At the end of 1975, Christopher Reeve took part in the casting of the Broadway play A Matter of Gravity: it was to be the turning point of his career. Katharine Hepburn starred in the play: she was enthusiastic about Christopher Reeve and lobbied for Reeve to get a role in the play.
Reeve said of Katharine Hepburn, “She showed me that acting is not a way to hide, but to reveal the truth about yourself – that you aren’t the character, and you never will be.”
But before Reeve could even access the world of acting, he first complied with his parents’ wishes and studied. During his university days, he acted in numerous student productions: It was clear from an early stage where Christopher Reeve would one day be drawn – to the world of acting.
Journey to England & Shakespeare
Before his third year at the university, Reeve decided to take an educational trip to the United Kingdom: There he visited numerous theaters, including the Old Vic Theatre, and learned a lot about the art of acting. After his trip, Christopher Reeve was sure: he wanted to become a successful actor one day.
Before that, Christopher Reeve had already spent an entire summer acting at the San Diego Shakespeare Festival: There he slipped into various Shakespearean roles and thus developed his first repertoire.
Juilliard & Broadway
In 1973, Christopher Reeve was accepted to the Juilliard School: Together with Robin Williams, he was the only candidate accepted for the Advanced Program that year. In the next two years Reeve received training as an actor – together with Robin Williams.
Like many other actors, Christopher Reeve’s career began on Broadway in New York: in 1978 he starred in the Broadway play My Life along with fellow actor William Hurt (1950-2022).
His first Hollywood role was a supporting role in the disaster film Gray Lady Down (1978).
Christopher Reeve’s breakthrough followed in the same year: in 1978, Christopher Reeve appeared for the first time in the role of Superman. At first, producers refused to cast Christopher Reeve in the role of Superman. However, Lynn Stalmaster, the casting director, insisted that Christopher Reeve was right for the role.
Stalmaster prevailed and Reeve was given the role of Superman, for which he is still known today. While filming in London, Reeve also learned that Marlon Brando would play the role of Jor-El.
But before filming could begin, the 24-year-old actor had to adapt his appearance to the role of Superman. With English actor David Prowse, Reeve underwent intensive strength training over the course of two months: thanks to the training, Reeve’s physique did justice to the role of Superman within a short time.
For the portrayal of Superman, Christopher Reeve drew inspiration from Cary Grant’s role in Bringing Up Baby (1938).
Much of the filming of Superman II took place at the same time as that of the first part – both films had generous budgets at their disposal and both became huge box-office successes that still enjoy great popularity today.
Christopher Reeve said in 1986 about his role in Superman:
“You know, in retrospect I’d say I probably ended up playing Superman because that’s the closest opportunity I’ve had to playing a classical role on film, the closest expression to something of mythical dimension. (…) There is a comedic and romantic strain in me that has not yet fully revealed itself, and I think I would do better with bigger characters. (…) The people who populate the stage and screen today are very ordinary. In the second half of the 20th century, people are becoming more limited: Vocabularies are smaller, thoughts are smaller, aspirations are smaller, everything is very scaled down. Today everyone is typecast.“Christopher Reeve in a 1986 interview
Christopher Reeve starred in two other sequels to Superman: Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
In the course of his career, Christopher Reeve was able to fulfill his desire to appear on the screen in classic roles: for example, in 1984 he starred in The Bostonians, a film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Henry James.
In the drama Somewhere in Time (1980) Christopher Reeve embodied the writer Richard Collier, who falls in love with the portrait of an actress from 1912. With the help of self-hypnosis, Collier travels back to 1912. Thanks to the score by John Barry, the film remains in memory to this day.
In the television film Anna Karenina (1985), based on the novel of the same name by Leo Tolstoy, Christopher Reeve played the leading role. Mainly in arthouse movies Reeve was able to use his potential as an actor: Reeve’s goal was to develop himself in classical roles. In the second half of the 20th century, films with classical plots appealed less and less to the audience: Reeve was always aware of this problem. Thanks to his fame through the Superman series, he became the drawing card for numerous arthouse productions and brought people into theaters who otherwise did not watch arthouse films.
After filming Anna Karenina, Christopher Reeve became an avid equestrian: he even overcame an allergy to horses to pursue his hobby. On May 27, 1995, he had a riding accident: as a result of the accident, Christopher Reeve suffered from paraplegia. Despite his injury, Christopher Reeve continued to be active as an actor. Thus, in 1998 he starred in the film Rear Window, a remake of the 1954 Hitchcock classic starring Grace Kelly and James Stewart.
In the last years of his life Christopher Reeves published two books in which he wrote about his life and worldview.
Throughout his career, Christopher Reeve turned down numerous roles: Many Hollywood producers envisioned Reeve as an action star. Reeve did not share this view and turned down numerous offers to star in action films. He stuck to his claim of playing mainly classical roles: He already had this aspiration at a young age.
On October 10, 2004, Christopher Reeve died at the age of 52.
In the course of his career, his biggest influence were the classic Hollywood actors: among his role models were actors like Cary Grant or James Stewart. He had a close acquaintance with Katharine Hepburn. He was not satisfied with simple film material: He set himself the goal of exploiting his acting potential and getting the most out of the roles he portrayed.
Simon von Ludwig
Main sources: A 1986 interview with Christopher Reeve (both quotes are from this interview) and numerous films starring Reeve