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Last Updated: Monday, 11 October, 2004, 07:18 GMT 08:18 UK
Obituary: Christopher Reeve
Christopher Reeve
Christopher Reeve was paralysed in a riding accident 1995
BBC News Online looks at the life and career of Superman actor Christopher Reeve, who has died at the age of 52.

Reeve will always be known for his role as movie hero Superman and the heroic way he dealt with his paralysis after a horse riding accident.

The strapping six-foot-four New Yorker was unknown outside casting agents' offices before he became internationally famous for his role in the 1978 blockbuster, alongside Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman.

The film and its three sequels made Reeve a global star and made $300m (167m) at box offices.

But Reeve's life was shattered in May 1995 when he was thrown from his horse during an equestrian competition in Culpeper, Virginia.

Paralysis cure

Reeve's injuries were so severe that he stopped breathing for three minutes - his head had to be reattached to his spinal column.

The result was paralysis from the neck down.

He became reliant on others to keep him alive and breathing only with the aid of an oxygen tube, he came through a near-suicidal depression, but managed to continue his acting career.

But it was finding a cure for paralysis, primarily through the work of his own organisation, the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, that Reeve focused on in his later years.

Christopher Reeve
Reeve appeared in Superman with Gene Hackman

Reeve's father was, at the time of the actor's birth in 1952, professor of Slavic languages at Columbia University.

His 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 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, Robin Williams, remained a close friend.

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

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

Christopher Reeve
Reeve was a keen horse rider
Film 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.

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

Four films and $300m later, he was one of Hollywood's most famous 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".

Movement regained

In his years after the accident, Reeve was always determined to walk again and, with the love and support of his wife Dana, led calls for more research into such injuries.

Reeve regained movement in a lot of places, having been told after the accident he would never again have movement below his shoulders.

An operation in 2003 allowed him to breathe unaided for hours at a time and, through rigorous exercise, he had gradually recovered various parts of his body.

"Suddenly, five years post-injury, I found I could move my left index finger," he said.

"So from then on, it has just been, 'the sky's the limit'."

The star said he could also feel a pin prick over most of his body and could distinguish between hot and cold, and sharp and dull sensations.

At the time, doctors said the progress indicated that he might one day be able to walk again.

In an interview, Reeve said the greatest thing was being able to feel the hugs of his wife and his three children again.


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