Actor who made the perfect Superman
Tuesday 12 October 2004
Christopher Reeve, actor: born New York 25 September 1952; married 1992 Dana Morosini (one son; one son, one daughter previously with Gae Exton); died Mount Kisco, New York 10 October 2004.
Hollywood's late-20th-century addiction to the comic-strip heroes of the 1930s and 1940s was a mixed blessing. These characters are, by definition, ephemeral - and the Technicolor manifestations of Flash Gordon, the Lone Ranger or Dick Tracy do not linger in the memory. Tim Burton's two Batman movies of 1989 and 1992 may have been of a different breed, but they do not compare to the Superman films, starring Christopher Reeve in the title role - the first three of which managed a judicious balance of high spirits, larkiness and the kind of amazing special effects which have only since become commonplace.
The first - Superman (1978) - started with a leaden prologue but took off when Superman first soared magically into the air. Christopher Reeve was an ideal choice for the role. He may have superhuman powers and an ability to fly, but a true Superman is modest about such achievements, because they come naturally. And he must be vulnerable, or else there would be no one able to best this man of steel, and thence no plot. After all, he is Clark Kent transformed - the bespectacled Clark Kent, so naïve, maladroit and timid that it takes even the sharp- witted Lois Lane a while to realise that they are one and the same.
Reeve is assuredly charismatic as Superman, and as Clark Kent he mines all the humour there is in his supposed clumsiness: the film is faithful to the tenets of the comic strip, in that we never know how much of that is for real.
Christopher Reeve was born in New York City in 1952, the son of a journalist mother and a Yale lecturer father, and wanted to act from an early age. After studying at the Juilliard School in New York, he graduated from Cornell, which funded him a stay in Europe, where he worked backstage in Glasgow, at the Old Vic with Olivier's National Company (whom he coached with their accents for The Front Page) and at the Comédie Française, in Paris.
Back in the United States he played a bigamist in a daily soap opera, Love of Life, for two years, and made his movie début as an officer in a navy drama, Gray Lady Down (1978), which starred Charlton Heston. The stage offered him Aeneas in Troilus and Cressida, and Macheath; he toured with Celeste Holm in The Irregular Verb to Love and on Broadway played Katharine Hepburn's grandson in A Matter of Gravity (1976).
The producers Pierre Spengler and Ilya Salkind saw Reeve in A Matter of Gravity while planning Superman and noted that he was the right height - 6ft 4in - but they were then looking for a star name to play the role. Those most frequently mentioned were Robert Redford and Paul Newman. But the budget, already dangerously high, was stretched by a further $3.7m, "the highest salary ever paid to a performer", when Marlon Brando agreed to play Superman's father. Reeve was signed to play the title role (and put on a crash course of body-building), Gene Hackman to be his arch-enemy, Lex Luthor, and Margot Kidder was Lois Lane. They were supported, sometimes only for minutes, by Trevor Howard, Glenn Ford, Susannah York, Valerie Perrine and others.
Enough material had been left on the cutting-room floor to make viable a Superman II (1980). Amidst a flurry of legal actions, and threats thereof, Reeve managed to secure a huge salary increase (from his original $250,000) plus a percentage. Brando was written out of the sequel since his salary demands were too extravagant. Reeve went on record as considering the producers' behaviour "appalling" and described them as "unworthy, devious and unfortunate as people". Reeve claimed that Richard Donner, who directed, was "the only one who kept things from being done in a shabby way and kept our morale high".
He objected when Donner was replaced on the sequel by Richard Lester, "creative consultant" on the original: but in the event they got along very well and Reeve particularly admired the way in which Donner's rejected footage was incorporated into the new material which Lester was shooting. If, in his opinion, the production was "the lowest you can go without actually cheating", he liked the result as much as the first.
So did the press and the public. Reeve's contract tied him to another sequel if required, and, with Lester again directing and Richard Pryor brought in to make the tone even lighter, Superman III (1983) was a further success - but its US income was not appreciably higher than its budget and was in itself almost $30m less than the $82m taken in by the first in the series.
Reeve used his new position to extend his range as a theatrical actor - in leading roles in The Front Page, The Greeks, Holiday, Camino Real and others; not in the "big time" but at the Williamstown Theater Festival, where he had appeared as a youngster. He also returned to New York's prestigious Circle Rep, the off-Broadway company with which he had been when he tested for Superman, playing a gay Vietnam veteran confined to a wheelchair in Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July, which transferred to Broadway.
He chose his movie roles carefully, and was a time-travelling writer in Somewhere in Time (1980) and in Monsignor (1982) was a priest in Rome in 1945, using the black market in the service of the Church. Despite his sensible work, neither film was much liked, and he was better employed in Sidney Lumet's version of Ira Levin's Broadway play Deathtrap, as a student whose play might be "borrowed" by his teacher, Michael Caine, a successful playwright with writer's block. They might also, though Caine is married, become lovers: or kill each other. Lumet, recognising Reeve's role as difficult, chose him after seeing Superman: "Reeve's timing - and humour - had to be just about perfect to make the character come off."
Reeve took a big cut in salary to play Henry James's drifting, tortured young lawyer Basil Ransome in The Bostonians (1984), adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and directed by James Ivory. Vanessa Redgrave co-starred with him, which led to Reeve's making his London stage début opposite her in another James piece, The Aspern Papers, which had been adapted earlier by her father, Michael Redgrave, as a vehicle for himself. Reeve also appeared as Vronsky in an American television Anna Karenina (1985) with Jacqueline Bisset in the title role and Paul Scofield as Karenin.
When the prospect of another Superman was mooted. Salkin was no longer involved, having sold the rights to the character to Cannon. Reeve was doubtful about the project but reassured when it turned out that Warner Bros, not Cannon, was to distribute, if without the financial commitment Warners had put into the first three movies. Nevertheless, his price for donning the blue leotard again in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) included control over the screenplay (as well as contributing to the second-unit direction) - but not, alas, over the special effects, which were not up to those of the earlier films.
Reeve turned to television, playing leading roles in telemovies and mini-series, including a modernised The Sea Wolf (1993), and Above Suspicion (1995), as a policeman going insane after a shot has paralysed him from the waist down - which sadly and prophetically was aired only hours before Reeve's ultimately fatal accident in May 1995, when he was flung from a horse and broke his neck.
Stage roles included Leontes in an off-Broadway A Winter's Tale (1989). His supporting roles in cinema included the Ralph Bellamy role in Switching Channels (1988). As any buff or movie insider will tell you, the Ralph Bellamy role is the sad sack who doesn't get the girl. Bellamy played it at least two dozen times, including in His Girl Friday (1940), of which this was a remake. Reeve walked away with the film; and did the same on Noises Off (1992), directed by Peter Bogdanovich from the play by Michael Frayn, bringing both first-rate timing and the right feeling to the most square member of Frayn's rather tatty touring-theatre troupe. Where Bellamy would be pained or outraged at getting the sticky end of the lollipop, Reeve was fumbling and over-earnest; and he managed to be equally hilarious as Geena Davis's obtuse fiancé in Speechless (1994).
Not to be forgotten is Reeve's sturdy cameo performance as the purchaser of the house in Ivory's The Remains of the Day (1993) and he was on fine form as the doctor in Village of the Damned (1995), John Carpenter's 1995 remake of the 1960 British thriller.
Reeve fought bravely against his final disability (he was almost completely paralysed), campaigning for research into spinal cord injuries, and even returning to acting, gaining a Screen Actors Guild award for his part in a 1998 remake for television of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window.
"I was worried that, only acting with my voice and my face, I might not be able to communicate effectively enough to tell the story," he said:
But I was surprised to find that, if I really concentrated, and just let the thoughts happen, that they would read on my face. With so many close-ups, I knew that my every thought would count.
Reeve's late comic roles suggest that he might have made a wonderful foil to such manic talents as Robin Williams or Steve Martin. As it is, he did far better than any other actor has in bringing one of fantasy's wondermen to the screen. The cartoon became the flesh, a Galatea sprung to life, with heart, humour, the requisite impossible looks and, in that absurd jock-strapped outfit, the sexual sexlessness.
He once observed,
It's a nice image, and if I'm still remembered for it in 20 years' time you won't find me knocking it. It hasn't been the end of the road for my career. I've lived an adventurous life and there's still plenty of good other roles waiting to be played.
And, when asked which of Superman's qualities he would most like to have had himself, he replied, "His wisdom."
"Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's - Superman!" This classic cry, first heard in the United States in 1940, heralded Superman's first broadcast, the first step in the immortalisation in other media of the first comic-strip super-hero, writes Denis Gifford.
Superman moved to the cinema screen as an animated cartoon in September 1941. There followed two cinema serials, starring Kirk Alyn, in 1948 and 1950; and then George Reeves starred in Superman and the Mole Men (1951), before flying on to television to appear in 102 half-hour episodes, shown in Britain by the early ITV. But it was not until Warner Bros saw the million-dollar potential in the character that Superman finally made it into a super-movie, in 1978, and the perfect personality, in looks, physique and character, was discovered in Christopher Reeve.
Reeve's Superman appealed right across the generations, as much to the young child and the adolescent girl, while the adult would react to him as a living person, rather than in two dimensions. Reeve gave the character a great deal of charm that was absent in the original cartoon.
Superman began his super-life as a daily newspaper strip created by two teenage friends, Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (cartoonist). They sent their baby to every newspaper syndicate they could find. It was rejected every time as being "too fantastic". Finally, hearing that new characters were needed for a new comic book, they dusted off their strips, pasted them up into comic-book format and sold the result for $150. Superman finally made his début in No 1 Action Comics (June 1938). It was a massive success and in 1939 Superman was signed up for a newspaper strip by one of the very syndicates that had rejected him back in 1936.
Bud Collyer spoke for Superman in the first radio broadcasts, a role he repeated in September 1941 in the animated cartoon. A new phrase was heard behind the credit titles: "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!" Then the narrator proceeded to describe the incredible prowess of Superman: "Empowered with X-ray vision, possessed of incredible physical strength, Superman fights a never-ending battle for Truth! Justice! And the American way!" The cartoon series was made by the Fleischer brothers (Max produced, Dave directed) and they remain the most perfect fully animated "serious" (as opposed to funny) cartoon films in cinema history. Eleven were made before Paramount dispensed with their services and handed the Superman series over to their fully owned subsidiary Famous Studios. They made another eight before the project proved too costly, especially for a cost-cutting studio, and it was cancelled.
The radio serial led directly to the cinema serial, with the athletic actor Kirk Alyn cast by the cheapie producer Sam Katzman in the 15-episode saga Superman (1948). Alyn, quite a good actor and certainly a good athlete, was uncredited; Katzman's gimmick was to present Alyn as the genuine Superman. A second serial followed, Atom Man versus Superman (1950).
George Reeves took up the role in the feature film Superman and the Mole Men (1951), which, like the serials, suffered from a B-movie budget. Reeves was another athletic fellow but an actor of some experience and the television series starring him, although also cheaply done, had a certain pleasurable quality. But, although Superman continues to appear on television, in various ages and guises, it will be in the form and style of Christopher Reeve that filmgoers and comic fanciers alike will treasure him.
* David Shipman died 22 April 1996; Denis Gifford died 20 May 2000
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