By KATHLEEN CASSEDY
Christopher Reeve enjoyed early success as an actor and became a full-fledged movie star after successfully portraying the comic strip hero Superman in a series of four Hollywood movies made in the late 1970s and '80s. "I feel privileged to have been the custodian of that character who is so important to American culture," he remarked during a colloquy on Oct. 26, which was part of Parade magazine's "It's About Time" series with individuals whose lives and leadership have influenced culture at the end of this century.
Each program was conducted before audiences in the Coolidge Auditorium in the Jefferson Building and recorded for the Library's archives as a permanent record of what people thought and felt at the end of the 20th century. (An earlier program featured Michael Eisner, CEO and Chairman of the Walt Disney Co. See Information Bulletin, November 1999).
Mr. Reeve was strong, agile and active when, in 1995, his life took its own dramatic turn: an equestrian accident damaged his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the diaphragm down at age 38. "In face of initial despair, Mr. Reeve's wife, Dana, reminded him, 'You are still you,' and with her support and the support of family and friends, doctors and total strangers, Christopher Reeve became a powerful advocate for people with disabilities and increased funding for medical research," recounted Donald L. Scott, Deputy Librarian of Congress, as he introduced Reeve.
The interview was co-sponsored by the Library's Disability Employment Program, and in part by a generous contribution of Evergreen Aviation and its chairman, Dale Smith. The program's interviewer, Walter Anderson, editor of Parade magazine, conceived the series.
Mr. Anderson asked Mr. Reeve why he became an actor. The answer was simple, yet profound: acting was paramount. "I had to be [an actor]," Mr. Reeve said, because "theater is love of language and ideas, and it's also a place where you can safely express your feelings and your emotional life. This was very important for me growing up. [It was] a safe place to explore what I had inside."
Mr. Reeve considers himself very lucky because he has been able to continue his career following the accident. He was recently cast as the lead in the remake of the Hitchcock film classic "Rear Window," which had starred Jimmy Stewart as a man temporarily bound to a wheelchair. Mr. Anderson described how, for one scene, Mr. Reeve insisted that his tube, which he needs for breathing, be cut so that he could realistically gasp for air. "I tell that story because of your commitment to detail, to reality, to truth, to acting," Mr. Anderson said.
Since his accident, Mr. Reeve directed his first film, "In the Gloaming," which was nominated for five Emmys and won six Cable Ace Awards. He is currently preparing production for a romantic film, "Heartbreakers," that he will direct this spring in New York City.
Ever since high school, Mr. Reeve has been politically active. As president of the Creative Coalition, an arts organization concerned with First Amendment issues, he actively fought censorship. Now his passion is aimed at calling attention to the population explosion and fighting "medical injustices." As vice chairman of the National Organization for Disabilities (NOD), he works to improve the quality of life for the disabled. NOD helped to pass the 1999 Work Incentives Improvement Act, which allows people with disabilities to return to work and still receive disability benefits. Now NOD is working to change medical insurance policies that put a $1 million cap on insurance claims.
"It sounds like a lot [of money] until you have a devastating illness or condition, then you go through that in two or three years. We're fighting very hard to get caps raised to $10 million, which is not an unreasonable burden by the insurance companies," Mr. Reeve said. "The reason insurance companies do this is because only 30 percent of people who are denied essential services fight back."
Mr. Reeve also chairs the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, which funds research for spinal-cord injury paralysis and afflictions of the brain and central nervous system. Mr. Reeve says he feels very lucky because medical research is on the threshold of a cure for spinal injuries. His health has also been improving, so that he can move his diaphragm and breathe for periods of time without using his tube, and he has gained full sensation at the base of his spine. He is also inspired by the hundreds of thousands of letters he has received from people all over the world.
While Mr. Reeve has been identified with the hero Superman, his own heroes are very different. They are the people he has met in the hospitals and rehabilitation centers. They are "people who have had to endure terrible catastrophes in their lives, and don't have the resources they need to overcome them. Yet they fight everyday for the best quality of life they can manage," he explained. "They aren't larger than life, they can't walk through walls. In fact, they've got walls all around them, yet they accept, and they go forward to meet incredible challenges of endurance. ... These people are my heroes."
Mr. Reeve hopes "that in the next century, there will be greater understanding, greater tolerance and less of the profit motive that is driving [insurance] agencies." If the standing ovation he received was any indication, his audience felt the same way too.
Ms. Cassedy is a Washington free-lance writer.