Everyone knows Christopher Reeve as one of the greatest Supermans, but they also know him because of the tragedy he lived through and the man it made him. Grab some tissues as we recall everything about this hero’s unbelievable life: The good, the bad, and the downright catastrophic.
1. He Had A Broken Family
Born in New York City, in 1952, Christopher D’Olier Reeve was only four years old when life threw him his first curveball—one of many. His mom and dad decided to go their separate ways, and little Chris moved with his mom and younger brother to Princeton, New Jersey. As such, Reeve’s relationship with his father suffered. However, despite the resulting turmoil in his family, he focussed his sights on promising new horizons.
2. He Was A Smart Cookie
Not only did young Reeve excel in academics and athletics, but he also discovered a love for the performing arts. He got top grades, played in all the sports teams, and was only nine years old when he acted in an amateur production of The Yeoman of the Guard. After interning at a theater festival a few years later, he knew this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life…But it wouldn’t be as simple as he thought.
3. He Made A Promise
Reeve wanted to pursue a Broadway career as soon as he graduated from high school, but one glaring obligation stood in the way of his dreams: He’d already promised his mother that he’d get a college education. With his goals on the backburner, Reeve suited up for Cornell where he became a standout star in the theater department.
Just after starting, however, he caught the eye of a New York agent who recognized every ounce of Reeve’s burgeoning talent. With this kind of attention, the aspiring actor fought the urge to ditch school completely. Luckily, the interested agent offered him a sage piece of advice that changed his life forever.
4. He Shook Things Up
The New York agent convinced Reeve to stick with his studies but also pursue theater in his spare time. From then on, Reeve dedicated every summer to professional theatrical productions, and after a mind-blowing European trip, he decided to shake things up a bit. He wanted to finish his last year of college at Juilliard. And it was here that he met another actor destined for fame.
5. He Did Very Well
Reeve was one of two people selected for Juilliard’s Advanced program. The second was none other than Robin Williams. The pair became very close friends in college and stayed in touch after their time at Juilliard was over. Reeve felt excited to start his professional life and immediately started auditioning for Broadway after school was over.
He’d get an opportunity to shine very soon, and opposite a most formidable star.
6. Lady Luck Smiled At Him
Of course, you need talent to act onstage, but you also need a measure of good luck. Fortunately, Reeve had both. He was a natural-born performer and his undeniable charisma brought him to Katherine Hepburn’s attention. This Hollywood legend went on to cast him for the role of her grandson on Broadway’s A Matter of Gravity. But that wasn’t the only thing she did for him.
7. He Got An Amazing Opportunity
Reeve didn’t want to miss any opportunity to do the work he loved. So, when CBS offered him a role in the soap opera Love of Life, he knew he had to accept it. Thankfully, Hepburn stepped in to help him work out a schedule so that he could manage both the Broadway show and the television show. However, as exciting as all this new work undoubtedly was—it also came at a high price.
8. He Almost Crashed
Working two jobs mostly means something’s gotta give, and in Reeve’s case it was his health. His hectic schedule left him with no time to eat healthy meals and he started living on candy bars and coffee. Of course, a diet like this could only end in disaster. During his first night on stage, Reeve collapsed after his opening dialogue. In lieu of this humiliating episode, Hepburn quipped to the audience, “This boy’s a goddamn fool. He doesn’t eat enough red meat.”
Thankfully, not all was lost, and an understudy stepped in to complete the play that night. Going forward, however, Reeve had yet another hurdle to overcome.
9. His Relationship Inspired Rumors
Reeve continued his Broadway run for a full year. Hepburn enjoyed his company and the two got along so well that people began to wonder if their relationship was more than just a platonic friendship. Reeve considered being linked to her “an honor” but nothing more and felt she probably considered him as either a son or grandson.
He bid adieu to her a year later, but this was only the beginning of a brand new chapter. Little did he know, Reeve was about to get the opportunity of a lifetime.
10. He Almost Didn’t Make It
Remember the agent who’d found Reeve in his first year at Cornell? Well, he convinced Reeve to audition for a high-budget, fantasy film—but the disappointed actor faced rejection three times before he even had a chance to meet the team in person! The producers kept throwing out his resume and picture until the casting director intervened and asked them to meet him at least once before making a decision. As they say, the rest is history.
11. He Was In Esteemed Company
The producers for Superman had already roped in big names like Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman for other major roles in the film and were on the lookout for a suitable person to play the titular lead for the past two to three years. They considered several big names including Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood, and even boxer Muhammad Ali.
Luckily for Reeve, things didn’t work out with the other, more seasoned actors and they liked him immediately. He received the 300-page script the very next day after their first meeting—but he wasn’t out of the woods yet. He still had to nail the screen test.
12. He Took A Different Approach
Reeve flew to London for his Superman screen test, not too hopeful of actually landing the part. He decided to play the superhero with a touch of vulnerability. “The masculine image had changed…I felt the new Superman ought to reflect the contemporary male image.” He channeled Cary Grant from Bringing Up Baby in his portrayal and the producers loved it.
The driver told him the good news in confidence: He’d landed the role.
13. He Had To Overcome A Hurdle
The producers agreed that at 6’4”, with his good looks and chiseled features, Reeve would make a dreamy Superman. There was one huge problem though: He was too skinny. Reeve refused to wear fake muscles and there was only one other option. He had to build them up for real. He chose to do the latter and had help from a rather unexpected star.
14. He Had One Unusual Advantage
Reeve had to undergo an intensive bodybuilding regime for two whole months to get into the sort of shape his director envisioned for Superman. His instructor on this journey was David Prowse, the man who played Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy. However, even though producers weren’t sold on his lean stature, they felt he had one feature that totally worked in his favor…his neck.
In fact, that was why one of them decided he could look the part: “He had this big neck, and Superman has a big neck. So then I said, ‘Why the hell couldn’t he be built up?’”
15. He Wasn’t Top O’ The List
Although Reeve was the main lead in Superman and had the most screen time as well, his name was third in the credits for the first film, and second in its sequel. Brando and Hackman’s names came before him because they were bigger and more accomplished actors. This, despite the fact that Brando refused to memorize his lines and originally wanted to portray Superman’s dad as a bagel! Yes. A bagel.
None of this mattered when the film came out though, because no one expected the response it got.
16. He Won Admirers
One of the reasons Reeve wanted to do Superman was because he got to play two characters, Clark Kent as well as Superman. Critics and audiences showered him with praise for his different and realistic portrayals of both characters, as well as his ability to switch between them. They felt he did a great job showing the “innocence and gallantry” of both characters.
Of course, the success of the film didn’t come without some behind-the-scenes struggles.
17. He Was In The Zone
The filmmakers left no stone unturned with Superman, and it eventually became the highest budget film of its time. They spent $2 million on failed flying tests and even had a miniature Golden Gate Bridge constructed for a certain scene. In an effort to keep costs under control, they shot the sequel immediately after the first film had wrapped.
Because of this decision, filming went on for a startling 19 months. Luckily, Reeve brought more than just his acting to the table.
18. He Could Fly
Star student, athlete, actor—Reeve had many feathers in his cap. But there was one skill in particular that his producers celebrated: He could fly. The filmmakers wanted to show Superman flying as realistically as possible, and Reeve’s experience and training as a glider pilot helped them immensely as his body had the experience of being in an aerodynamic position. But that wasn’t all.
As much as Reeve played Superman on screen, he certainly injected the heroism of his character into his personal pursuits.
19. He Felt Responsible
Reeve may have played Superman, but he strongly believed in Spiderman’s life motto: “With great power comes great responsibility.” After becoming a star, he wanted to give as much as he could: He visited terminally sick children through the Make-a-Wish Foundation, joined the Save the Children charity, and coached track and field at the Special Olympics with O.J. Simpson.
However, his keen desire to make a difference would only intensify in the coming years.
20. He Didn’t Always Choose Wisely
It’s hard not to get emotionally invested in a character that’s given you so much success, so one can’t really blame Reeve for signing up for Superman III. Unfortunately, the third installment of the superhero’s chronicles didn’t do too well at the box office. Considering its tepid reception, you might have thought that Reeve would steer clear of making a fourth film—but that just wasn’t the case.
You see, Reeve had an ulterior motive for choosing to make Superman IV—and it was destined for calamity.
21. He Dealt With The Consequences
Reeve wanted funding for his own production, Street Smart, which is why he agreed to do Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. However, this sacrifice was all in vain. To his major disappointment, both Superman IV and Street Smart failed at the box office. Suddenly, Reeve found his stock plunging toward a sharp decline, and more than that, his success as Superman began to seem more and more like acting kryptonite.
22. He Wasn’t Into Comics
Interestingly, Reeve had never read the Superman comics. In fact, he wasn’t a comic book fan at all. And when it came to being typecast as a superhero, he couldn’t abide by it; he tried to diversify his repertoire as soon as he got the chance. Ironically, Reeve wanted to “escape the cape,” but sadly, the roles he chose impacted his standing in Hollywood in a way he’d never imagined.
Still, not everything was all doom and gloom. To Reeve’s delight, he found a silver lining.
23. He Found Love
Superman didn’t just give Reeve fame and financial success, it also helped him find his lady love. He started dating modeling executive Gae Exton while filming in London. They were incredibly happy together, and it seemed that Reeve was definitely in this relationship for the long haul, especially after one very exciting development.
24. His Family Grew
After two blissful years, Reeve and Exton welcomed their first child, Matthew Exton Reeve, in 1979, and four years later, the couple welcomed a baby girl whom they named Alexandra. While things were still going Reeve’s way, his fortune would take a turn for the worse in just a couple of years. In fact, his destiny only boasted a series of unfortunate events.
25. He Had Some Misses
Although actors often miss out on big roles because of bad luck, there were some opportunities that Reeve missed because of an error in judgment. He turned down offers to play in several films that became superhits—bona fide grand slams that catapulted the lucky leads to stardom. These included films like American Gigolo, Romancing the Stone, and The Running Man.
But if he thought this was his only brush with bad luck, well, he had another thing coming.
26. He Hit A Bad Patch
For poor Reeve, he soon learned that troubles really do come in threes. By 1987, not only was Reeve’s career spiraling, but his happy homefront dissolved before his very eyes. He and Exton had decided to part ways amicably and he moved back to New York. Still, he missed his children terribly. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the final nail in the coffin was pure humiliation.
27. He Played An Unusual Role
Reeve figured it might be a good idea to try his hand at comedy to beat his loneliness, but it just ended up adding to his miseries. His costars Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner feuded on set, and Reeve found himself in the middle, trying to referee their fights. This resulted in him feeling as though he’d “made a fool of himself” in the film, which flopped miserably.
With his movie career in the pits, Reeve decided on a different course of action.
28. He Took A Break
It’s a good thing Reeve was more than just a pretty face. His serious acting chops enabled him to return to the stage when things weren’t working out in Hollywood. He spent the next few years doing plays exclusively. However, he also wasn’t one to give up without a fight. Slowly, he started taking steps to reclaim his rightful place as one of Hollywood’s leading men.
29. He Got Back On His Feet
Reeve started feeling more like himself after working on stage for a while. The break from movies did him good. He focused on learning horseback riding and even constructed a sailboat, which he then used to sail from Chesapeake to Nova Scotia. He made a comeback to movies with The Rose and the Jackal and was a part of The Remains of Day cast as well. But that was only the tip of the iceberg.
30. He Found His Soulmate
Reeve had another romance to revel in; he started dating a singer and actress, Dana Morosini, the same year he split up from Exton. The two really hit it off, and it seemed like Reeve had finally found the “one.” However, something much darker kept holding him back. Tired of waiting for him to pop the question, Dana considered breaking up the relationship.
This jolted Reeve to action, and he decided to get to the root of his commitment issues.
31. He Took The Next Step
A year of therapy helped Reeve understand that his parents’ failed marriage, as well as the other broken marriages around him, held him back from committing to Dana. He decided to take charge of his own narrative and proposed to her one night, completely out of the blue. The couple finally married in 1992 and had a son, William, the same year.
32. He Wanted To Prove Himself
He’d always been athletic, so when Reeve got a chance to learn horse-riding for his role in Anna Karenina, he continued to practice long after the team had packed up. He even bought his own horse, Eastern Express a.k.a. Buck, and decided to participate in a Training Level event in Vermont. However, what happened next changed his life in the most devastating way imaginable.
33. He Took Some Risks
Instead of going to Vermont, Reeve went to Virginia to participate in the Commonwealth Training. He placed fourth out of 26 in dressage, a form of horse riding, and felt reasonably confident about the cross country portion of the race too. He felt slightly nervous about jumping with Buck but hoped he’d prepared enough to get through the race and finish on top.
Unfortunately, his fears would come true in the worst way possible.
34. Things Did Not Go According To His Plans
Buck managed the first two jumps perfectly, so Reeve relaxed a little, believing that the most difficult part of the race was over. Sadly, it was the third jump over a zig-zag-shaped fence that frightened Buck into braking hard—and very abruptly. Reeve couldn’t stop himself—his momentum lifted him over the horse and his 215-lb weight crashed headfirst into the top rails…His injuries were utterly chilling.
35. He Was Barely Alive
The collision had been so severe that it fractured Reeve’s cervical vertebrae. His head was literally hanging on to his body by his neck muscles. This extent of spinal cord damage meant that if he lived, Reeve would be immobile from the neck down—a plight that some did not want to see him suffer. When his mother learned of her son’s horrifying diagnosis, her response was terribly heartbreaking.
36. He Almost Didn’t Make It
Allegedly, Reeve’s own mother couldn’t face the thought of her son living a depressed, disabled life and asked the doctors to withdraw his mechanical ventilation. The doctors also claimed that if Reeve had landed just one more centimeter to the left, he wouldn’t have lived another day. As it was, he remained in intensive care for five weeks, battling pneumonia and enduring several serious surgeries.
37. He Wanted Out
At one point, Reeve’s depression, exacerbated by his condition, was so overwhelming—he even contemplated suicide by euthanasia. He worried about being a burden to his family and asked his wife to let him go. However, it was her tearful response that helped him change his outlook and filled him with the will to focus on his recovery.
38. He Changed His Mind
On hearing his wish to “slip away,” Dana Reeve assured her husband that she’d support all of his decisions. However, if he decided differently, she was “with him for the long haul.” After all, accident or no accident, he was still the same person she’d fallen in love with. Her words changed his perspective and he decided to focus on recovery rather than on giving up. But she wasn’t his only source of encouragement.
39. He Felt The Love
Reeve’s resolve to try and give living another chance was further strengthened when his kids turned up to shower him with their affection. He realized they still needed him around. His fans also played a huge role in making him feel wanted: He received 400,000 letters from them. But there was one other person in particular who made him feel as though life was still worth living.
40. He Discovered A Truth
Remember Reeve’s old friend, Robin Williams? One day, while Reeve was in the hospital, feeling depressed about an upcoming surgery, a very special visitor entered the room. Decked out in scrubs, Robin Williams got into character. With a thick Russian accent borrowed from his Nine Months character, he announced himself as a proctologist come to perform an examination.
His appearance and antics served as a wonderful respite and Reeve found himself laughing uproariously with his friend. It also helped him realize something important: “I knew then: If I could laugh, I could live.”
41. He Had A True Friend
Reeve and Williams were polar opposites, but they managed to remain great friends throughout the course of their careers. Williams claimed that he often had no money to buy food and that Reeve had literally saved him from starving by sharing his own. Reeve said that a hallmark of their friendship had been their ability to confide in one another.
Williams’ devotion to his old friend went above and beyond; he often attended Reeve’s fundraisers and charity events after and even dedicated his lifetime Golden Globe award to Reeve’s memory. Above all, it was love like this that boosted Reeve’s morale during his darkest moments.
42. He Went To Rehab
After Reeve decided to give life another shot, there was no stopping him. The man always had a never-say-die attitude and this served him well after his surgeries and throughout his rehab days. He was at the Rehabilitation Center for five months during which he learned how to operate a wheelchair by blowing air through a straw. He also learned how to live with his disability and though it terrified him initially, he soon started identifying with the disabled community.
43. His Goals Changed
Initially, Reeve was unable to breathe without the ventilator, but with practice and therapy, he trained himself to breathe on his own for 90 minutes at a time. He also exercised intensively so he wouldn’t experience muscle atrophy or osteoporosis. You see, Reeve had set a rather extreme goal for himself: He wanted to be standing again by the age of 50.
While this dream never happened, his progress still amazed his doctors. He made his first public appearance only six months after his accident when he attended an awards dinner hosted by an actors’ advocacy group he’d founded. And his feats didn’t just end there either.
44. His Creativity Lived On
Reeve found a way to let his creativity soar. He voiced King Arthur in Quest for Camelot only a year after his accident in 1996. He also acted in some TV productions, including the Hitchcock remake, Rear Window. Then, in 1997, he even went behind the camera and tried his hand at something new by directing In the Gloaming. With no end in sight, Reeve’s ambitious zeal climbed even higher.
45. He Was An Inspiration
Reeve threw himself into activism and advocacy for disabled people, specifically those with spinal cord injuries. He founded the Christopher Reeve Foundation in 1998, he campaigned for government funding for embryonic stem cell research and for the disabled’s rights to have a better quality of life. He also hosted the Paralympics in Atlanta and co-founded the Reeve-Irvine Research Center, now a leading spinal-cord research center.
And as if this wasn’t enough, he wrote two autobiographies titled Still Me and Nothing is Impossible. The former would go on to win a Grammy for Best Spoken Word and would top the bestseller list for 11 weeks.
46. He Made Some Progress
Reeve may not have started walking or even standing, but intensive exercise and strong willpower enabled him to begin doing tiny movements, like moving his index finger. He also started feeling some sensation in his hands and feet and claimed he could feel hot and cold as well. Maybe Reeve would have managed to continue getting better if it wasn’t for one sad development.
47. He Had A Setback
Unfortunately, Reeve’s immune system was much weaker after his injuries. He developed a worrisome pressure ulcer that eventually led to sepsis. By October 2004, he was in the thick of treatment, but tragedy lurked right around the corner…On the ninth, he attended his son’s hockey game—but suffered a cardiac arrest the very same night.
His wife, Dana, was by his side, and both she and the doctors believed his body had reacted adversely to a drug he’d been taking.
48. His End Was Sudden
In spite of all his willpower, Reeve was unable to get past this final blow. He went into a coma following the heart attack and passed the next morning. He was only 52. His family cremated him and scattered his ashes at the cemetery. Juilliard held a memorial service for him too, with Robin Williams, Glenn Close, and Meryl Streep as speakers.
49. His Partner Stepped Up
After Reeve passed, Dana stepped up to head the Christopher Reeve Foundation after him. But sadly, the family’s brush with tragedy was far from over. In another tragic twist of fate, Dana discovered she had lung cancer even though she’d never smoked a day in her life. She passed not even two years after her husband, in March 2006.
The foundation’s name changed to add hers, and it became The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.
50. His Legacy Lives On
Reeve’s children have since taken charge of their parents’ foundation. They are on the board of directors, and their father’s legacy lives on through them. His activism and efforts ensured that people with spinal cord issues have more options available now than ever before. While he is still remembered as the on-screen Superman, his activism ensured that he lives on as a real superhero—one who did his best to change the world.