Christopher Reeve's Legacy: He Made Playing A Superhero Respectable

Actor brought intelligence, humility to red, yellow and blue tights.

Cinema in 1978 was in a state of flux. The 1970s saw the rise of talented, maverick auteurs like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich working with a new breed of actor (think Robert De Niro and Al Pacino) to create films that had more grit and innovation than Hollywood had seen in decades. But then the one-two punch of "Jaws" in 1975 and "Star Wars" in 1977 ushered in the era of the Hollywood blockbuster, an era in which financial stakes were more important than artistic standards.

So when Richard Donner's "Superman: The Movie" hit the screens on December 15, 1978, many critics and filmgoers were startled by a seeming confluence of flash and substance. The flash was provided by the (then) groundbreaking special effects that made us "believe a man can fly," while the substance came from the surprisingly sincere and multilayered performance of the actor playing the title role (see " 'Superman' Star Christopher Reeve Dies At 52").

Christopher Reeve may have had third billing in "Superman" (behind Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman), but he was the star. The then-unknown 24-year-old was chosen from hundreds of actors for a role that was not exactly coveted.

The producers had considered giving the part to Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone — and even to Charles Bronson, Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson. Those big-name stars who were offered the part all turned it down cold. In the late '70s, no serious actor would be caught dead in red, yellow and blue tights. Prior to "Superman," every costumed hero brought to life was played with one note, whether it was the square-jawed seriousness of TV's Superman, George Reeves, or the slightly more round-jawed campiness of Adam West's Batman. And nobody had ever made a big-budget superhero movie for the big screen. It just didn't seem like a movie anyone could take seriously.

Luckily, Richard Donner could. When the director (then best known for "The Omen") came on board, he brought a new sensibility to the project. He eschewed the campiness in favor of a more respectful, but not overly reverent, tone for "Superman." He wanted to play it straight, and part of the key would be casting someone the audience could buy as the Man of Steel. To Donner, that meant casting an unknown.

Christopher Reeve was a struggling young actor with a slight résumé and an even slighter build. But Donner and casting director Lynn Stalmaster saw something in him that rang true. He was able to say lines like "I'm here to fight for truth, justice and the American way" without eliciting (too many) snickers. Once the suits at Warner Bros. were convinced that he could fit the red boots, Reeve underwent an intensive physical regimen with bodybuilder David Prowse (who played Darth Vader in "Star Wars") to achieve the look of the part.

But it wasn't Reeve's 6'4", 225 lb. physique that made him so convincing as Superman and Clark Kent. He brought a true duality to the role, making you believe not only that he could bend steel with his bare hands, but that Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen didn't recognize that Clark and Superman were one and the same. Reeve claimed to base his Clark on Cary Grant's bumbling Dr. David Huxley from the 1938 screwball comedy "Bringing Up Baby." Hunching his shoulders, raising his voice, getting caught in revolving doors and using colloquialisms such as "golly" and "swell," Reeve played Clark Kent as a slightly pitiable everyman, a very square peg who just couldn't seem to fit into the world's round holes.

When the horn rims and blue suit came off to reveal the Superman uniform underneath, everything fell into place. But unlike the actors portraying superheroes before him, Reeve played Superman with something that had previously been lacking: humility. Reeve was smart enough to know that the iconic costume of Superman would do most of the acting for him, so he played it low-key. This was not a god, standing with puffed chest, arms akimbo and brow furrowed, lording over the inferior humans he could conquer if he desired. This was simply — as Superman answers Lois Lane when, after being rescued by him for the first time, she asks, "Who are you?" — a friend.

Christopher Reeve proved that wearing colored spandex doesn't have to be at odds with giving a nuanced performance as an actor. His sensitive portrayal of the last son of Krypton earned acclaim even from critics who didn't like the film. Pauline Kael panned "Superman" in The New Yorker but praised its star, writing, "Reeve plays innocent but not dumb, and the combination of his Pop jaw line and physique with his unassuming manner makes him immediately likable."

Without Reeve's Superman, we wouldn't have had Michael Keaton's Batman, Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man or even Tom Welling's version of a young Clark Kent in "Smallville." While, because of the actor's real-life heroism over the past nine years, "Superman" is destined to be only a part of his legacy, Christopher Reeve single-handedly made playing a superhero respectable.

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