Christopher Reeve probably would have preferred to be only an actor, but it was his fate to be a Superman, both onscreen and off.
The actor, who convinced movie audiences that a son of Krypton could fly and later inspired a world to believe that a paralyzed man could walk again, died Sunday at a New York hospital, his publicist announced. He was 52.
Reeve, who had been immobilized from the neck following a 1995 horseback-riding accident, fell into a coma Saturday at his New York home after experiencing cardiac arrest. The film star was transported to the hospital but never regained consciousness. His death, at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, was described as sudden.
In a statement, Reeve's wife, Dana Reeve, thanked the hospital and the family's staff of nurses and aides--"as well as the millions of fans from around the world who have supported and loved my husband over the years."
According to his publicist, Reeve had been troubled of late by a pressure wound which had become severely infected. A pressure wound is a skin ulcer--a common complication for people confined to bed or unable to move on their own.
As late as last Tuesday, Reeve was on the road, in Chicago, for the cause he made his own in the last decade of his life: spinal-cord-injury research.
"You know, what they always say about Chicago--and that probably goes for the whole state [of Illinois], too--is that when ordinary people make up their minds to get something done, they just go ahead and get it done," Reeve said at an appearance celebrating the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, per WMAQ-TV.
As a crusader, Reeve got things done via his own organization, the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, established after his life-altering accident.
Reeve lobbied for funding for innovative medical procedures such as embryonic-stem-cell research. His fight was noted in Friday's presidential debate by Senator John Kerry, who called Reeve a friend.
"Today we lost a man who was truly America's hero," Kerry, the Democratic nominee for President, said in a statement Monday. "He met every challenge with a courage and character that broke new ground in this struggle."
Before he became a catchall inspirational figure, Reeve was best known for portraying no less than an American icon. Through four movies, great and not so great, Reeve was the red-white-and-true Superman.
In 1976, the then 24, strapping, Juilliard-trained unknown was plucked from a soap opera, Love of Life, and cast as the high-flying superhero. Though entrusted with the Man of Steel's cape, he received just third billing in the 1978 movie Superman, behind Marlon Brando, who played his Kryptonian birth father, Kal-El, and Gene Hackman, who played his Earth-bound nemesis, Lex Luthor.
The original film is still considered a classic of the comic-book genre.
Reeve went on to headline three other Superman films: 1980's Superman II, 1983's Superman III and 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, based on a story by the actor.
Stripped of the blue tights, Reeve struggled to establish an identity as a big-screen leading man. Arguably, his most successful non-Superman role came in 1980's Somewhere in Time. Though not a box-office hit at the time of its release, the quaintly romantic time-travel movie subsequently became a cult favorite.
Reeve also notably starred as an ethically compromised TV reporter in 1987's Street Smart, featuring an early career-making performance by Morgan Freeman, and as a murder-minded would-be playwright in the 1982 adaptation of the Broadway play Deathtrap, opposite Michael Caine. He also had a plum dramatic role in Merchant Ivory's Oscar-nominated 1993 costume drama Remains of the Day, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.
By the mid 1990s, Reeve's career was faltering, leaving him consigned to supporting roles and TV movies.
In 1995, he was featured in the horror remake Village of the Damned. One month after its release, on May 27, 1995, he was nearly killed when he was thrown from his horse during an equestrian event in Virginia.
The fall "totally decimated," as Reeve put it, two vertebrae in the neck. His injuries were so severe that a doctor had to literally reattach his head to his body.
In his 1998 autobiography, Still Me, Reeve wrote that his distraught mother initially asked doctors to remove her son--paralyzed from the neck down, unable to breathe on his own--from life-support machines. Reeve said he, too, doubted whether his compromised existence was worth continuing.
Reeve credited wife Dana, whom he wed in 1992, with giving him the reason to go on.
At his hospital bedside, Dana Reeve uttered "the words that saved my life," Reeve wrote: " 'You're still you. And I love you.' "
And so Reeve endured. He endured a broken arm and a broken leg, by-products of the intensive physical therapy Reeve hoped would keep his body in shape should medicine eventually provide an answer for his neck injury. He endured blood clots and an allergic reaction to a drug that almost killed him.
He endured being held up as the worst-case scenario ("At least you're not as bad off as Christopher Reeve..."). He endured being held up as the heroic "real-life Superman."
Reeve did not think of himself as having been chosen to inspire or lead a great cause.
"We all have many more abilities and internal resources than we know," he wrote in Esquire last January. "My advice is that you don't need to break your neck to find out about them."
After his fall, Hollywood embraced Reeve anew. In 1997, he won one Emmy (for narrating the Outstanding Informational Special Without Pity: A Film About Abilities) and was nominated for another (for directing the HBO movie In the Gloaming).
In 1998, he earned a Screen Actors Guild Award for starring in the TV-movie remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, his neck-down paralysis a grave upping of the stakes from James Stewart's broken-legged voyeur.
In 1999, he notched a Grammy for the audiobook version of Still Me, honored as Best Spoken-Word Album.
As his post-injury career stretched on, Reeve remained active. This past year, he guest starred on Smallville, the WB's teen take on the Superman legend, and directed his second TV movie, The Brooke Ellison Story, a docudrama about a girl determined to pursue a Harvard education after being paralyzed in a car accident. The A&E telepic is scheduled to air Oct. 25.
But the thing that Reeve pursued the hardest proved the most elusive--the ability to walk. He vowed he'd be on his feet by his 50th birthday in 2002. The deadline came and went with Reeve tethered to the machines and caregivers who helped him get around.
Still, Reeve made progress. In 1997, he said he regained some feeling in his arms and hands. In 2003, he announced an experimental device was allowing him to breathe on his own for the first time since the riding accident.
All this was well and good, but Reeve wanted to walk. In his dreams, he said, he was always whole. He was never paralyzed.
Born Sept. 25, 1952, in New York City, Reeve is survived by his wife and their son, Will, 12, and his two grown children by his former longtime girlfriend, model Gae Exton, Matthew, 25, and Alexandra, 21.
(Originally published Oct. 10, 2004 at 10:40 p.m. PT.)