More MS news articles for September 2002

Christopher Reeve: Living in hope

Friday, 1 March, 2002, 17:10 GMT

Before the riding accident which left him paralysed, Christopher Reeve's portrayal of Superman embodied the all-American hero. But, as Andrew Walker of the BBC's News Profiles Unit explains, his hopes for an eventual cure may rest on medical research currently being carried out in Britain.
You have probably never seen the 1995 TV film, Above Suspicion. A run-of-the-mill thriller about an ex-cop who plots to kill his unfaithful wife and her lover, it was a genre piece that was never going to win any awards.

But consider this. Above Suspicion's novelty came in the fact that its leading character, Dempsey, was a wheelchair-user, a police officer paralysed in a shooting.

He was portrayed by an actor with a household name, a strapping six-foot-four New Yorker who enjoyed skiing, scuba-diving and yachting. A man still hoping, maybe in vain, to recapture the worldwide fame which his most famous role had brought him.

To understand the part of Dempsey he'd done his research well. In an interview to promote the film he ruminated: "A couple of days at the spinal-cord trauma unit and you can see how easily it can happen.

"One moment everything is fine and then the world falls apart."

The actor was Christopher Reeve of Superman fame. A week after Above Suspicion hit the small screen, he was lying seriously ill in an intensive care unit at the University of Virginia hospital, paralysed from the neck down by a freak riding accident.

His injuries were so severe that he had stopped breathing for three minutes: his head had to be reattached to his spinal column. Nothing more needs to be said about 'life imitating art'.

But that was then. This is now.

Nearly seven years on from his accident, Christopher Reeve is still here. Though paralysed, reliant on others to keep him alive and breathing only with the aid of an oxygen tube, he has come through a near-suicidal depression and has continued his acting career.

Now he wants a cure and he is looking to British scientists to provide it.

To call Christopher Reeve's life a rollercoaster is to seriously overestimate the fairground engineer's art. Born in 1952 in Manhattan, his father was professor of Slavic languages at Columbia University.


To his lasting distress, Reeve's parents split when he was a toddler. "They had a tendency to use me like a chess piece," he later told one interviewer.

Seeking solace in sailing, swimming and the theatre, he read English and Music Theory at Cornell University before becoming one of two Cornell students selected to study drama at New York's elite Juilliard School: the other fortunate applicant, one Robin Williams, remains a close friend.

A Broadway appearance alongside Katherine Hepburn and an ill-fated sojourn to Hollywood, when a loss of motivation almost ended his acting career, brought him brief prominence though little success.

But a supporting role in the off-Broadway production of My Life, which opened in January 1977, would be his unlikely ticket to superstardom.

Movie producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who had bought the rights to film Superman, were looking for an unknown actor to star in the title role alongside Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman.

Reeve screen-tested for the role and, through his meticulous preparation and close physical resemblance to the comic-strip hero, was given the part.

Witty portrayal

Four films and $300 million at the box-office later, he was one of Tinseltown's most bankable stars. The success of Superman was due, in no small measure, to Reeve's witty and bumbling portrayal of the Man of Steel.

But the years between Superman and his accident were filled with limited roles and unfulfilled promise. He was unable to, as he put it, "escape the cape".

Today Reeve is looking for another kind of escape altogether: from the paralysis caused by damage to his spinal cord. He has always determined to walk again and, with the love and support of his wife Dana, has led calls for more research into injuries of this type.

The spinal cord is a delicate thing. Fractions of a centimetre in diameter, it does not regenerate itself if damaged, cutting the nerve signals, which allow us to feel and move, from the brain to the rest of the body.

But, following an historic House of Lords ruling, the United Kingdom now permits research into stem cells derived from cloned human embryos.

It is this research, still banned in the United States, upon which Reeve and many others, with disorders ranging from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's to stroke and multiple sclerosis, are pinning their hopes.

"I applaud the House of Lords' decision," he says, and looks forward to "the beginning of an accelerated period of scientific progress that will lead to new treatments and cures for these dreaded afflictions."

Although he may be accused of clutching at straws, there can be no doubting the determination of Christopher Reeve, and countless lesser-known others, to transform their lives.

And do not forget, the original Superman, who first appeared in Action Comics in June 1938, could not fly. Even he took some time to take to the skies.

© Copyright 2002, BBC