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Christopher Reeve 'Superman' Dies at 52 - 2004-10-11

The man who soared to fame as the star of the Superman films and was grounded by a paralyzing accident in mid career has died at the age of 52.

Christopher Reeve was born on September 25, 1952, in New York City. His father was a novelist, translator and professor of Slavic languages and creative writing at Columbia University. When he was four, his parents divorced. He went to live in Princeton with his mother where she took a job with a weekly newspaper.

Unhappy because of his parents' divorce, Chris took refuge in solitary pursuits like playing the piano, sailing, swimming and acting. When he was ten, a representative of Princeton's McCarter Theater came to his school to recruit a singer for a role in a Gilbert and Sullivan production. Christopher volunteered and had such a marvelous time that he fell in love with the theater. In school and college, he packed all the acting he could into his schedule, working summers across the United States and in Europe, at the Old Vic in London and the Comedie francaise in Paris.

After graduating from Cornell in 1974, he began performing on the New York stage and on television. He made his first Hollywood film in 1978. It was a submarine movie called Gray Lady Down, and was described by critics as "entirely forgettable." However, Christopher Reeve's sudden leap into stardom was about to happen. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind bought the rights to make a Superman movie and were scheduled to start shooting in early 1977. They were unhappy with the more than 200 actors they considered until handsome, bright-eyed Christopher Reeve appeared for a screen test. He always said he got the role because he looked "like the guy in the comic strip."

He signed a contract for Superman and a concurrent sequel. For 18 grueling months, he filmed the movies during the day and lifted weights nightly in order to resemble the original comic strip Superman. He gave standing instructions to his driver to take him to the gym after his shooting schedule, "no matter what."

After a gala world premiere in Washington to benefit the Special Olympics, Superman opened in 700 theaters in December of 1978. It grossed $12 million during its first week and is still one of the top money-making films of all time, grossing well over $300 million. Superman II was released the following June where it promptly set a record by grossing over $5 million on a single day.

Christopher returned to the stage in 1980, turning down some lucrative film roles to get what he called some "breathing space." He married, had a son and settled down, so to speak, in Westchester County, New York, continuing challenging activities like long distance sailing, piloting his own plane across the Atlantic and competing in steeplechase (jumping) competitions.

Christopher Reeve's charmed life came to an abrupt end, one sunny day in May of 1995, when the horse he was riding in a competition in Virginia shied at a jump. Then 43, Reeve suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down

At first unable to breathe without the use of a mechanical ventilator, the actor forced himself to learn how to breathe on his own for greater and greater lengths of time. He compared the effort it took with the strenuous preparation required for his most famous role.

Reeve returned home to his wife and son in Bedford, New York, after 24 weeks of rehabilitation at the Kessler Institute in New Jersey. And there he struggled to live with a body that he could not move or feel. Nearing the first year of his paralysis, Christopher Reeve told an interviewer how he was coping.

"To be not able to move, from the shoulders down, really. And to be that still when I was somebody who was so active. Is a huge psychological change," he said. "And I have good days and bad days, more good days, fortunately. But the gradual process is of acceptance. On the one hand, you realize: 'O.K.. This is me. This is what I am. I am the same person. I have limitations. But I am not going to dwell on the limitations.'"

The former movie hero believed that anyone could be a hero.

"I think there is more in all of us than we realize. When something happens, a tragedy strikes in some way, it can bring out the best in people. It can bring out the best in relationships. It can bring out a new determination to achieve a result, and, I think, searching for those kinds of responses is a lot better than pitying yourself for the past. There's no future in that," said Mr. Reeve.

Christopher Reeve believed that a cure for spinal cord injuries, such as his was within reach, provided the funds for research could be found.

"I am going to fight for the cure. I am going to fight for funding. I am going to fight for change," he said. "Until about 1993, nobody thought it would ever be possible to cure spinal cord injury. It would be hopeless. So, now, it's been proven that it's not hopeless. Five years ago, I would not be sitting here talking to you. Two years ago, I would probably still be in a hospital, some place. This year, we are sitting on the threshold of a cure."

He also devoted himself to reforming insurance regulations that, he felt, unfairly limited coverage for millions of Americans.

Named master of ceremonies for the eleven-day Paralympic Games in Atlanta in August of 1996, he said people should not make the mistake of feeling pity for the young athletes who took part in the games. He saw their struggle at overcoming severe handicaps such as amputations, blindness and crippling disease as a triumph of the human spirit.

"Yes. To be in a certain way - to be handicapped - is unfortunate," he said. "But the triumph of the will, the triumph of the human spirit, the competitiveness, the drive to succeed, to fight for dignity - all of those things will quickly dispel any tendency toward thinking they are pathetic. These people are absolutely stunning and an inspiration to us all."

Christopher Reeve never lost hope that he would recover. "I can tell look you straight in the eye and tell you this is a temporary situation," he said to an interviewer ten months after his paralyzing accident. "Do you know what a trip [thrill] it's going to be when I get up and walk again. Wow!"

Actor Christopher Reeve, who was an inspiration to us all, dead at the age of 52.