October 11, 2004

Actor Christopher Reeve Dies of Heart Failure

NEW YORK - "Superman" actor Christopher Reeve, who became a committed campaigner for spinal cord research after being paralyzed in a riding accident nine years ago, died of heart failure, his publicist said on Monday.


Reeve, 52, went into a coma on Saturday when he suffered a heart attack during treatment for an infected pressure wound and died in Northern Westchester Hospital on Sunday afternoon without regaining consciousness, publicist Wesley Combs said.

Reeve's wife, Dana, issued a statement thanking "the millions of fans around the world who have supported and loved my husband over the years."

Reeve, confined to a wheelchair since his horseback riding accident in 1995, had in recent years used his celebrity status to mobilize funds and support for research into the treatment of spinal cord injuries, including the controversial stem cell research that has become an issue in the U.S. presidential election.

Reeve's family asked that donations be made in his honor to the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, formed in 1999 to boost collaboration between experts working on the problem and to encourage new approaches.

An accomplished rider who owned several horses, Reeve suffered multiple injuries including two shattered neck vertebrae when he was thrown from his horse at an equestrian event in Commonwealth Park in Virginia.

Doctors initially predicted he would never have any feeling or movement below his head. But his foundation's Web site, www.ChristopherReeve.org, said he had experienced a degree of recovery that his doctors considered "remarkable."

Reeve was a strong supporter of the research using human stem cells, which his foundation described as having "enormous therapeutic utility." Whether federal funds should be spent on such research is a issue dividing President Bush, who has limited such research, and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who supports expanded efforts.


Dr. Wise Young of Rutgers University, who researches spinal cord injuries and treated Reeve, said he was "heartbroken."

"I think more than anything else he taught me the use of two four letter words -- cure and hope," Young said on NBC's "Today" show.

Young said he had been set to see Reeve on Sunday, adding that his former patient would have been sad to miss out on the upcoming election and had been very interested that his bill, the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act, was moving forward in the U.S. Congress, seeking $300 million for spinal cord research.

"We will have a cure, I think that will be Christopher's legacy. We have to work very hard to make this happen," Young said.

Born on Sept. 25, 1952, in New York City, Reeve attended the city's Juilliard School and graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

He began his acting career in summer stock and appeared on the television soap opera "Love of Life" while still in college.

Reeve debuted on Broadway in "A Matter of Gravity" in 1976, playing Katharine Hepburn's grandson, and later starred in Lanford Wilson's "Fifth of July," in which he portrayed embittered Kenneth Talley, a gay, crippled Vietnam War vet.

Despite his theater credentials and work on television, Reeve is best known as the hero of the "Superman" films.

He was a virtual unknown when he was chosen from 200 candidates to become the big screen's incarnation of 1978's "Superman," in which he played fumbling Clark Kent who at will turns into the flying superhero.

In 1993 he appeared in the Merchant and Ivory hit "The Remains of the Day," which was filmed in the English countryside.

But even there, it was hard to shrug off his super hero image.

"It is very strange to walk into the House and Hound, some pub from the 15th century in the middle of Wilshire someplace, then -- 'Aye, it's Superman, here he comes!"' he said in an 1993 interview on CNN.

Earlier movies included "Gray Lady Down," "Somewhere in Time," "Switching Channels," "The Bostonians" and "Deathtrap."

Reeve and his wife had one son, Will, 12, and he had two children from a previous relationship -- Matthew, 25, and Alexandra, 21.


Reeve's Greatest Role Was as Real-Life 'Superman'

LONDON - Although he will always be remembered for portraying "Superman," the greatest role of actor Christopher Reeve's life was as a champion of sufferers of spinal cord injuries and an advocate of stem cell research.

Unlike the man of steel, he wasn't faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and he couldn't leap tall buildings in a single bound.

But the courage and determination Reeve displayed in trying to overcome his paralysis from a 1995 horse-riding accident far surpassed any of the feats of the comic book hero.

"He became a real-life Superman. His heroism, his courage was extraordinary," Colin Blakemore, the chief executive of Britain's Medical Research Council, told Reuters.

"Like many people who suffer some terrible injury, Christopher Reeve was reinvented by that experience and brought the kind of energy and enthusiasm that made him successful as a film star to an entirely different issue, with huge effect."

Reeve, 52, died on Sunday of heart failure after having treatment for an infected pressure wound without realizing his dream of walking again.

But in the nine years since his accident, he made personal progress to regain some feeling, established the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, a non-profit research organization, and used his fame to raise millions of dollars for research into spinal cord injuries.

He also provided hope and inspiration to other patients and lobbied for scientists to be allowed to conduct stem cell research in the hopes of eventually curing paralysis and other illnesses such as diabetes and Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

Reeve believed the strict limits by the administration of President Bush on the controversial areas of stem cell research, which he criticized as misguided and inadequate, could eventually be overturned by individual states.

"He has been our champion. If you think of spinal injuries you automatically conjure up a picture of Christopher Reeve," said Paul Smith, executive director of the Spinal Injuries Association in England.

"When it comes down to seeking a solution to a broken spinal cord, I think he has pushed hard and undoubtedly raised a huge amount of money that wouldn't have been there for spinal research. He has definitely made a big difference."

It is because of Reeve that spinal cord injuries and stem cell research are so widely discussed, according to Smith. The fact that it happened to Reeve showed it can affect anyone, even Superman.

Reeve did not live long enough to see whether stem cell research could help restore movement to the paralyzed. The research is still in its early days and no one knows what advances it may bring.

"He pushed the boundaries as far as he could get them to go. I don't think we would have gotten where we are now without him," said Smith.

"If an answer is there and it comes out of stem cell research, then Christopher Reeve will have made his mark in history and will have undoubtedly been one of the people who brought it about," he added.


'Superman' Christopher Reeve Dies at 52

MOUNT KISCO, N.Y. - "Superman" actor Christopher Reeve, who turned personal tragedy into a public crusade and from his wheelchair became the nation's most recognizable spokesman for spinal cord research, has died. He was 52.

Reeve died Sunday of complications from an infection caused by a bedsore. He went into cardiac arrest Saturday, while at his Pound Ridge home, then fell into a coma and died Sunday at a hospital surrounded by his family, his publicist said.

His advocacy for stem cell research helped it emerge as a major campaign issue between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry. His name was even mentioned by Kerry during the second presidential debate on Friday.

In the last week Reeve had developed a serious systemic infection, a common problem for people living with paralysis who develop bedsores and depend on tubes and other medical devices needed for their care. He entered the hospital Saturday.

Dana Reeve thanked her husband's personal staff of nurses and aides, "as well as the millions of fans from around the world."

"He put up with a lot," his mother, Barbara Johnson, told the syndicated television show "The Insider." "I'm glad that he is free of all those tubes."

Before the 1995 horse-riding accident that caused his paralysis, Reeve's athletic, 6-foot-4-inch frame and love of adventure made him a natural choice for the title role in the first "Superman" movie in 1978. He insisted on performing his own stunts.

"Look, I've flown, I've become evil, loved, stopped and turned the world backward, I've faced my peers, I've befriended children and small animals and I've rescued cats from trees," Reeve told the Los Angeles Times in 1983, just before the release of the third "Superman" movie. "What else is there left for Superman to do that hasn't been done?"

Though he owed his fame to it, Reeve made a concerted effort to, as he often put it, "escape the cape." He played an embittered, crippled Vietnam veteran in the 1980 Broadway play "Fifth of July," a lovestruck time-traveler in the 1980 movie "Somewhere in Time," and an aspiring playwright in the 1982 suspense thriller "Deathtrap."

More recent films included John Carpenter's "Village of the Damned," and the HBO movies "Above Suspicion" and "In the Gloaming," which he directed. Among his other film credits are "The Remains of the Day," "The Aviator," and "Morning Glory."

Reeve's life changed completely after he broke his neck in May 1995 when he was thrown from his horse during an equestrian competition in Culpeper, Va.

Enduring months of therapy to allow him to breathe for longer and longer periods without a respirator, Reeve emerged to lobby Congress for better insurance protection against catastrophic injury. He moved an Academy Award audience to tears with a call for more films about social issues.

"Hollywood needs to do more," he said in the 1996 Oscar awards appearance. "Let's continue to take risks. Let's tackle the issues. In many ways our film community can do it better than anyone else."

He returned to directing, and even returned to acting in a 1998 production of "Rear Window," a modern update of the Hitchcock thriller about a man in a wheelchair who is convinced a neighbor has been murdered. Reeve won a Screen Actors Guild award for best actor in a TV movie or miniseries.

"I was worried that only acting with my voice and my face, I might not be able to communicate effectively enough to tell the story," Reeve said. "But I was surprised to find that if I really concentrated, and just let the thoughts happen, that they would read on my face."

Reeve also made several guest appearances on the WB series "Smallville" as Dr. Swann, a scientist who gave the teenage Clark Kent insight into his future as Superman.

In 2000, Reeve was able to move his index finger, and a specialized workout regimen made his legs and arms stronger. With rigorous therapy, involving repeated electrical stimulation of the muscles, he also regained sensation in other parts of his body. He vowed to walk again.

"I refuse to allow a disability to determine how I live my life. I don't mean to be reckless, but setting a goal that seems a bit daunting actually is very helpful toward recovery," Reeve said.

Dr. John McDonald treated Reeve as director of the Spinal Cord Injury Program at Washington University in St. Louis. He called Reeve "one of the most intense individuals I've ever met in my life."

"Before him there was really no hope," McDonald said. "If you had a spinal cord injury like his there was not much that could be done, but he's changed all that. He's demonstrated that there is hope and that there are things that can be done."

Dr. Raymond Onders, who implanted electrodes in Reeve's diaphragm in a groundbreaking surgery to help him breathe, said the sore that led to the infection was not Reeve's only recent health problem.

"Many different problems develop after nine years of being dependent on a ventilator, not being able to move yourself, having intestinal problems. ... It just slowly builds up over the years," Onders told ABC's "Good Morning America."

Reeve was born Sept. 25, 1952, in New York City, son of a novelist and a newspaper reporter. About age 10, he made his first stage appearance — in Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Yeoman of the Guard" at a theater in Princeton, N.J.

After graduating from Cornell University in 1974, he landed a part as coldhearted bigamist Ben Harper on the soap opera "Love of Life." He also performed frequently on stage, winning his first Broadway role as the grandson of Katharine Hepburn's character in "A Matter of Gravity."

Reeve's first movie role was a minor one in the submarine disaster movie "Gray Lady Down," released in 1978. "Superman" soon followed. Reeve was selected for the role from among about 200 aspirants.

While filming "Superman" in London, Reeve met modeling agency co-founder Gae Exton, and the two began a relationship that lasted several years. They had a son and a daughter, but never wed.

Reeve later married Dana Morosini; they had one son, Will, 12. Reeve also is survived by his mother, Barbara Johnson; his father, Franklin Reeve; his brother, Benjamin Reeve; and the children from his relationship with Exton, Matthew, 25, and Alexandra, 21.

Funeral plans were not immediately announced.

In his 1998 book, "Still Me," he recalled that after the accident, when he contemplating giving up, his wife told him: "I want you to know that I'll be with you for the long haul, no matter what. You're still you. And I love you."

His children helped, too, he told interviewer Barbara Walters.

"I could see how much they needed me and wanted me ... and how lucky we all are and that my brain is on straight."

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