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Christopher Reeve, the chiseled, strapping “Superman” of celluloid who became another kind of hero as a force for spinal cord research after a devastating horse-riding accident, has died at 52.
Reeve, a quadriplegic for the last nine years of his life who vowed that he would one day walk again, died Sunday of complications from an infection caused by a bedsore.
His wife, actress Dana Reeve, issued a statement thanking “the millions of fans from around the world who have supported and loved my husband over the years.” His mother, Barbara Johnson, told the syndicated TV show “The Insider”: “I’m glad that he is free of all those tubes.”
“The world has lost a tremendous activist and artist, and an inspiration for people worldwide. I have lost a great friend,” said actor and comedian Robin Williams.
After winning worldwide fame as Superman in four films from 1978 to 1987 and struggling to “escape the cape” with later roles, Reeve suddenly became the face of spinal cord injury after his May 1995 riding accident.
The injury left him without the use of his arms or legs; he could not breathe without a ventilator. He was still dealing with the horror of his injury six months later when he decided how he would spend the rest of his life.
“No one was specifically saying, ‘You could lead the charge on spinal cord disorders,’ but hearing from certain people helped me formulate the idea,”’ Reeve wrote in his 1998 memoir, “Still Me.” “I have the opportunity now to make sense of this accident. I believe that it’s what you do after a disaster that can give it meaning.”
He used his Hollywood fame to win attention and funding for scientific study of disabilities like his and to lobby for looser restrictions on stem-cell research.
“I consider myself a spokesman for people who can’t call the president or a senator or testify before Congress,” Reeve said in a 1998 interview with The Associated Press.
Maggie Goldberg, spokeswoman for the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, said: “Christopher took his celebrity and turned it into a legacy.”
A lasting legacy
“I’m only sorry that he won’t be around anymore to benefit from it,” said Henry Steifel, 39, of New York City, a quadriplegic since a car accident at 17. “He wasn’t there just to lend a name; he was there to lead, to step out and challenge the accepted dogma of the time that a paralysis cure was unattainable.”
In 2000, Reeve gained the ability to move his index finger, and a specialized workout regimen made his legs and arms stronger. Repeated electrical stimulation of the muscles gave him sporadic sensation in other parts of his body.
He did walk once — in a TV ad, set in the future, shown during the 2000 Super Bowl. Some were fooled by the special effects into thinking Reeve had been cured. Reeve insisted the scene was “something that can actually happen.”
He may have known that his stated goal of walking was fading for him, however. In the current issue of Reader’s Digest, he said, “I’m beginning to fight issues of aging as well as long-term paralysis.”
Reeve, born in New York City in 1952, landed a part on the soap opera “Love of Life” in 1974. His first Broadway role was as Katharine Hepburn’s grandson in “A Matter of Gravity,” and his first movie role was in the 1978 submarine movie “Gray Lady Down.”
Then came “Superman,” fame and wealth.
After the sequels, the 6-foot-4 Reeve played a crippled Vietnam veteran in “Fifth of July” on Broadway, a lovestruck time-traveler in the movie “Somewhere in Time,” and an aspiring playwright in the thriller “Deathtrap.”
In 1993 he appeared with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in the critically praised “The Remains of the Day.”
“I felt the best opportunities of my career still lay ahead,” Reeve wrote.
Brief thoughts of suicide
But then came the accident in Culpeper, Va. He considered suicide, he wrote, but his wife told him: “I’ll be with you for the long haul, not matter what. You’re still you. And I love you.”
Three years later, he said he didn’t “go nuts” thinking about his once-active life.
“On a breezy day I’ll look at the wind in the trees and realize what a great day it would be to be sailing in Maine,” he told The AP as he looked out a window of his home. “Or I look at the puffy clouds and think, ‘I’d love to be gliding again.’ And sometimes I’ll say that to somebody nearby. ... And then I’ll let it go.”
Reeve did some directing and even returned to acting in a 1998 production of “Rear Window,” an update of the Hitchcock thriller. He won a Screen Actors Guild award for best actor in a TV movie or miniseries.
Recently, Reeve returned to the comic-book story that made him famous. He made several guest appearances on the WB series “Smallville” as Dr. Swann, a scientist who gave the teenage Clark Kent insight into his future as Superman.
Besides his wife, Reeve is survived by their son, Will, 12; two children from a relationship with Gae Exton, Matthew, 25, and Alexandra, 21; his mother; his father, Franklin Reeve; and a brother, Benjamin Reeve.
Funeral plans were not complete. His foundation said there were plans for a small family service and then a big gathering in New York City sometime in the next two weeks.