`Superman' star Christopher Reeve, an advocate for spinal cord research, dies at age 52

Monday, October 11th 2004, 6:07 am
By: News On 6

BEDFORD, N.Y. (AP) _ Christopher Reeve, the actor who soared through the air and leapt tall buildings as ``Superman,'' turned personal tragedy into a public crusade, becoming the nation's most recognizable spokesman for spinal cord research _ speaking eloquently and passionately from a wheelchair.

His advocacy for stem cell research helped it emerge as a major campaign issue between President Bush and his Democratic opponent, John Kerry. His name was even mentioned by Kerry during the second presidential debate Friday evening.

Reeve, left paralyzed from the neck down after a riding accident and who pushed for funding to help others like himself, fell ill the following day.

He went into cardiac arrest Saturday while at home, then later fell into a coma, said his publicist, Wesley Combs. He died Sunday at age 52.

Dana Reeve, Christopher's wife, thanked her husband's 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.''

Reeve's life changed completely after he broke his neck in May 1995 when he was thrown from his horse during an equestrian competition in Culpeper, Va.

Enduring months of therapy to allow him to breathe for longer and longer periods without a respirator, Reeve emerged to lobby Congress for better insurance protection against catastrophic injury and to move an Academy Award audience to tears with a call for more films about social issues.

``Hollywood needs to do more,'' he said in the March 1996 Oscar awards appearance. ``Let's continue to take risks. Let's tackle the issues. In many ways our film community can do it better than anyone else. There is no challenge, artistic or otherwise, that we can't meet.''

He returned to directing, and even returned to acting in a 1998 production of ``Rear Window,'' a modern update of the Hitchcock thriller about a man in a wheelchair who becomes convinced a neighbor has been murdered. Reeve won a Screen Actors Guild award for best actor.

``I was worried that only acting with my voice and my face, I might not be able to communicate effectively enough to tell the story,'' Reeve said. ``But I was surprised to find that if I really concentrated, and just let the thoughts happen, that they would read on my face. With so many close-ups, I knew that my every thought would count.''

In 2000, Reeve was able to move his index finger, and a specialized workout regimen made his legs and arms stronger. He also regained sensation in other parts of his body. He vowed to walk again.

``I refuse to allow a disability to determine how I live my life. I don't mean to be reckless, but setting a goal that seems a bit daunting actually is very helpful toward recovery,'' Reeve said.

Before the accident, his athletic, 6-foot-4-inch frame and love of adventure made him a natural, if largely unknown, choice for the title role in the first ``Superman'' movie in 1978. He insisted on performing his own stunts.

Although he reprised the role three times, Reeve often worried about being typecast as an action hero.

Though he owed his fame to it, Reeve made a concerted effort to, as he often put it, ``escape the cape.'' He played an embittered, crippled Vietnam veteran in the 1980 Broadway play ``Fifth of July,'' a lovestruck time-traveler in the 1980 movie ``Somewhere in Time,'' and an aspiring playwright in the 1982 suspense thriller ``Deathtrap.''

More recent films included John Carpenter's ``Village of the Damned,'' and the HBO movies ``Above Suspicion'' and ``In the Gloaming,'' which he directed. Among his other film credits are ``The Remains of the Day,'' ``The Aviator,'' and ``Morning Glory.''

Reeve was born Sept. 25, 1952, in New York City, son of a novelist and a newspaper reporter. About the age of 10, he made his first stage appearance _ in Gilbert and Sullivan's ``The Yeoman of the Guard'' at McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J.

After graduating from Cornell University in 1974, he landed a part as coldhearted bigamist Ben Harper on the television soap opera ``Love of Life.'' He also performed frequently on stage, winning his first Broadway role as the grandson of a character played by Katharine Hepburn in ``A Matter of Gravity.''

Reeve's first movie role was a minor one in the submarine disaster movie ``Gray Lady Down,'' released in 1978. ``Superman'' soon followed. Reeve was selected for the title role from among about 200 aspirants.

Active in many sports, Reeve owned several horses and competed in equestrian events regularly. Witnesses to the 1995 accident said Reeve's horse had cleared two of 15 fences during the jumping event and stopped abruptly at the third, flinging the actor headlong to the ground. Doctors said he fractured the top two vertebrae in his neck and damaged his spinal cord.

While filming ``Superman'' in London, Reeve met modeling agency co-founder Gae Exton, and the two began a relationship that lasted several years. The couple had two sons, but were never wed.

Reeve later married Dana Morosini; they had one son, Will, 11. Reeve also is survived by his mother, Barbara Johnson; his father, Franklin Reeve; his brother, Benjamin Reeve; and his two children from his relationship with Exton, Matthew, 25, and Alexandra, 21.

No plans for a funeral were immediately announced.

A few months after the accident, he told interviewer Barbara Walters that he considered suicide in the first dark days after he was injured. But he quickly overcame such thoughts when he saw his children.

``I could see how much they needed me and wanted me... and how lucky we all are and that my brain is on straight.''