Superman actor Christopher Reeve, who became a tireless advocate for spinal cord research after a horseback riding accident left him paralyzed nine years ago, has died of heart failure at 52. Reeve--who played gay characters on stage (Fifth of July) and screen (Deathtrap) and directed the AIDS drama In the Gloaming for HBO--died on Sunday in Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, N.Y., after slipping into a heart-attack induced coma at his home Saturday during treatment for an infected bedsore wound. He died without regaining consciousness, publicist Wesley Combs said on Monday. Reeve's wife, Dana, issued a statement thanking "the millions of fans around the world who have supported and loved my husband over the years." Plans for a funeral were not immediately announced.
Reeve, confined to a wheelchair since his accident in 1995, had in recent years used his celebrity status to raise money and support for research into the treatment of spinal cord injuries, including the controversial stem cell research that has become an issue in the U.S. presidential election. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who in last Friday's debate with President Bush referred to Reeve as a friend and ally in the promotion of stem cell research, said he "was truly America's hero." "He was an inspiration to all of us and gave hope to millions of Americans who are counting on the lifesaving cures that science and research can provide," the Massachusetts senator said in a statement. Reeve's family asked that donations be made in his honor to the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, formed in 1999 to boost collaboration between experts working on the problem and to encourage new approaches. An accomplished rider, Reeve suffered multiple injuries, including two shattered neck vertebrae, when he was thrown from his horse at an equestrian event in Commonwealth Park in Virginia.
Doctors initially predicted he would never have any feeling or movement below his head. But his foundation's Web site, www.christopherreeve.org, said he had experienced a degree of recovery that his doctors considered "remarkable." Reeve was a leading supporter of research using human stem cells, which his foundation described as having "enormous therapeutic utility." While Senator Kerry has endorsed the practice, President Bush has limited such research. Wise Young of Rutgers University, who studies spinal cord injuries and treated Reeve, said, "I think more than anything else he taught me the use of two four-letter words--cure and hope." Young said on NBC's Today show he had been set to see Reeve on Sunday, adding that his former patient was very interested in the upcoming election and was excited to see his bill, the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act, seeking $300 million for spinal cord research, moving forward in the U.S. Congress. "We will have a cure; I think that will be Christopher's legacy. We have to work very hard to make this happen," Young said.
Born on September 25, 1952, in New York City, Reeve attended the city's Juilliard School, a college dedicated to the arts, and graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He began his acting career in summer stage shows and appeared on the television soap opera Love of Life while still in college. Reeve debuted on Broadway in A Matter of Gravity in 1976, playing Katharine Hepburn's grandson, and later starred in Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July, in which he portrayed embittered Kenneth Talley, a crippled gay Vietnam War vet. Despite his theater credentials and work on television, Reeve is best known for portraying the red-caped comic book hero in the Superman films. He was a virtual unknown in 1978 when he was chosen from 200 candidates to become the big screen's incarnation of the fumbling newspaper reporter Clark Kent, whose secret origins as an alien from the distant planet Krypton endows him with super strength and the ability to fly. Reeve went on to star in three more films as the Man of Steel. In 1993 he appeared in the Merchant and Ivory hit The Remains of the Day, which was filmed in the English countryside. But even there it was hard to shrug off his superhero image. "It is very strange to walk into the House and Hound, some pub from the 15th century in the middle of Wiltshire someplace, then--'Aye, it's Superman, here he comes!'" he said in a 1993 interview on CNN. Earlier movies included Gray Lady Down, Somewhere in Time, Switching Channels, The Bostonians, and Deathtrap. Reeve and his wife had one son, Will, 12, and he had two children from a previous relationship--Matthew, 25, and Alexandra, 21.