September 25, 1952 – Christopher Reeve:
“Timing is very important: words can only have a positive effect on others if and when they are ready to listen.”
Deathtrap (1982) is adapted from the hit 1978 play of the same name by Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby) with many plot twists and referencing itself as a play within a play. It holds the record for the longest-running comedy-thriller on Broadway, and was nominated for four Tony Awards. It originally starred John Wood and Marian Seldes, both now gone, and Victor Garber when he was still in the closet. Deathtrap was well received in 1978 and has been frequently revived.
The film version has Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon, and Christopher Reeve, at the height of his success as Superman.
The first half follows playwright/professor Sidney Bruhl (Caine) whose writers’ block drives him to murder Cliff (Reeve), a student who wrote a promising script he wants to claim for his own. At least, that’s what you think it’s about. Then, at the halfway point this happens:
Sidney and Cliff have staged the “murder” in an effort to drive Sidney’s wife to a heart attack, which it does. And to celebrate their triumph, they kiss, which made the audience when I saw it gasp and then gag and then giggle.
Reeve was considered one of showbiz’s foremost family men, but in the book Hollywood Babylon Strikes Again (2010) by the improbably named Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince, the authors claim that Reeves had an affair with gay porn star Cal Culver. Culver, who had a legitimate stage career, did porn under the name Casey Donovan. Culver became famous in the landmark gay porn film Boys In The Sand (1971).
Both Reeves and Culver are gone, of course; Culver was taken by the plague in 1987, and Reeve in 2004 of heart failure. Culver told his friends that he met Reeve when they were both auditioning for a Broadway role in the late-1970s. Culver wrote:
“Christopher was a great lover and I think I liberated him sexually. I didn’t think he was gay but he seemed willing to try anything once. He was curious.”
Reeve, a consummate professional, wasn’t afraid to play gay. He was especially good as Jeff Daniels‘ boyfriend in Landford Wilson‘s beautiful Fifth Of July on Broadway in 1980 and was later in a made-for-television movie version.
What a very tragic irony that Reeve will always be remembered now for two contrasting roles: the mighty Superman and a man paralyzed from the neck down.
In 1995, with his career flourishing, Reeve, an experienced rider, broke his neck when he was thrown from his horse during an equestrian event in Virginia. After years of therapy, and despite pessimistic prognostications, he remained determined to walk again, and became a symbol of hope for many quadriplegics. Reeves:
“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.”
He used a wheelchair and needed a portable ventilator to breathe for the rest of his life. Yet by 2000, Reeve was able to move his index finger and breathe for long periods without a respirator. He regained sensation in other parts of his body. This is when he gave his time, money, and energy to lobbying Congress for better insurance protection against catastrophic injury and giving support to stem cell research. His heroic achievements overshadowed Reeve’s many acting achievements: he appeared in 150 stage productions, 17 films, and 11 television movies.
Reeve was born into an intellectual family in New York City; his father F.D. Reeve is a writer and professor of Russian Literature; his mother was the journalist Barbara Johnson. The family’s close friends included poets Robert Frost and Robert Penn Warren, and the politician and academic Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Reeve’s father was quite disappointed when he learned that the role of Superman that his son had been offered was not one in George Bernard Shaw‘s play, Man And Superman.
As a kid, Reeve attended the exclusive Princeton Day School in Princeton NJ, where he was active in the drama department. Reeve:
“I never once asked myself, ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What am I doing? Right from the beginning, the theatre was like home to me. It seemed to be what I did best. I never doubted that I belonged in it.”
When he was 15 years old, Reeve was accepted as an apprentice at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. After graduation from Princeton Day School, he toured the country with Celeste Holm in The Irregular Verb To Love.
At Cornell University, New York state, he majored in music theory and then studied Theatre in London, where he worked at the Old Vic. Reeve:
“I was a glorified errand boy. I helped by teaching the British actors to speak with an American accent. Then I went to Paris to work with the Comédie Française.”
Next, in 1973, approximately 2,000 students auditioned for 20 places in the freshman class at The Juilliard School’s Advanced Acting Program, founded by John Houseman, who had just won an Academy Award for The Paper Chase. The class of 1992, the first graduating class, included Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone. Reeve and Robin Williams were the only students selected. They remained longtime friends.
Reeve supporting himself by taking a role in the long-running television soap, Love Of Life. His looks and his toned, 6ft 4in frame made him perfect for soaps.
In 1976, he was cast opposite Katharine Hepburn’s on Broadway in A Matter Of Gravity. With Hepburn’s influence, Reeve worked out the schedules of Love Of Life and the play so that he would be able to do both. He lived on candy bars and coffee and on opening night of the play, Reeve entered, said his first line, and then promptly fainted. Hepburn turned to the audience and said:
“This boy’s a goddamn fool. He doesn’t eat enough red meat.”
He missed the opening (his understudy finished the show) but stayed with the play throughout its year-long run. He and Hepburn became very close, so close that there were rumors that they were involved romantically.
In 1977, he screen-tested for a new film version of Superman, and the most inspired casting of an unknown in a series since Sean Connery as James Bond. Reeve:
“I portrayed Superman as somebody that you can invite home for dinner … What makes him 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.”
As Clark Kent, Superman’s alter ego, Reeve wrote:
“There must be some difference stylistically between Clark and Superman. Otherwise, you just have a pair of glasses standing in for a character.”
He based his Clark Kent on Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938) and played the two roles without a whiff of camp and revealed a deft Grant-ish sense of comic timing.
There were three Superman sequels. Superman II (1980) was filmed at the same time as the original, but after that each film was made with less care and made less money and, after Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987), Reeve announced that he was determined to “escape the cape”:
“I’ve flown, become evil, loved, stopped and turned the world backward. I’ve faced my peers, befriended children and small animals and rescued cats from trees. What else is there left for Superman to do?”
Although, he did wear a cape again; in two Merchant-Ivory period pieces, The Bostonians (1984) and The Remains Of The Day (1993). But, mostly he returned to the theatre.
Before his accident, Reeve was an accomplished pianist and a superb athlete. He earned his pilot’s licence in his early 20s, and twice flew solo across the Atlantic.
He returned to acting in a television remake of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rear Window (1998), which was a remarkable feat, but was treated as a kind of freak show.
Reeve’s campaign for medical research into paralysis brought encouragement to millions worldwide. His surprise appearance at the 1996 Academy Awards in his wheelchair brought a boost of money for research. He also hosted the Paralympics in Atlanta and spoke at the Democratic National Convention that year. He traveled across the country making speeches.
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act, the first legislation specific to the paralysis community.
“Stand Up for Those Who Can’t” is the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation (CRPF) slogan.