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Christopher Reeve: 35th anniversary of Superman

Everett Collection

Christopher Reeve: 35th anniversary of Superman

Christopher Reeve nearly turned down Superman, the 1978 movie that made him an international superstar. Reeve doubted his ability to pull off the character, but ultimately felt the script was too good to pass up. Fans agreed, and Superman became an instant success, spawning three sequels and kicking off the modern union between Hollywood and comic books. It's been 35 years since Superman hit theaters, and Reeve's portrayal of America's first superhero remains a defining moment in film history. But while his performance in Superman was the stuff of legend, it is equaled by Reeve's offscreen heroics.

When not working on a movie or a play, Reeve was always quick to lend his support to causes he believed in. In the late 1980s, he turned his attention and star power to political advocacy. He took to the campaign trail for his friend, Sen. Patrick Leahy, helping secure his reelection in 1986. The next year, he traveled to Chile to lead a protest against Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who was threatening to execute 77 actors. For that act of bravery, Reeve was honored in 2004 with the Grand Cross of the Bernardo O'Higgins Order, Chile's highest honor for foreign nationals. He also lent his voice to Amnesty International and People for the American Way, and he personally flew government officials over environmentally damaged areas as part of his environmental advocacy.

But it was Reeve's own brush with death in 1995 that came to shape much of his legacy. An avid horseback rider, Reeve was competing in an equestrian event when he suffered a fall from his horse. He landed headfirst, the weight of his 6-foot-4-inch frame crushing his first and second vertebrae and damaging his spine. Reeve was left paralyzed from the neck down and reliant upon a ventilator to breathe. In an interview with Barbara Walters, Reeve admitted he thought about "pulling the plug" and letting himself die, saying "you can't believe where you are . . . the thought that keeps going through your mind is, 'This can't be my life. There's been a mistake.'" But Reeve quickly realized that the only mistake would be to give up, and instead pushed forward as a vocal advocate for spinal injury research and the rights of the paralyzed. He would say later, "I have always been a crusader for causes I believe in. This time, the cause found me."

Reeve and his wife Dana joined forces with the American Paralysis Association to form the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, dedicated to funding spinal cord research and improving the quality of life for people living with paralysis. Reeve largely retired from acting in 1998 to concentrate on his own recovery and advocacy work. He died in 2004 at age 52 as the result of an infection from a pressure wound.

After a life spent in equal measure acting and advocating, it remains to be seen how history will remember Christopher Reeve. Will he be seen as an actor-turned-activist or an activist who had an acting career? Share your opinion on his legacy and his life in the comments.

Written by Seth Joseph