Christopher Reeve: ‘Superman’ and his movies
Christopher Reeve, Superman in four movies from 1978 to 1987, died ten years ago today, Oct. 10. In 1995, while taking part in a cross-country horse race in Culpeper, Virginia, Reeve was thrown off his horse, hitting his head on the top rail of a jump; the near-fatal accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. He ultimately succumbed to heart failure at age 52 in Oct. 2004.
Long before he was cast as Superman a.k.a. Clark Kent, the Manhattan-born (as Christopher D’Olier Reeve on Sept. 25, 1952), Cornell University and Juillard School for Drama alumnus was an ambitious young actor whose theatrical apprenticeship included, while still a teenager, some time as an observer at London’s Old Vic and Paris’ Comédie Française.
At age 23, he landed his first Broadway role in a production of Enid Bagnold’s A Matter of Gravity, starring Katharine Hepburn. Despite his initial difficulties – on the play’s opening night, he fainted after delivering his first line – Reeve would remain with A Matter of Gravity until its move to Los Angeles.
Two years after A Matter of Gravity, Christopher Reeve made his film debut in a bit part in David Greene’s 1978 submarine-rescue thriller Gray Lady Down, one of the movies that helped to put a swift end to Charlton Heston’s stardom.
After gaining a reported 30 lbs. (of muscle mass, one assumes), Reeve’s big break came that same year, with the release of Warner Bros.’ Superman: The Movie, notable as Hollywood’s first superhero blockbuster.
Directed by Richard Donner and starring Reeve as the undocumented alien-turned-all-American hero and world savior, the $55 million-budgeted Superman 1978 – which has little in common with the darker superhero movies of the early 21st century – went on to earn an estimated $300.2 million worldwide. Adjusted for inflation, Superman‘s budget would have been approximately $215 million in 2014, while its worldwide gross would have reached the vicinity of $1 billion. (See more cost and box office comparisons among the various Superman movies of the last three and a half decades.)
Despite his quite limited range as an actor – or perhaps as a result of this shortcoming – Christopher Reeve generally received good notices for his stoic performance as the Man of Steel. Newsweek, for one, found him “a delight. Ridiculously good-looking, with a face as sharp and strong as an ax blade, his bumbling, fumbling Clark Kent and omnipotent Superman are simply two styles of gallantry and innocence.”
‘Superman’ movie sequels
Reeve was next seen as Superman in Richard Lester’s Superman II, at the time one of the rare Hollywood productions to be released in key international markets months before opening in North America in June 1981. Lester, best known for the Beatles movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, had replaced Donner during filming – Superman and Superman II were shot concurrently – but received sole credit for the sequel. (Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut was released on DVD in 2006.)
Its (literally) flag-waving finale notwithstanding, Lester’s fast-paced Superman II is the most entertaining of the Christopher Reeve Superman films. In all fairness, that’s in no small measure due to Terence Stamp’s scene-stealing turn as the villainous General Zod.
Richard Pryor, Cannon Films: ‘Superman’ movies’ kryptonite
Unfortunately, Lester’s follow-up, the $39 million-budgeted Superman III (1983), was both an artistic misfire and a domestic box office disappointment, cuming at only $59.95 million in the U.S. and Canada. (International box office figures are unavailable.) The film’s key problem was the presence of a painfully unfunny Richard Pryor as “comic relief.”
At that stage, Warner Bros. lost interest in the series, which was picked up four years later by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’ Cannon Films, best known back then for its Chuck Norris atrocities.
Produced in association with Warners, the cheaply made Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), featuring a nuclear disarmament storyline suggested by the progressive-minded Christopher Reeve himself, was both a critical and a box office bomb. In fact, the film’s domestic gross was so low that it failed to match its quite modest $17 million budget.
More Christopher Reeve movies
Aside from Superman, Christopher Reeve landed only a handful of noteworthy big-screen roles.
- In Jeannot Szwarc’s lush romantic fantasy Somewhere in Time (1980), he was a lovestruck playwright attempting to poke holes in the time-space fabric in order to be reunited with Jane Seymour.
- In Sidney Lumet’s enjoyable black comedy thriller Deathtrap (1982), he was an ambitious, gay playwright wannabe who gets mixed up with Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon, Irene Worth, and murder.
- In James Ivory’s 1984 film version of Henry James’ The Bostonians, Reeve was seen as the reactionary Southern lawyer and Civil War veteran Basil Ransom, who becomes involved with Boston feminist (and eventual Best Actress Academy Award nominee) Vanessa Redgrave.
Box office and critical duds
Yet, despite these prestigious efforts, Christopher Reeve never managed to become a box office draw when not dressed up as Superman. Not helping matters were several of his film choices.
- In the early ’80s, Reeve fared poorly as an unscrupulous Vatican-based priest in Frank Perry’s critical and box office flop Monsignor (1982), with Geneviève Bujold as a nun-in-the-making and the object of the priest’s desire.
- In mid-decade, he starred in George Miller’s poorly received and little seen The Aviator (1985), an adventure drama featuring a crash landing, hungry wolves, and Rosanna Arquette. (Needless to say, no connection to Martin Scorsese’s 2004 Howard Hughes biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio.)
- Later in the decade, the year after the Superman IV debacle Reeve found himself sinking along with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner in the even more egregious bomb Switching Channels (1988), Ted Kotcheff’s widely panned The Front Page reboot.
Elsewhere, Reeve had the lead as a New York journalist in Jerry Schatzberg’s Street Smart (1987), but the good notices – and the acting awards – went to Morgan Freeman as a pimp suspected of murder.
‘Pretty Woman’ audition
In fact, by the early ’90s Reeve’s film career had been reduced to either leads in low-budget productions such as Steven Hilliard Stern’s Morning Glory (1991), with Deborah Raffin, or smaller roles in more prestigious efforts.
In Peter Bogdanovich’s Noises Off… (1992), he was part of an ensemble that included Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, Denholm Elliott, and Julie Hagerty. In James Ivory’s 1993 Best Picture Academy Award nominee The Remains of the Day, the former Superman was seen in what amounted to an extended cameo in this period drama starring Oscar nominees Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.
Also worth noting, despite more than a decade as a leading man and as the star of two of the most successful movies released up until that time (Superman and Superman II), Reeve actually agreed to audition for the male lead in Rob Marshall’s Pretty Woman. However, unhappy with the setup, he walked out of the audition. In the end, Richard Gere got the part of sex worker Julia Roberts’ Prince Charming in what turned out to be a major international box office hit.
Final feature films
Christopher Reeve’s final big-screen appearances were in the following:
- John Carpenter’s poorly received remake of Village of the Damned (1995), with Reeve cast in the old George Sanders role.
- Steven Schachter’s little-seen crime thriller Above Suspicion (1995), curiously starring Reeve as a cop who becomes paralyzed from the waist down after getting shot.
- Deborah Reinisch’s A Step Toward Tomorrow (1996), a low-budget inspirational drama also featuring Judith Light, Tom Irwin, and Alfre Woodard, and the only big-screen release in which Reeve can be seen after his 1995 horse-riding accident.
Christopher Reeve on television
Christopher Reeve also worked regularly on television, most notably in:
- Simon Langton’s slow-moving 1985 adaptation of Leon Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with Jacqueline Bisset in the title role and Reeve as Count Vronsky. “A terrible mistake,” as Katharine Hepburn aptly remarked even without having seen the film.
- The 1993 The Sea Wolf, opposite Charles Bronson’s crazed captain.
Following his accident, Reeve narrated the 1996 special Without Pity: A Film About Abilities, for which he won a Primetime Emmy Award, sharing it with producers Jonathan Moss and Sheila Nevins, and with Without Pity writer-director-producer Michael Mierendorf.
Best Actor SAG Award for ‘Rear Window’
After a two-year break, Reeve was back in Jeff Bleckner’s 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. For his wheelchair-bound voyeur – James Stewart in the 1954 original – he was nominated for a Golden Globe and won that year’s SAG Award for Best Actor in a Television Film or Miniseries. Daryl Hannah co-starred in the old Grace Kelly role.
Following Rear Window, Christopher Reeve would be seen in only two more TV roles: a guest spot in a 2003 episode of The Practice, and, as a doctor, two Smallville episodes in 2003-04.
Christopher Reeve Foundation for spinal cord and stem cell research
In his 1998 autobiography Still Me, Christopher Reeve recalled:
At an especially bleak moment [prior to an operation that might result in his death], the door [of his hospital room] flew open and in hurried a squat fellow with a blue scrub hat and a yellow surgical gown and glasses, speaking in a Russian accent. For the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay.
The “old friend” was the recently deceased Robin Williams, whom Reeve had befriended while both were studying at Juillard.
Later on, Reeve became a staunch advocate for spinal cord and stem cell research, sponsoring with his wife the Christopher Reeve Foundation – later renamed the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation (and formerly known as the American Paralysis Association). According to a New York Times report, by 2002 Reeve had “regained the ability to wiggle his fingers, move all his joints and sense touch all over his body by tenaciously following a grueling therapy that uses exercise and electricity to activate muscle groups.”
Diagnosed with lung cancer less than a year after her husband’s death, Dana Reeve died at age 44 on March 6, ’06.
Tetraplegics in film
Somewhat ironically, Christopher Reeve died the year that saw the release of two widely acclaimed and quite popular movies dealing with the plight of tetraplegics. The irony here is that in both films, the fearless, sympathetic characters choose death instead of life as a tetraplegic:
- Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, starring Hilary Swank as a take-no-prisoners boxer who gets her trainer-father figure (Eastwood) to euthanize her.
- Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside / Mar adentro, starring Javier Bardem as a man fighting for the right to die after lingering in bed for years following a diving accident.
Among their numerous award wins, Million Dollar Baby took home that year’s Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards, while The Sea Inside was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Best Foreign Language Film.
Christopher Reeve at the Oscars
In 1996, the year after his horse-riding accident, Christopher Reeve was a surprise guest at the Oscar telecast. The wheelchair-bound actor received a long, standing ovation from a crowd that included Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, Tom Hanks, Winona Ryder, Brad Pitt, and a teary-eyed Gwyneth Paltrow.
“What you probably don’t know, is that I left New York last September, and I just arrived here this morning,” he joked, adding, “and I’m glad I did because I wouldn’t have missed this kind of welcome for the world. Thank you.”
Reeve then briefly spoke about “the power of film to present painful but important issues to the public,” remembering how impressed he had been with Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which got him thinking about “the madness of nuclear destruction,” and with Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, which “taught us about race relations.”
He also praised “motion pictures that have courageously put social issues ahead of box office success,” naming more recent titles such as Oliver Stone’s Platoon, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, and George Miller’s Lorenzo’s Oil. “They’ve enlightened us, they’ve challenged us, and they’ve given us the opportunity to learn.”
Following a montage that included several Movies with a Message, among them John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood, Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Reeve added: “Hollywood needs to do more. Let’s continue to take risks. Let’s tackle the issues. In many ways our film community can do it better than anyone else. There is no challenge, artistic or otherwise, that we can’t meet.”
Needless to say, Reeve’s speech was enthusiastically received. He received another standing ovation.
Just as needless to say, Hollywood studios went on making braindead Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler comedies, slick Tom Cruise actioners, and increasingly costlier and more conventional special-effects-laden fare – think Roland Emmerich, Michael Bay – to satisfy most moviegoer’s profound aversion to “enlightening” and “challenging” topics, and to “the opportunity to learn” anything new.
‘Superman’ 1978 casting and cast
If various online reports are to be believed, besides newcomer Christopher Reeve, just about every Hollywood star and hopeful unknown were considered and/or approached and/or tested for the role of Superman. Among the names – some of them utterly absurd possibilities – bandied about were those of the following:
Robert Redford (about 40 years old at the time). Paul Newman (already in his 50s). Nick Nolte. James Brolin. James Caan. Burt Reynolds. Charles Bronson. Sylvester Stallone. Christopher Walken. Jon Voight. Clint Eastwood. John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne. Arnold Schwarzenegger (an Austrian-accented, all-American outer-space alien?).
Among the top box office draws of the ’70s, the only name missing from this list seems to have been that of Barbra Streisand.
Update: See comments section further below re: the Arnold Schwarzenegger casting possibility – or rather, impossibility.
‘Superman’ 1978 characters
In addition to Christopher Reeve as Superman a.k.a. the bespectacled journalist Clark Kent, the 1978 Superman toplined Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Best Actor Academy Award winner Gene Hackman (The French Connection) as a campy Lex Luthor.
Also in the film’s all-star international cast – including a whole array of prestigious veterans – were:
- Terence Stamp (The Collector) as General Zod.
- Maria Schell (Gervaise) as Krypton denizen Vond-ah.
- Oscar nominee Valerie Perrine (Lenny) as Eve Teschmacher.
- Oscar nominee Ned Beatty (Network) as Otis.
- Oscar nominee Trevor Howard (Sons and Lovers) as Krypton’s 1st Elder.
- Oscar nominee Jackie Cooper (Skippy) as Perry White.
- Harry Andrews (Saint Joan) as Krypton’s 2nd Elder.
- John Stuart (Number 17), whose film career went all the way back to 1920, as Krypton’s 10th Elder.
- Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen.
- Jack O’Halloran as Non.
- Jeff East as the young Clark Kent.
- Sarah Douglas as Ursa.
- Larry Hagman (I Dream of Jeannie‘s Major Nelson) as the Major.
- Phyllis Thaxter (Come Fill the Cup) and Glenn Ford (Gilda) as Clark Kent’s earthling parents, Ma and Pa Kent (seemingly not related to Ma and Pa Kettle).
- 1940s Superman serial stars Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill as Lois Lane’s parents, Gen. Sam Lane and Ella Lane.
- Susannah York as Lara and Marlon Brando as Jor-El, the Krypton parents of the lucky baby Kal-El (later known as Superman a.k.a. Clark Kent).
Two-time Best Actor Oscar winner Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront, The Godfather) was reportedly paid $3.7 million (approx. $14.5 million today) for two weeks’ work. That, however, didn’t prevent Brando from later suing Warner Bros., and Superman producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, demanding a share of the film’s profits.
Superman 1978 was an Anglo-American production; its first two sequels had British backing and American distribution. The disastrous Superman IV was an all-American release.
Post-Christopher Reeve ‘Superman’ movies
Apart from the television series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, starring Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain in the title roles, for all purposes Superman would remain in the backburner for nearly two decades after the Superman IV box office disaster.
Starring Brandon Routh, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was released in 2006 to generally tepid reviews and middling box office – in relation to its exorbitant $270 million budget (not including marketing and distribution expenses).
Another seven years would go by before Warner Bros. decided to give Superman another go. Mixed reviews notwithstanding, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, starring Henry Cavill as Superman and Amy Adams as Lois Lane, proved to be a major moneymaker last year, in large part thanks to the international market, which has far surpassed the domestic one, especially for tentpole movies. Budgeted at a reported $225 million (plus marketing and distribution expenses that likely brought its total cost near the $350 million mark), Man of Steel scored an estimated $668 million worldwide, of which $291.04 million in the U.S. and Canada.
Next in line is Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which will bring back Henry Cavill as Superman while introducing Oscar winner Ben Affleck (Argo) as Christian Bale’s Batman replacement. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice release date: March 25, ’16.
‘Somewhere in Time’ and ‘Berkeley Square’ connection
Adapted by Richard Matheson from his own novel, Somewhere in Time has quite a few elements in common with John L. Balderston’s 1926 play Berkeley Square, itself based on Henry James’ 1917 novel The Sense of the Past.
Directed by Academy Award winner Frank Lloyd (The Divine Lady) and co-written by Balderston himself, a 1933 film version of Berkeley Square starred Best Actor Academy Award nominee Leslie Howard as the 20th century American transported to late 18th century London. Heather Angel was his love lost in time and space.
Katharine Hepburn quote via Christopher Reeve’s 1998 autobiography Still Me.
Christopher Reeve quote “Hollywood needs to do more…” via Damien Bona’s Inside Oscar 2.
Christopher Reeve Superman 1978 images and trailer: Warner Bros; full-body shot via Tyranny of Style.
Christopher Reeve The Remains of the Day image: Merchant/Ivory Productions / Columbia Pictures, via Flick Minute.
Christopher Reeve Somewhere in Time image and trailer: Universal Pictures.
Daryl Hannah and Christopher Reeve Rear Window 1998 image: Hallmark Entertainment.
Image of Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel: Warner Bros.