Though he has played a variety of leading roles, tall, dark, and wholesomely handsome Christopher Reeve will always be the definitive Superman to an entire generation of "Man of Steel" fans. That his definitive character was such a model of physical prowess only serves to intensify the tragedy of Reeve's post-Superman years, marked by a 1995 horseback riding accident that left him almost completely paralyzed.
A native of New York City, Reeve was born to journalist Barbara Johnson and professor/writer Franklin Reeve on September 25, 1952. When he was four, his parents divorced, and Reeve and his brother went with their mother to Princeton, NJ, after she married her second husband, a stockbroker. Reeve became interested in acting at the age of eight, an interest that complemented his musical studies at the time. The following year, he made his professional acting debut in a production of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta at Princeton's McCarter Theater. He would continue to work with the theater through his early teens and further enhanced his resumé at the age of 15, when he received a summer apprenticeship to study drama in Williamstown. The following year, he secured his first agent.
Reeve went on to major in English and music at Cornell University. Following his graduation, he pursued a master's degree in drama at Juilliard and then studied under actor John Houseman's tutelage before heading to Europe to work at London's Old Vic and the Comedie Française of Paris. Upon his 1974 return stateside, Reeve took over the role of Ben Harper on the long-running soap opera Love of Life; he stayed with the show through 1978. During this period, he made his Broadway debut, starring opposite Katharine Hepburn in a production of A Matter of Gravity.
Though he had made his feature-film debut with a small role in the undersea adventure Gray Lady Down (1977), Reeve did not become a star until he beat out a number of big name actors, including Robert Redford, Sylvester Stallone, and Clint Eastwood, to don the metallic blue body stocking and red cape in Richard Donner's 1978 blockbuster Superman: The Movie. Though the film abounded with exuberant, sly humor, Reeve played his Superman straight, giving him great charm, a touch of irony, and a clumsy wistfulness, thereby creating a believable alien hero who masquerades as a bungling newsman and pines for the love of unknowing colleague Lois Lane. The film was one of the year's most popular and earned Reeve a British Academy Award for Most Promising Newcomer. He went on to reprise the role in the film's three sequels, none of which matched the quality and verve of the original.
In a concerted effort to avoid typecasting, Reeve attempted to prove his versatility by essaying a wide variety of roles. In 1980, while Superman II was in production, he returned to Broadway to appear as a gay amputee in Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July. That same year, he also starred in the romantic fantasy Somewhere in Time, playing a Chicago playwright who travels back in time to capture the attentions of a beautiful woman (Jane Seymour). Though generally cast as a good guy, Reeve occasionally attempted darker characters. In Deathtrap (1981), he played a crazed playwright, while he portrayed a corrupt priest in the dismal Monsignor (1982) and a reporter entangled in the prostitution industry in Street Smart (1987). Reeve returned to television in Sleeping Beauty, an entry in Shelley Duvall's distinguished Faerie Tale Theater. He subsequently had success appearing in television movies such as Anna Karenina (1985) and Death Dreams (1992). In the late '80s, Reeve became involved in various social causes and co-founded the Creative Coalition. He was also active with Amnesty International, even going to Chile in 1987 to show support for imprisoned authors. His interest in improving the world is apparent in the earnest but much-panned Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), for which he wrote the story.
By the mid-'90s, Reeve was still busy juggling his film, television, and stage work. It all abruptly came to a halt in June 1995, when he fell from a horse during a steeplechase race. Having broken several key bones in his neck, Reeve was left completely paralyzed and could not even breathe without special assistance. The doctors' prognosis for his recovery remained grim, but Reeve still retained hope that advances in medical science would someday allow him to walk again. In 1996, he helped establish the UCI Reeve-Irvine Research Center, which specializes in spinal cord injuries; Reeve's work with the center was indicative of the strength and fortitude he had consistently displayed since his accident. In addition to his offscreen commitments, Reeve continued to work in film and television, making his directorial debut with the critically acclaimed made-for-cable drama In the Gloaming (1997) and starring in the 1998 TV-movie remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window.
Reeve credited much of his post-accident survival to his wife, former cabaret singer Dana Morosini. The two married in 1992, after Reeve separated from Gae Exton. He and Exton -- a modeling executive whom he met while filming the first Superman in England -- never married, but had two children together. He also had a son with Morosini.
On October 10, 2004, after years as an outspoken advocate for stem-cell and spinal-cord-injury research, Reeve passed away from heart failure at the age of 52. A year and a half later, his wife Dana died of lung cancer.
Prior to their deaths, the Reeves began to develop a pet project, the CG-animated feature Everyone's Hero, with voices by an all-star line-up of performers. The picture told the story of a young boy in the 1930s whose talking bat is stolen by a crooked security guard. It was released in 2007. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi