by Walter Oleksy
Christopher Reeve, who died Sunday, 10 October, 2004, was at least a hero. He not only looked like Superman, the part he’d played, he was believable because of innate character traits. Many of us admired him from afar, but I had the rare privilege of communicating with him when authoring a biography about him in spring of 2000.
Few people know that in 1987 Reeve risked his life in Chile. Credited with saving 77 lives, Reeves humbly said, “As a private citizen in a country where we take freedom to perform for granted, I went to help fellow professionals in a country where they don’t.”
Then-dictator Augusto Pinochet had sentenced to death 77 actors, directors, and playwrights. Their crime? Criticizing his regime in theatrical works. Reeve led a rally punctuated by government machine-gun fire outside the building. The next day, Pinochet canceled his execution order.
Reeve’s greatest character test was in 1995, when a horse threw him, breaking his neck. The injury destroyed his bodily functions: breathing, bladder and bowel control, and motion below the neck.
Reeve was active at 43 — sailing, flying, riding. Facing life totally paralyzed, he contemplated suicide. He overcame that on seeing his wife’s and children’s love.
While in rehabilitation, he realized he could be productive, though quadriplegic. Others in his condition hadn’t given up. Why should he?
Even if he never made another movie, his life could have meaning from a wheelchair.
Reeve began lobbying for paralyzed individuals, some 10,000 new people yearly in the USA. In 1996 he joined the board of the American Paralysis Association, which funds spinal cord injury research. He founded the Christopher Reeve Foundation.
Speaking only a little and not well, he determined to pursue his career. He directed movies and even acted in 1998.
In 2000, Reeve moved his index finger. He vowed to walk again. “I refuse to allow a disability to determine how I live my life. Setting a daunting goal is actually very helpful toward recovery.”
Unable to walk, barely able to talk or breathe, Reeve mastered a computer that understood verbal commands, to send email messages. Then he lobbied political and medical leaders on behalf of spinal cord injury research.
From a wheelchair, on a breathing respirator, Reeve moved the 1996 Academy Award audience to tears pleading for movies about social issues. “Hollywood needs to do more. Let’s take risks and tackle issues. There’s no challenge, artistic or otherwise, that we can’t meet.”
In another speech he said, in part, “We all have value. One in five Americans has a disability. If we can conquer outer space, we can conquer inner space: The frontier of the brain, the central nervous system, all the afflictions of the body that destroy so many lives and rob our country of so much potential.”
Reeve applied that heroic philosophy to his own life, which seemed ended after his accident, by conquering his inner space. “Superman” may have died. Long live Superman, and the Superman in all of us.