine adventure film. Back in New York City, he was in the off-broadway production My Life. During that production, Reeve auditioned and successfully screen tested for the 1978 movie Superman. Reeve portrayed Superman as "somebody that, you know, you can invite home for dinner...someone you could introduce your parents to." He made Superman believable by playing him as a hero with brains and a heart. Reeve said, "What makes Superman a hero is not that he has power, but that he has the wisdom and the maturity to use the power wisely. From an acting point of view, that's how I approached the part." The 18 months of shooting for that movie took place mostly in England, where Reeve met and began a relationship with modeling executive Gae Exton. This union produced two children, Matthew and Alexandra.

After the success of 1978's Superman, Christopher Reeve did the movie Somewhere in Time. In 1980, he spent the summer doing theater in Williamstown. He worked on Superman II and the broadway production of Fifth of July. In 1987 Christopher Reeve and Gae Exton parted unmarried, but keeping joint custody of the two children. During the summer in Williamstown, Reeve met Dana Morosini where she was performing in a cabaret. In four months they were living together, and in 1992 they were married and had a son.

Reeve went on to appear in a total of 17 feature films, a dozen TV-movies, and about 150 plays. In addition, he has hosted or narrated numerous documentaries and TV specials, many of which involve interests of his such as aviation or stunt work. His striking good looks and imposing physique were reminisent of Hollywood's classic leading men like John Wayne who, after meeting Reeve at the 1979 Academy Awards, turned to Cary Grant and said: "This is our new man. He's taking over." But rather than limit himself to the heroic roles for which he seemed so well suited, Reeve frequently sought the challenge of parts that cast him against type--playing characters that were gay, sociopathic or villanous. He turned down big paychecks to appear in small films with directors like Sydney Lumet or James Ivory, whom he greatly respected and worked with in The Bostonians and The Remains of the Day. But he has always preferred the stage, considering it an actor's greatest test. In addition to his early stage work, Reeve appeared in The Marriage of Figaro in New York, Summer and Smoke with Christine Lahti in Los Angeles, and he toured with Love Letters in several major cities. He also starred in a well-received production of The Aspern Papers in London's West End with Vanessa Redgrave and Dame Wendy Hiller. But no matter what he was doing at the time, Reeve invariably made every effort to spend summers at the Williamstown Theater Festival.

Chris and wife Dana A born crusader, over the years Christopher Reeve has been involved with a number of charities and causes relating to the arts, environment, children, and human rights. A few of them are: Amnesty International, Save the Children, The National Resources Defense Council, The Lindbergh Foundation, The Environmental Air Force, and People for the American Way. He is a founding member and past president of the Creative Coalition, an advocacy group of artists, and has been one of the National Endowment For The Arts most passionate supporters. In 1987, he faced tear gas and real personal danger when Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman asked him to travel to Chile and lead a demonstration in support of 77 artists targeted with death warrants by the Pinochet government. For his successful efforts to free the artists, Reeve received a special Obie Award in 1988 and an annual award from the Walter Briehl Human Rights Foundation. The sobering experience also reinforced his commitment to advocacy work, which by the late 1980's was competing with his career for his time. Environmental issues have been of particular interest to Reeve. He addressed the United Nations to encourage the banning of drift net tuna fishing and he played a crucial role in securing a landmark agreement to protect the Hudson River and New York City's reservoir system.

Christopher Reeve has always approached recreation with the same dedication and intensity that he brought to his professional and advocacy work. In these activities as well as the rest of his life, Reeve sets obstacles for himself and then works to overcome them. He believes that progress in one's life comes from setting your own challenges and then doing the best you possibly can to succeed. An accomplished pianist, he composed and practiced classical music several hours each day and said in an interview that had he not been an actor, he would have liked to have been a professional musician. But Reeve was also a superb athlete who did his own stunts in films and an avid outdoorsman. He earned his pilot's license in his early twenties and twice flew solo across the Atlantic in a small plane. He also flew gliders and was an expert sailor, scuba diver, and skier. By the 1990's, horses had become his passion. He loved the sport called "eventing" which combined the precision of dressage with the excitement of cross-country and show jumping.

In May of 1995, it was during the cross-country portion of such an event in Culpeper, Virginia, that Reeve's Throughbred, Eastern Express, balked at a rail jump, pitching his rider forward. Reeve's hands were tangled in the horse's bridle and he landed head first, fracturing the uppermost vertebrae in his spine. Reeve was instantly paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe. Prompt medical attention saved his life and delicate surgery stabilized the shattered C1-C2 vertebrae and literally reattached Reeve's head to his spine.

After 6 months at Kessler Rehabilitation Institute in New Jersey, Reeve returned to his home in Bedford, New York, where Dana had begun major renovations to accomodate his needs and those of his electric wheelchair which he operates by sipping or puffing on a straw. Ironically, this most self-reliant and active of men was now facing life almost completely immobilized and dependent on others for his most basic needs. In addition, his condition puts him at constant risk for related illnesses--pneumonia, infections, blood clots, wounds that do not heal, and a dangerous condition involving blood pressure known as autonomic disreflexia--all of which Reeve would experience in the coming years.

Even while at Kessler, Christopher Reeve began to use the international interest in his situation to increase public awareness about spinal cord injury and to raise money for research into a cure. A 20/20 interview with Barbara Walters drew huge ratings and many other television appearances would follow. Never a man to turn from a challenge, Reeve accepted invitations to appear at the Academy Awards in 1996, to host the Paralympics in Atlanta, and to speak at the Democratic Convention in August of that year. At such high-profile appearances Reeve faces risk of embarrassment if he cannot speak because his tracheostomy tube is slightly out of position or if his body suddenly spasms and jerks about uncontrollably (as it did just before the curtain went up at the Oscars).

Still Me Despite enormous expenses related to his paralysis, Reeve is determined to be financially self-sufficient. A widespread rumor that his close friend, Robin Williams, had promised to pay all his medical bills was publicly denied by both Williams and Reeve. Less than a year after his injury, Reeve began to accept invitations for speaking engagements. Traveling with a team of aides and nurses he has crisscrossed the country, speaking at the Peter Lowe Success Seminars, at universities, benefits, and at many functions relating to disability issues. Reeve narrated an Emmy Award winning documentary for HBO called Without Pity: A Film About Abilities which sensitively told the stories of a half-dozen disabled people and also hosted a Canadian documentary about spinal cord injury called The Toughest Break. He returned to acting with a small but pivotol role in the CBS TV-movie A Step Toward Tomorrow in 1996, and that same year Reeve made his directorial debut with the critically acclaimed HBO film In the Gloaming starring his good friend Glenn Close. Gloaming went on to receive 5 Emmy nominations and was the most honored film at the Cable ACE Awards in 1997, winning awards in 4 of the 6 categories it was nominated including best "Dramatic or Theatrical Special". Dana Reeve describes In the Gloaming as "a godsend for Chris." She adds, "there's such a difference in his outlook, his health, his overall sense of well-being when he's working at what he loves, which is creative work - directing a movie, or acting in one. It completely revitalizes him and feeds him." At these times "his health is at an all-time high, his blood gases are good, he seems to cure skin wounds faster, he sleeps better, he looks better. It's noticeable - it's like being in love."

Reeve's activism since becoming spinal cord injured originally involved bringing more scientists into Neurology to more quickly discover a cure, along with doubling the budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a government agency in the executive branch that is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. His experiences with his own insurance company and, particularly, the experiences of other patients he had met at Kessler led him to push for legislation that would raise the limit on catastrophic injury health coverage from $1 million to $10 million. Reeve accepted the positions of Chairman of the American Paralysis Association and Vice Chairman of the National Organization on Disability. In partnership with philanthropist Joan Irvine Smith, he founded the Reeve-Irvine Research Center in California and he created the Christopher Reeve Foundation in 1996 to raise research money and provide grants to local agencies which focus on quality of life for the disabled. Reeve's star power, along with marketing for research dollars, are reasons why spinal cord injury research has been given greater attention and more money allocated to the cause. In 2000 Newsweek noted that, "Thanks to Christopher Reeve, spinal-cord injuries-which affect 250,000 Americans-have won great attention, while mass killers like lung cancer and stroke attract relatively less." Reeve has used the contacts he had made in Washington during his years of advocacy work to lead the fight to increase funding for spinal cord injury research which, despite recent breakthroughs by scientists, had previously received inadequate financial support. In May 1996, during a U.S. presidential election year, Reeve personally lobbied the Clintons in the Oval Office of the White House where they promised him an additional $10 million, that never materialized, to be allocated to the NIH for spinal cord injury research. His efforts in both the private and public sectors have met with considerable success both in raising money and awareness of the needs and desires of disabled people.

Modifications were completed on the Westchester County home Reeve shared with Dana and Will. Matthew and Alexandra visited with them when their school schedules allowed. The family continued its tradition of spending summers at the vacation home in Williamstown, Massachusetts after Reeve's accident. Reeve said: "This accident has been difficult for all of us. But it hasn't frightened anybody away. We all miss the activities. My daughter, Alexandra, and I loved to ride together. My son, Will, and I would play piano and sing together. Matthew and I loved to play tennis. We all used to sail together. I'd be kidding you if I said I didn't miss that. Ultimately, you have to accept that being together is more important than doing together."

In the years after his accident, Christopher Reeve gradually regained sensation in parts of his body--notably down the spine, in his left leg, and areas of the left arm. But he remained dependent on a ventilator to breathe and was unable to move any part of his body below the shoulders. His condition stabilized and in early 1998, after the taping of a television special to benefit his foundation, Reeve's wife, Dana, described him as "very healthy and very busy". His compelling autobiography, Still Me, was released in April 1998 and quickly hit the bestseller lists. "Writing the book," Reeve said, "was one of the highlights of my life, before and after the accident." Seven months later, critics praised his talent and courage when Reeve reclaimed his leading-man status by starring in an updated version of Rear Window for ABC.

Reeve continued to schedule many speaking engagements and ambitiously raise money for spinal cord injury research while looking to the future with characteristic enthusiasm saying: "My spinal cord is ready below the injury. I'm realistically optimistic. I don't plan to spend the rest of my life like this." Four hours of physical therapy a day has made possible Reeve recovering the movement of an index finger, wrist and thumb. Lobbying for highly controversial research using human embryos for embryonic stem cell research and cloning has become central to Reeve over more conventional research advancing like axon regeneration and nerve growth. Reeve said, "...I have a creative life and a political life, and they're both equally important." Reeve's oldest son, Matthew Exton Reeve, entered Brown University in 1999 majoring in art semiotics and in May 2002 graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Matthew is also documenting his father's progress in recovery for three television specials he directed premiering in 2002 and 2003 with the first special airing around Reeve's 50th birthday. Reeve's daughter Alexandra, in 2001, entered Yale University in Connecticut and joined the Yale Polo Squad. Creatively, Reeve had in the works movie projects to direct for ABC television on the inspirational lives of Jeffrey Galli, Brooke Ellison, and Robert McCrum. He also was the Creative Consultant for Freedom: A History of US, a 16-part miniseries on public television about American freedom that aired in early 2003. On May 3, 2002 the U.S. government opened the National Health Promotion and Information Center for People With Paralysis, known as the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center through a non-competitive cooperative agreement awarded to the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. CRPF was designated in 2000 to establish the center through a line item in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget and officially named the recipient of the cooperative agreement in May 2001. The official purpose of the center is to develop and expand national efforts for the prevention of secondary conditions and complications, and to improve outcomes and the quality of life for people living with paralysis from multiple causes.

Sadly Christopher Reeve died while in coma after going into Cardiac Arrest on Sunday, October 10th.

Reeve was being treated at Northern Westchester Hospital for a pressure wound that he developed, a common complication for people with paralysis. In the week leading up to his death, the wound had become severely infected, resulting in a serious systemic infection.

"On behalf of my entire family, I want to thank Northern Westchester Hospital for the excellent care they provided to my husband," Dana Reeve, his widow, said in a statement. "I also want to thank his personal staff of nurses and aides, as well as the millions of fans from around the world who have supported and loved my husband over the years."



Sources:
  • DC Comics's Superman The Movie Magazine 1978.
  • The Making of Superman by David Michael Petrou 1978.
  • Playgirl January 1979.
  • DC Comic's Superman II The Movie Magazine 1981.
  • The Christopher Reeve Scrapbook by Margery Steinberg 1981.
  • The Great Superman Movie Book 1983.
  • A&E's Biography This Week October 21, 1995.
  • Mr. Showbiz Celeb Site: Christopher Reeve.
  • Man of Steel: The Career and Courage of Christopher Reeve by Adrian Havill 1996.
  • TIME Magazine New Hopes, New Dreams August 26, 1996.
  • Bravo TV Inside the Actors Studio Interview with Christopher Reeve February 26, 1997.
  • TV Guide A New Direction by Gini Sikes April 19, 1997.
  • American Physical Therapy Association Inc. Nothing Is Impossible June 1997.
  • National Organization on Disability Press Release Christopher Reeve Named Vice Chairman Of The National Organization On Disability" June 3, 1997.
  • USA Today Reeve's Special Night Raises Hope February 3, 1998 .
  • Army Archerd column - February 13, 1998.
  • TIME Magazine People: Charm Intact May 25, 1998.
  • Tech Museum of Innovation - Christopher Reeve August 6, 1998.
  • Still Me by Christopher Reeve.
  • Women in the Know Speak Out - December 1, 1998: "Interview with Dana Reeve".

In July, 1996 an unauthorized biography Man of Steel - The Career and Courage of Christopher Reeve by Adrian Havill was published by Signet Books. The book includes photos and a listing of what Christopher Reeve has appeared in.