Cornell alumnus Christopher Reeve ’74 passed away on Sunday. He fought for nine years in his crusade to promote various spinal injury-related causes, including federally funded stem cell research, after becoming paralyzed in a 1995 equestrian injury.
Reeve died at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. at the age of 52, the result of an infection that had spread throughout his body.
The illness began with a pressure wound, which occurs commonly when individuals apply constant force on an area that eventually deteriorates and becomes vulnerable to severe infection and tissue death. Reeve fell into a coma on Saturday.
Reeve graduated from Cornell in 1974 as a double major in English and music theory. During his time at the University, Reeve was extremely active in theater. He attended the Julliard School after graduating from Cornell and studied acting under the instruction of Prof. John Houseman, drama, the Julliard School.
Reeve had been acting ever since he was eight years old, appearing first in school plays and later in the McCarter Theater, a professional theater in Princeton, N.J. where he was raised. The McCarter Theater led to his performance in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta when he was nine, and by age 15 he had become a member of Actors Equity and worked as an apprentice at the Williamstown Theater Festival. His dreams of acting on Broadway were first fulfilled in 1976, after graduating from Cornell, when he starred in “A Matter of Gravity” as Katharine Hepburn’s grandson.
Reeve rapidly escalated to legendary status when he won the lead role of Clark Kent in the 1978 blockbuster Superman: The Movie. He also acted in three Superman sequels, again portraying Clark Kent, a humorous yet sensitive reporter who used his special abilities to bring criminals to justice.
After his breakthrough role in Superman, Reeve continued his acting career in films such as Deathtrap, Somewhere in Time, The Bostonians, Street Smart, Speechless, Noises Off, Above Suspicion and Remains of the Day, among others. Reeve was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Remains of the Day.
Reeve returned to Cornell in 1993 to spend a day with students and faculty and to discuss his role from Remains of the Day.
“It was a really amazing experience for everyone involved,” said Mary Berens ’74, director of alumni affairs, and a classmate of Reeve’s.
Just before his equestrian accident in 1995, Reeve was the speaker at a Tower Club meeting in New York City, an alumni organization whose members give gifts annually to Cornell. His speech was given in honor of former Cornell University President Frank Rhodes’ last year as president.
After his injury, Reeve became an activist for people with disabilities. In 1999, he became chair of the board of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. On behalf of this organization, Reeve appeared in front of the National Institute of Health to lobby for a budget increase. He also testified before the Senate in favor of federally funded stem cell research in 2002 and fought aggressively for the passage of the New York State Spinal Cord Injury Research Bill. More recently, Reeve became an advocate of improving handicapped accessibility to buildings nationwide.
“He made it his goal not just to survive, but to make himself a spokesperson for stem cell research,” said Prof. Bruce Lewenstein, communication.
His fight for federally funded stem cell research was noted by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the second presidential debate last Friday evening.
Reeve experienced success in his personal progress in regaining some mobility, and he vowed to walk again one day. He pushed physical and medical limits with his determination to achieve this goal.
After his injury, he was the author of two successful autobiographies, and continued to act in and direct movies.
Although he portrayed a superhero on screen, many feel his later actions embodied a genuine heroic spirit that made him a true motivation.
Archived article by Jennifer Murabito
Sun Staff Writer