Christopher Reeve — the actor who came to embody the Man of Steel to a generation of moviegoers with his work in four "Superman" films, and who inspired millions more with his battle against paralysis — died Sunday of heart failure. He was 52.
Reeve, who became paralyzed following a horseback-riding accident nine years ago, went into cardiac arrest on Saturday while undergoing treatment for an infected pressure wound. The actor fell into a coma and did not regain consciousness before passing away at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, New York, on Sunday afternoon.
A virtual unknown when he took on the starring role in "Superman," Reeve played the dual roles of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent and superhero Superman in four films from 1978-1987, cementing his place as a pop-culture icon in the process.
Today, blockbuster films based on comic-book superheroes abound in theaters. But although comic books and their heroes were already successful before Reeve pulled on the cape (they had spawned cinematic serials, TV shows, animated series and feature films), the actor proved that in Hollywood's modern age, a man could turn one of these characters into a bona fide cinema heavyweight. "Superman" was Hollywood's first comic-book blockbuster.
Still, Reeve spent years trying to avoid being typecast in the film industry and took on roles far outside the superhero realm. In 1980, he played a gay, crippled Vietnam veteran in the Broadway play "Fifth of July." He also portrayed a gay aspiring playwright in the 1982 thriller flick "Deathtrap."
Reeve was born on September 25, 1952 in New York City to a journalist mother and writer/professor father. He studied at Cornell University while working as an actor on the side. At Cornell, he was one of two students chosen to study with legendary actor John Houseman at the prestigious Juilliard School of Performing Arts in New York. Fellow students included Robin Williams (who was Reeve's roommate) and William Hurt.
He made his debut on Broadway playing opposite Katharine Hepburn in "A Matter of Gravity." Before taking on the "Superman" role, Reeve appeared in the TV series "Love of Life" from 1974 through 1976, and had a role in the 1978 film "Gray Lady Down."
He had roles in nearly 40 films before his death, including several after his debilitating accident in 1995, in which he was thrown from a horse during an equestrian competition. The fall left Reeve paralyzed from the neck down and confined to a wheelchair. He underwent months of therapy to help regulate his breathing.
Using his fame and strength to inspire others, Reeve became a spokesperson for spinal-cord injury research with efforts that include the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center, a facility that operates a Web site, publishes a resource guide and houses a large collection of publications.
Reeve also became a major proponent of stem-cell research, one of the hotly contested issues in this year's presidential election. "These cells have the potential to cure diseases and conditions ranging from Parkinson's [disease] and multiple sclerosis," Reeve said while giving testimony to Congress in 2000, "even spinal-cord injuries like my own. They have been called the body's self-repair kit."
Reeve had hoped to see the passing of his bill, the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act, which seeks $300 million for spinal-cord research and is currently moving forward in Congress.
During Friday's presidential debate, Democratic candidate John Kerry, an advocate of stem-cell research, said he hoped funds would be allotted toward finding cures for spinal-cord injuries so that his "friend Christopher Reeve" could walk again.
Despite his condition, Reeve returned to acting in 1998 in a television production of the Alfred Hitchcock thriller "Rear Window," in which a man in a wheelchair becomes convinced his neighbor has been murdered. For his portrayal, Reeve won a Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor.
Most recently, Reeve returned to directing with the A&E film "The Brooke Ellison Story," the story of a girl paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe on her own after being hit by a car.
Reeve's résumé also featured producer credits (including one for "Rear Window"), director credits (1997's "The Gloaming," for which he won a Cable Ace award as Best Director) and writer credits (including "Superman IV").
The actor is survived by his wife, Dana, and three children. No funeral arrangements have been announced yet.
Dana Reeve issued a statement Sunday on behalf of her family, thanking the hospital for "the excellent care they provided to my husband.
"I also want to thank his personal staff of nurses and aides," she added, "as well as the millions of fans around the world who have supported and loved my husband over the years."