He played a superhero on the screen but was a real-life hero after he hung up the cape.
Christopher Reeve is largely remembered for his flights across the screen while wearing a red cape and sporting a giant S across his chest. But it’s for his later off-screen work, while hoping to walk again, that solidified him as a hero.
His sensitive portrayal of Superman helped make the 1978 movie a blockbuster that set the stage for a wave of superhero movies. Years later, after a horseback riding accident left him paralyzed, he’d use his star power to raise awareness for the disabled.
From either angle, he was a hero to millions of people. To honor Reeve’s legacy, Google will dedicate Saturday’s Doodle to the actor, director and humanitarian, on what would’ve been his 69th birthday.
Born in New York City on Sept. 25, 1952, Reeve earned a bachelor of arts degree from Cornell before being selected to study acting in an advanced program at the Juilliard School under actor and director John Houseman. After two years of acting in plays and soap operas, Reeve auditioned for the role of Superman, beating out more than 200 other actors.
With his coal-black hair, piercing blue eyes and chiseled face, the 6-foot-4 Reeve was the very image of Superman in the big-budget flick. He’d reprise the role in three sequels during the 1980s, proving there was an appetite for superhero movies and paving the way later that decade for the big Batman movie starring Michael Keaton, and eventually for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Though he was in dozens of other movies, he’s most associated with his Superman performances, and for millions of movie fans, he was Superman.
That became the case for millions more after a 1995 horseback riding accident left Reeve paralyzed from the neck down. Even though doctors called the injury one of the worst possible, Reeve showed fortitude, resetting the expectations of what a quadriplegic could do, and he pledged he’d walk again one day.
When a tabloid reported that Reeve had begged his wife to let him die, Reeve responded with an angry denial. “I have not given up,” he wrote. “I will never give up.”
After his accident, Reeve became a powerful advocate for people with disabilities and for increased funding for medical research. He and his wife founded the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, an organization dedicated to curing spinal cord injury by advancing research. He lobbied Congress to expand embryonic stem cell research, arguing it was the best chance at giving him and others like him a chance at recovery.
“I think that setting challenges is a great motivator because too many people with disabilities allow that to become the dominating factor in their lives, and I refuse to allow a disability to determine how I live my life,” Reeve told the Los Angeles Times a year after his accident. “I don’t mean to be reckless, but setting a goal that seems a bit daunting actually is very helpful toward recovery.”
Reeve returned to Hollywood after his accident and made his directorial debut in 1997 with the critically acclaimed TV movie In the Gloaming, starring Glenn Close. During a 2017 fundraising appearance for Reeve’s foundation, a tearful Close shared her remembrance of his character.
“I miss Chris. He was a great man. He had more … he had more moral and mental fortitude than anyone I will ever know,” she said, according to an E Online account of the speech. “It moved me to the core, and there were times when it even took my breath away. And he was courageous. Against the odds, he had the courage to hope for his dream, which is now our dream — a world of empty wheelchairs.”
In 2004, after a nearly decade-long battle, Reeve suffered a cardiac arrest and fell into a coma before dying. He was 52 years old.