Actor, director, and activist

Christopher Reeve

Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Actor, director, and activist are just some of the words used to describe Christopher Reeve. From his first appearance at the Williamstown Theatre Festival at the age of 15, Christopher established a reputation as one of the country’s leading actors.

However, ever since he was paralyzed in an equestrian competition in 1995, Christopher not only put a human face on spinal cord injury, but he motivated neuroscientists around the world to conquer the most complex diseases of the brain and central nervous system.

Acting career

After graduating from Cornell University in 1974, Christopher pursued his dream of acting, studying at Juilliard under the legendary John Houseman.

He made his Broadway debut opposite Katharine Hepburn in A Matter of Gravity in 1976 and then went on to distinguish himself in a variety of stage, screen and television roles with passion.

Film credits include: Superman in 1978 and its subsequent sequels, Deathtrap, Somewhere in Time, The Bostonians, Street Smart, Speechless, Noises Off, Above Suspicion and the Oscar-nominated The Remains of the Day. Stage credits include: The Marriage of Figaro, Fifth of July, My Life, Summer and Smoke, Love Letters and The Aspern Papers.

Christopher made his directorial debut with In the Gloaming on HBO in April 1997. The film was met with rave reviews, was nominated for five Emmys and won six Cable Ace Awards, including Best Dramatic Special and Best Director.

His autobiography, Still Me, was published by Random House in April 1998 and spent a staggering 11 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. His audio recording of Still Me earned Christopher a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album in February 1999.

In his first major role since becoming paralyzed, Christopher starred in an updated version of the classic Hitchcock thriller Rear Window, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries. He also served as executive producer of the film.

Christopher continued his directing work in television and film as well as his arts-advisory service as a board member of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. In early 2001, he began combining his directing efforts with his activism when Christopher directed four commercials featuring Ray Romano, Randy Newman, Toni Morrison and himself for Johnson & Johnson that focused on helping parents talk to their kids. The same year he filmed a spot for the American Red Cross that celebrated volunteerism.

Chairman of the Christopher Reeve Foundation

In 1999, Christopher was appointed as Chairman of the Board of the Christopher Reeve Foundation, which later on became the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation after his wife’s untimely passing.

The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation is dedicated to curing spinal cord injury by funding innovative research, and improving the quality of life for people living with paralysis through grants, information, and advocacy.

Under his leadership, the Reeve Foundation became the preeminent spinal cord research foundation, funding some of the earliest discoveries in basic science and debunking the centuries-old dogma that the spinal cord could never be repaired.

As Vice Chairman of the National Organization on Disability (N.O.D.), Christopher worked on a number of quality of life issues for the disability community. In partnership with Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, he helped pass the 1999 Work Incentives Improvement Act, which allows people with disabilities to return to work and still receive disability benefits.

Christopher served on the Board of Directors of World T.E.A.M. Sports, a group that organizes and sponsors challenging sporting events for athletes with disabilities; TechHealth, a private company that assists in the relationship between patients and their insurance companies; and LIFE (Leaders in Furthering Education) a charitable organization that supports education and opportunities for the underserved population.

Advocate

In addition to his work on behalf of the Reeve Foundation, Christopher’s advocacy efforts included:

  • Lobbying on behalf of the National Institutes of Health to double the NIH budget in five years. In part because of his leadership, the NIH budget grew from $12 billion dollars in 1998 to nearly $27.2 billion dollars in fiscal 2003.
  • Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies in favor of federally funded stem cell research.
  • Providing instrumental and crucial support for the passage of the New York State Spinal Cord Injury Research Bill (7287C), landmark legislation that makes available up to $8.5 million annually in funds collected from violations of the state’s motor vehicle laws to be appropriated among the leading research facilities in New York. Reeve was also involved in lobbying efforts for similar bills in New Jersey, Kentucky, Virginia and California.
  • Working tirelessly to obtain increased funding from both the public and private sectors to cure Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, MS, ALS, stroke, as well as to repair the damaged spinal cord.
  • Helping to establish the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at the UCI College of Medicine. The center supports the study of trauma to the spinal cord and diseases affecting it, with an emphasis on the development of therapies to promote the recovery and repair of neurological function.

A hero for many causes

Christopher’s community and political involvement pre-dates his spinal cord injury. Over the course of many years, he served as a national spokesman on behalf of the arts, campaign finance reform and the environment.

A founder and co-president of The Creative Coalition, he helped to create recycling in New York City and to persuade state legislature to set aside one billion dollars to protect the city’s water supply.

Since 1976, he was actively involved with Save the Children, Amnesty International, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Environmental Air Force and America’s Watch. In 1987, he demonstrated in Santiago, Chile on behalf of 77 actors threatened with execution by the Pinochet regime. For this action, Christopher was given a special Obie Award in 1988 and the annual award from the Walter Briehl Human Rights Foundation.

His second book, Nothing is Impossible: Reflections on a New Life, was published by Random House in September 2002. The audio rendition of Nothing is Impossible garnered Christopher his second Grammy nomination for Best Spoken Word Album.

At the same time, a documentary film about his advocacy and road to recovery entitled Christopher Reeve: Courageous Steps aired on ABC television in the United States. The documentary was directed by Reeve’s eldest son Matthew and has been distributed around the world.

In September 2003, Christopher was awarded the Mary Woodard Lasker Award for Public Service in Support of Medical Research and the Health Sciences from the Lasker Foundation. Recognized for perceptive, sustained and heroic advocacy for medical research in general, and people living with disabilities in particular, Christopher was selected for this distinction by a jury of scholars and scientists.

In August 2004, Christopher completed directing his latest project, The Brooke Ellison Story. This fact-based A&E cable television movie, which aired October 25, 2004, is based on the book Miracles Happen: One Mother, One Daughter, One Journey. Brooke Ellison became a quadriplegic at age 11 but with determination and the support of her family, Ellison rose above her disability and went on to graduate from Harvard University. The film stars Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Lacey Chabert and John Slattery.

Christopher Reeve died October 10, 2004, of heart failure. He was 52 years old. Christopher is survived by his children Matthew, Alexandra, and Will, all of whom are actively involved with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.