Christopher reeve: we pay tribute to a true hero
Never-before-seen pictues and an exclusive interview with his close friend Robin Williams
October 26, 2004
Joanne Nathan/Featspress
Mary Ellen Mark


As Superman, his unearthly powers saved the world on more than one occassion. But in Christopher Reeve's own hour of need, it was the power of love, the love of his devoted wife Dana, which saved him. After the 1995 riding accident which left him paralysed from the neck down, the late star considered suicide. His wife had other ideas, however. As he recalled later: "Dana said to me, 'You're still you, and I love you.'" And she was as good as her word, remaining by his side, treasuring every moment they had together, until he died last week, aged 52.

Drawing on an inner strength worthy of screen hero Superman, the late Christopher Reeve inspired millions worldwide with his courage, tenacity and dauntless determination one day walk again. Campaigning on behalf of others following the 1995 riding accident which left him paralysed from the neck down, he seemed as indestructible as the caped crusader from the planet Krypton, always striving to rise to the next challenge. A real-life man of steel, he had astonished doctors, lobbied politicians and given hope to those who needed it most.

So his death of complications from an infection caused by a bedsore, at just 52, was greeted with profound shock and sadness last week, felt most keenly by his loved ones. For while the world mourned the loss of a great activist and artist, Dana Reeve was mourning the loss of a wonderful husband, and three children the loss of a loving father. Others, such as Robin Williams, who was convinced Christopher would recover from his latest bout of ill-health, just as he had so many times before were shedding tears for a dear, lifelong friend.

“He’ll be OK, he’ll pull through, he’s so powerful and he’s kicked this before, he’ll kick it again,” thought Robin on hearing that Christopher was in hospital. “But then the next day they called me and said, ‘Terrible news, he didn’t make it.’ I was just in shock. I just couldn’t believe that he’d gone. I was in deep, deep shock.”

The normally ebullient, upbeat comedian is in an uncharacteristically somber and reflective mood, as he remembers his friend. Robin seems like a changed man. Instead of his usual barrage of jokes, one-liners and impersonations, he sits quietly as he talks gently and feelingly about Christopher and what he meant to him and the world.

“It’s such a tragic loss, because he was such a gentle man, but always such a powerful man too,” says Robin, “and for me it’s so weird to realize he’s gone now, because I never knew he was living on borrowed time. Many people told me, you know, he lived a lot longer than they thought possible, and I said, I never knew he was on the clock – other than the same clock we’re all on. There was a part of him that just seemed so indestructible.”

Christopher leaves behind his devoted wife Dana, with whom he had one son, 11-year-old Will, as well as two children, Matthew, 25, and Alexandra, 21, from his relationship with Gae Exton. And as Christopher was cremated last week following a moving funeral service, friends gathered to pay tribute, and to offer support to the bereaved family.

Says Robin, “Dana’s human, and she was obviously deeply shocked that he passed away. But she’s also strong and she’s dealing with it. And the kids, they’re all powerful, good people, but it’s hard on them all. They miss him terribly.

Dana and Christopher had met in true Hollywood style, when he spotted her singing in a late-night cabaret. An intense attraction quickly blossomed into love. A love that was to save Christopher at his darkest hour. Realising he was paralysed, the actor contemplated suicide. Dana, however had other ideas. “She said to me, ‘You’re still you and I love you’,” Christopher later recounted.

As Dana put it: “I told him I’d be there for the long run, no matter what.”

And she wasn’t the only one. Christopher was fortunate to have a close-knit circle of cherished friends, among them Robin.

Robin and Christopher had struck up a lasting friendship when the pair met at the prestigious Julliard School of Performing Arts in New York in the early 1970s.

“He’d just come from Princeton, I think, and I’d just come from junior college in California,” Robin recalls.

The budding actors were to remain close, always there for one another, with Christopher acting as godfather for one of Robin’s sons. And, as Christopher once explained, it was Robin, along with Dana, who helped him emerge from his suicidal depression following his accident. On his fifth day in hospital, Robin dropped by and performed a zany “Russian doctor act.”

Though Christopher's screen career was to be overshadowed by his crusade on behalf of all those suffering from paralysis, he found time to return to the movie set, and won a Screen Actors Guild award for his part in a 1998 remake of Hitchcock's Rear Window. And at the time of his death, he was directing an animated feature about the New York Yankees. The production company has vowed to complete the film.

Christopher will always be rememberd as the bumbling, good-natured Clark Kent and his alter-ego, the chiselled, strapping Superman. But he leaves behind other enduring legacies. All over the world, tributes have poured in to his off-screen bravery -- from Chile, where he risked his life to defend human rights during the Pinochet regime, to much closer to home. As two men battle it out for the White House, the issue of stem cell research is firmly on the agenda. Nobody's ever going to fly, comic-book style. But thanks to Christopher, there are many whom may one day walk.

“I saw Robin,” explained Christopher, “and I knew I was going to be okay.”

Life for Christopher would never be the same again, but as he recovered his will to live, with his beloved wife Dana by his side, the Superman star became a very different kind of hero, tirelessly campaigning for stem cell research, lobbying for better insurance protection against catastrophic injury for those with less resources than himself, and generously funding research.

“I remember him going from being the most physical human being I’d ever seen in my life to being this Buddha,” says Robin. “This very still, yet very powerful human being who went on to speak to Congress, and then all over the world, about spinal cord injuries. But typically it wasn’t just for himself – it was on behalf of hundreds of thousands of others all suffering from similar injuries.”

So energetic was Christopher the activist, that many, Robin included, never imagined that Christopher’s condition might one day kill him. “I had no idea just how bad it was,” he says. “I was totally surprised. I knew he’d had a couple of bad bouts recently. But he came through it. He’d been fighting these awful infections for a long time.

“He was doing so much physical therapy. I remember when he started to move his fingers – and I thought ‘My God! That’s the equivalent of bench-pressing a 2,000-pound weight!’ It was amazing, his will to fight on and on, despite his injuries.

When not working on behalf of others, Christopher practiced a specialised workout regime to make his arms and legs stronger, and repeated electrical stimulation of the muscles gave him sporadic sensation in some parts of his body, bringing renewed hope in what must sometimes have seemed a lost battle.

He was a true fighter, but he was also a realist,” says Robin. “He admitted to me that there were times when it all seemed very bleak and hopeless, and that must have been very hard for him to deal with.

“But then he’d meet scientists and be motivated and go, ‘Wait a minute.’ And then when he began starting all the physical therapy and he started to rejuvenate muscles, there were these interesting results. All of a sudden, the muscles began to respond. His muscles hadn’t given up. They just hadn’t been fired. So the memory was still there, and they started to work again.”

The greatest thing about starting to experience sensation, Christopher explained in an interview, was being able to feel the hugs of his wife and children.

Robin and Chris, meanwhile, despite the very different paths their lives had taken, always made a point of seeing each other as often as possible. “We’d get together once every few months,” says Robin, “and he also had a lot of benefits for his foundation. There were many of those. The first time he went out after the accident was in New York, ad it was astonishing to see him do it. And other times we’d just hang out together and talk about everything.”

Including the controversial issue of stem cell research, which has become one of the hottest topics in the closely fought US presidential race.

Robin says, “Umbilical tissue was basically used for shampoo for years, and now you’re saying ‘No’? The potential is vast with stem cells. Is there a Pandora’s box? As always with medicine, yes. But to deny it totally is almost criminal in my mind.”

And Robin notes that his friend’s legacy, not just inspirational, but also financial, will be one of “pushing for more research to find a cure. The fact is, in nine years, he basically pulled in hundreds of millions of dollars of research money by bringing the focus to the problem. He was instrumental in also focusing on the fact that there are a lot of people throughout the world just sitting there, untended, with no access to any form of rehabilitation or even therapy of any kind to keep them going. And he lobbied Congress and got people’s attention in a big way.

“And when he was mentioned by name in the recent presidential debate, that was a huge deal. It meant that the issue was finally at the forefront of a major political election, the most important one. And that would never have happened for a long time with Chris. He made that all possible.”

Christopher Reeve’s death, “also reminds us all of how mortal we are,” Robin sums up. “It’s a shock to see all the Superman footage, and Chris starring as the strongest man in the universe, and then realize he’s gone. It’s just hard to believe I’ll never see him again.”