The Super Bowl always features excellent commercials — it’s the only reason I watch, really — `but I still get chills remembering the one starring Christopher Reeve. It aired a couple of years ago; the usual suspects had gathered at a friend’s apartment for fatty snacks and snide commentary, and when the ad in question began with a doctor droning on about spinal-cord injury research, several of us got up to refill our nacho plates.
But then the guy in charge of the halftime pool said, “Dude!” and pointed at the TV. “It takes place in the future.” We all paused, plates in hands, and listened as the doctor introduced a person who had benefited from the research, and the camera cut to a pair of feet, and someone else yelled out, “Oh my God it’s going to be Christopher Reeve! They’re going to show him walking!”
And they did. The camera panned up from the pair of feet to a CGI Christopher Reeve getting out of his chair and walking to the podium, and I mean to tell you, pandemonium in that living room — we were all cheering and clapping and drying our eyes with chips. It was so touching and exciting, and it wasn’t even real, and I think what moved us — or at least what moved me — was that we thought we would see it happen one day, for real. We thought Christopher Reeve would get up and walk again.
Christopher Reeve thought that, too. It’s what made him a hero in the last decade of his life — he just assumed he’d regain mobility, and he’d do whatever it took to make that happen for himself and others.
I’d always liked Reeve; in fact, I had a very large crush on him as a little girl, and I probably watched “Superman II” about a hundred times in the service of that. Yes, Terence Stamp acted scenery-chewing rings around Reeve, and yes, Reeve had silly red underpants on, but I didn’t care. I loooooved him.
And I loved him in other films too — the slapstick “Noises Off,” in which he’s crashing around the set with his pants around his ankles, and the otherwise horrendous “Superman III,” in which he had a knock-down drag-out brawl with his evil self in a junkyard. It’s one of the dumbest scenes in 20th-century film, but Reeve is giving a 150 percent out there, throwing punches at himself and glaring crazily with his cape flapping in the wind. He wasn’t a master thespian — or, judging from TV movies like “Mortal Sins,” in which he played a conflicted (and sexy!) priest, a master chooser of scripts — but he gave every role his all.
That includes the role of spinal-cord injury spokesperson. On top of the debilitating injury that left him a quadriplegic, Reeve also got served a heaping helping of irony — of all the actors this tragedy might have befallen, it was the one who played Superman — but he didn’t sit around feeling sorry for himself, which is what I would certainly have done.
Or perhaps he did, but he didn’t do it for long. He started traveling, trying to raise money and awareness. He started going on Letterman and cracking jokes (good ones — Reeve turned out to be really funny, too, and nailing comic timing is hard enough when you don’t have to work around a ventilator). He continued acting, and turned in an impressive performance in the TV remake of “Rear Window.” And he worked constantly towards trying to walk again.
I was so happy for him whenever he passed a milestone, whenever I heard on the news that he had spent most of a day off his vent, or moved his index finger, or crossed a set of parallel bars during physical therapy. I didn’t doubt that he would figure it out somehow — how to walk again, how to help others walk again — and I was proud of him, for existing in his situation with grace and determination, for not getting bitter. Now, I’m sad for him, because he didn’t get to finish the job, because he died before he could walk down to the corner for a quart of milk, just a man on an errand, no cape, no canes.
Reeve did so much for his cause, giving talks, doing fundraisers, bringing the spinal-cord injury issue to our attention and keeping it there. I’d like to think he did a lot for the culture, too — that we learned from him how to meet adversity. I’d like to think that that’s his legacy. He made a name for himself embodying a comic-book hero (and riffed on that in the last couple of years with guest appearances as a scientist on The WB’s young-Superman series “Smallville”), but we won’t remember him for that, for his perfect spit-curl and silly red underpants. (Although we could, because he did look pretty foxy in that get-up.)
We’ll remember Reeve for what he did in the last 10 years, the brave human being he showed himself to be, and we’ll miss seeing his next triumph. And if “Superman Returns” ever gets made, we’ll wish he’d lived to score a walk-on part — literally.
For more information on spinal-cord injuries, or to make a donation in memory of Christopher Reeve, please visit the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation at http://www.apacure.com/.
Sarah D. Bunting is the co-creator and co-editor-in-chief of She lives in Brooklyn.