Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Christopher Reeve And The Irony Of Celebrity

It was October of 1978. I was a third grader, infatuated with super heroes, comic books and afternoon cartoons. My friends and I split our playtime between baseball cards, superhero action figures and our Star Wars play-sets. Then came one of childhood's most memorable moments. The "big reveal."

Every Tuesday, our 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Meshenberg would hand out our Scholastic Weekly Reader newsletter. And in this particular issue, we were going to find out who was picked to play the title role of Superman in the upcoming big screen blockbuster. My friends and I had heard that more than 200 actors had been auditioned for the part. Some of us sat in the playground at recess guessing as to whether the man they picked would look like our comic book hero. And then finally, the moment arrived. Mrs. Meshenberg opened the package of the folded newsletter and handed out a stack to the first person in each row. As the Weekly Readers made their way back, you could hear the turn of the page and the oohs and ahhs of our classmates. The name Christopher Reeve had been purely anonymous to us up to this moment. But that muscular man in the blue spandex and red cape flying over the NY skyline pictured in the center-spread of our newsletter was absolutely perfect. He had the hair, the face, those blue eyes. We were mesmerized.

I carefully packed up my Scholastic newsletter and brought it home for the first and only time. That night I grabbed a scotch tape dispenser from my Dad's desk, unfolded the 2-page spread and carefully hung the mini-poster on my bedroom wall, opposite my bed and just beneath my window. It would hang there for more than a decade, one of the proudest souvenirs of my childhood.

A few months later, my parents took me to see the first Superman movie. My heart was beating out of my chest with anticipation. The movie was loaded with award winning actors including Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty. None of them meant anything to me at the time, although Hackman was convincing and excellent as the wicked Lex Luther. But from that day forward, Christopher Reeve became permanently heroic in my life. There would be an excellent sequel a few years later, followed by a watered-down third film and then a train-wreck 4th one. I pretty much lost track after that, though I never stopped rooting for Christopher Reeve to remain a success... even when he seemed to have vanished from the public eye.

Flash forward to the spring of 1992. I was a senior, majoring in Communications at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. This was one morning in March. A memo had been sent from the Theater department to the Communications students, inviting us to join the Theater-Arts majors at a special assembly that afternoon in the Olmstead Theater. It happened that I would be free during that hour, though I was reluctant to give up my study-time for some random, unknown presentation. It was only at the urging of one of my favorite teachers, Professor Helen Stritzler, that I elected to pop in. Suffice to say, it is an hour I will never forget.

Christopher Reeve in 1992
Just after 1pm the overhead lights were dimmed, the stage lights went on and out to the podium walked my boyhood idol, Christopher Reeve. There were some audible gasps from the audience as he approached the microphone. Here was one of the most famous faces of our lifetime, standing just a few feet away, looking every bit as tall, robust and handsome as we remembered him from the big screen. And then he uttered the opening line that stunned the room: "Superman was the greatest thing to ever happen to me. But as an aspiring serious actor, it was also the worst."

He paused for dramatic effect and watched as jaws dropped collectively around the half-full theater. "I'm here to talk to you today about the subject of typecasting. It is one in which probably no one else is better versed."

Yes, Christopher Reeve, Superman, the face whose likeness had been turned into a million action figures, made an untold fortune and whose face stared at me from my bedroom wall for a decade was now right in front of me, explaining his "Superman curse." It was a shocking revelation that required clarification, which would soon be forthcoming.

Mr. Reeve told us that the first Superman movie turned him from acting obscurity into an overnight superstar. He talked about the perks of fame, of being recognized on the street, signing autographs wherever he went and getting comped for meals at restaurants. "I was only paid $250,000 combined for those first two Superman movies. Didn't make me rich, but it sure put me on the map. I went from being an actor in training at Julliard to local theater to one of the biggest roles in movie history. It all happened so fast. Doesn't usually happen that way," he said matter-of-factly.

For continuity purposes, the first two Superman films were
shot consecutively, leaving Reeve little time to pursue other acting roles. But after the release of Superman II, he found that other parts were oddly hard to find. "My agent would send me to auditions and casting directors. And everywhere I heard the same thing. You're too clean, too perfect, too heroic to play this part. No one will buy into it with you being a superhero."

Christopher Reeve & Jane Seymour
He went on to explain how he tried to land roles that would enable him to distance himself from the ultra-good guy. A role in a low-budget romantic fantasy film, Somewhere In Time opposite Jane Seymour seemed to be the departure he was seeking. But an actor's union strike prevented him from promoting the film and it was in and out of the theaters in only 3 weeks. When other lead roles in movies eluded him, Reeve left Hollywood and moved to Boston, where he starred in a theatrical play. This led him to a role on Broadway in a production called The Fifth Of July. Reviewers praised his performance. For his next film role, Reeve managed to land the part of a homicidal playwright in the film, Death Trap. He said of that turn: "I wanted to play a morally ambiguous character who was neither clearly good nor clearly bad, someone to whom life is much more complex than the characters I've played previously." He earned praise for his portrayal, though again the movie proved another box office failure. And with few viable options for his next big opportunity, Reeve agreed to again don the spandex for another turn as the man of steel in Superman III.

Christopher Reeve and Richard Pryor in Superman III
"This time, the money was there. Well over a million dollars, plus merchandising royalties. It wasn't a great film, but it made me wealthy beyond my dreams. If I didn't still consider myself a serious actor, seeking a lead role in a big award caliber film, I probably could have quit right there and lived happily off the Superman money."

A number of smaller film roles kept him busy in the late 1980s, but none that earned him more than minor acclaim, and little financial reward. "I found most of the scripts they were sending me were poorly constructed heroic characters, and I felt the starring roles could easily be played by anyone with a strong physique. They didn't need me specifically, aside from my Superman persona." In an attempt to further distance himself from the hero role, Reeve accepted a shocking part, playing a vicious child molester in the TV movie, A Bump In The Night. He said of this performance: "I was sure that this one would finally drive the wedge between me and the Superman character. And critics thought I was great at it. Well, all except for TV Guide. The week that the movie aired, they ran this dreadful review saying: Who would ever believe that Superman could hurt a child? Purely sacrilegious and painful to watch. Can you imagine?"

There was an audible laugh in the room as he completed this story, though the look on his face seemed to indicate that he was seeking sympathy and not chuckles.

Toward the end of the presentation, Mr Reeve recounted an incident that had happened to him and his then girlfriend, Dana, in New York City. They had been picnicking in Central Park on a beautiful Sunday afternoon with the two children from Reeve's first marriage. "And then suddenly, out of nowhere, I hear this commotion in this distance. And here comes this man running in our direction at top speed, being chased by this older woman. As they got closer, I heard someone shout that the man had snatched her purse. Well, there was no way this woman was going to catch the guy, and here he was, running almost in a straight line right at me. My instinct kicked in and I jumped up, stood in the guy's path and did my best to tackle him to the grass. And sure enough, he did have the woman's
pocketbook over his shoulder. So I pinned him down and waited for the police to come and sort out the whole mess. Some people were clapping. A few might have recognized me. But honestly, I was just being a good Samaritan, nothing more. Anyway, the woman got her purse back and the guy got arrested. Oh, and someone just happened to snap my picture. And the next day, would you believe there I am on the front page of the New York Post, the Daily News and probably The Daily Planet, all with the same headline: SUPERMAN SAVES THE DAY. Even doing a good deed that anyone would have done, I somehow get linked right back to being the guy I tried so hard to get away from."

Christopher Reeve ended his lecture by taking a few questions from the audience. He then graciously offered to sign autographs for the students, given that the crowd was less than a hundred people. For a moment, I thought to myself that it would have been truly fantastic if I had known in advance that Mr. Reeve was going to be the surprise presenter that day. For sure I would have taken down that 1978 Scholastic Superman poster from my old childhood bedroom wall and... and after that speech he just gave about Superman and typecasting, there was absolutely no way I would have had the courage to ask him to sign it. In my imagination, he might have seen this as some form of career-blocking Kryptonite. 

Sadly, we all know how this story ends. On May 25, 1995, some four years after he visited my college, Christopher Reeve suffered a devastating spinal injury during an equestrian event. It left him paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life. But life didn't immediately end for Reeve with this tragic episode. A complicated surgery and months of rehabilitation enabled the actor the ability to speak again. And not long thereafter, he became an activist for Spinal Chord research, and later launched a foundation to raise funds in an effort to find a cure for paralysis. His movie career didn't end with this tragedy either. In 1996 he narrated an HBO documentary called, Without Pity. A year later he got to direct an HBO film called, In The Gloaming. And in 1998, Reeve starred in a remake of the Alfred
Hitchcock classic, Rear Window, for which he won a SAG award for Best Actor. 

Most ironically, the respect that had long eluded Christopher Reeve throughout his career as a healthy man due to the bias of his seemingly unbreakable Superman persona had finally arrived. And yet, no matter how much frustration Christopher Reeve expressed that day at the Olmstead theater about the perils of typecasting, undoubtedly he would have traded in all his post paralysis acclaim in an eyeblink to have continued a normal, healthy, awardless life, forever in the shadow of the man with the long red cape.

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