Saturday, July 01, 2006
Christopher Reeve, The Man of Steel.
I'm going to see SUPERMAN RETURNS very soon, and as sort of a homage to a man who helped to shape my worldview, I have posted the transcript of a rare iterview with Christopher Reeve from 1996. This piece is very special, because my heroes are on both sides of the conversation: Reeve, speaking about the challenges he faced after his accident, is speaking to Ralph Hammann, a Berkshire-area film & theatre critic who just happens to be my high-school theatre teacher and mentor. If only I could have been a fly on the wall....
Remembering Christopher Reeve
By Ralph Hammann - December 30, 2004
Editor’s note: Christopher Reeve, the noted Hollywood actor whose ties to the Berkshire community spanned 36 years, starting when he was an apprentice in at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1968, died on Oct. 10, 2004, after complications from an infection. He had been paralyzed from the neck down after falling off his horse during a jump in a Culpepper, Va., competition in the spring of 1995.
He was remembered by friends and colleagues as the man who played Superman in the movies, but also as a true-life superhero who used his celebrity to improve the lot of others and a dedicated advocate for research into spinal cord injuries. As a remembrance of Mr. Reeve, we print this story by Ralph Hammann from 1996, the first local interview granted by the actor after his tragic accident.
WILLIAMSTOWN — Visitors to Christopher Reeve should not expect to find the actor and part-time Williamstown resident sitting about inactively or waiting like one of Samuel Beckett’s characters. Reeve may be confined to a wheelchair, but the essential part of him is enormously vital. He may currently be paralyzed from below his shoulders, but currently seems the operative word. Everything about his demeanor suggests that this is a temporary state, a new challenge for the activist who has always brought his energy and conviction to effect positive changes.
“I don’t feel trapped. I don’t feel stuck at all,” Reeve says, after acknowledging his admiration of Beckett, the poet-dramatist of souls that are sometimes trapped in particular physical existences. “What I do feel is that, first of all, there is a tremendous amount of opportunity. I mean two weeks ago, I went out on a 12-meter sailboat in a race off Newport at 30 knots of wind with my wheelchair lashed down in the cockpit.”
In the only regatta that wasn’t called off due to winds from Hurricane Bertha, Reeve sailed through rain squalls to benefit Shake-A-Leg, a handicapped sailing program.
“Even though I wasn’t steering the boat, which I usually would have been doing, I had the same enjoyment of being on the water. There’s a lot I can do even in the condition that I’m in. But I do see a way out of it, and it’s not a pipe dream. So I don’t indulge in feelings of being trapped or stuck. It’s a waste of time and energy to think that way, anyway.”
A couple of hours spent with him in his Williamstown home, an airy haven in a pastoral setting, prove him to be a man whose actions confirm his words. He has more irons in the fire than many in his condition would or could dream of keeping hot.
This is apparent from the beginning of the interview, as Reeve forewarns that we might be interrupted by a casting phone call he’s awaiting from an actor, about to leave the country. Reeve must make an offer to the actor, whom he is considering for a role in the film, “In the Gloaming” which he is directing for
HBO Showcase Performances. Reeve good-humoredly notes that the role is that of a father, which he would have played. The series of hour dramas, which will originate in New York, has impressed Reeve for the meticulousness with which it is being mounted.
“Basically it is a story about reconciliation,” he says of the drama by Will Scheffer that he’ll begin filming in September. “It is about a very affluent family out in the suburbs, in Westchester, and how they are brought together by the final visit home of their son from whom they’ve been estranged for the last four years. He comes home to die … He’s got AIDS, but it could have been a tumor or leukemia. But he’s reached a place of serenity and acceptance, and through his wisdom they reconcile. It’s a very moving script, and I’m really honored that they’ve entrusted me to direct it.”
Reeve’s humor radiates through him like the gentle afternoon sun on his garden, which is carefully groomed by his very good friend and neighbor, Bill Stinson.
“The house we picked [for filming] is about 10 minutes from my house in Bedford [N.Y.], so it’ll be a short commute to work every morning” he smiles.
The importance of work to him, and Reeve’s own fastidiousness, comes across as he describes his pre-production work on the film that will star Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Helen Hunt and Robert Sean Leonard.
“The other day, I spent the entire day in meetings about picking colors of wallpapers for the house, talking to cinematographers about what filters we’re going to use at sunset, talking to actors about how I see their roles, deciding on which direction we want the furniture on the patio to face — I love all of the decision-making, working with the writer on the script, having responsibility for the final product, working with so many talented people and helping to facilitate what they do and answering their questions.”
This is Reeve’s first trip back to Williamstown and the WTF since the accident. He is here with his wife, Dana, their son, Will, and his children by an earlier marriage, Matthew and Alexandra. Reeve, whose last stage appearance at the festival was in the 1992 production of “The Guardsman,” says he is delighted that he has been allowed to remain a member of the family by being a member of the board of trustees, which will involve him in policy-making at the theater.
“We still feel very connected to Williamstown, not only the theater, but the whole community. There are a lot of friends here. It’s been part of our lives for a long time now, and Dana and I were very gratified by the reception not only from the WTF family but from the whole community. I am just thrilled to come back, because I haven’t been here since late in 1994 [when they were here for Thanksgiving].”
He expects his stays in Williamstown will now return to normal.
Stinson, who has enlisted Reeve’s older son to help with weeding, has just given Reeve the first cheery tomato from his garden.
“Dana and I went to dinner in town the other night. She ordered a salad as an appetizer, and the lettuce was right from our garden!” Reeve says.
Stinson, a leading supplier to area restaurants and markets, uses the Reeve’s garden as well as his own.
Reeve says that when he and his wife talked about the future, their first decision was to make their Williamstown house accessible.
“We decided upon that immediately. We never talked for a moment about selling. A rumor got started somewhere that we going to sell the house, but we never even thought about it … the house is very special, many memories. So to come back was wonderful, because we felt as though we never left.”
Reeve says the Adams Memorial Theater is very accessible, as are many restaurants in town.
“Getting around is very easy. I have a fellow who goes ahead of us wherever we go and works these things out.”
That is Neil Stutzer, of the company Access U.S.A., who reported to Reeve that the equipment (various sized ramps, metal plates to help them over doorways) they carry in Reeve’s van could be accommodated virtually everywhere he wanted to go.
“You see, pursuant to the American Disabilities Act, places should be accessible to the handicapped,” Reeve says. “Many aren’t up the code yet, so we bring things with us.”
He is also able to get around to a good degree on his own by blowing air into a device that reads his signals and propels his sophisticated wheelchair. As for physical therapy, he has moved all of his equipment from his home in Bedford to Williamstown. A minimum of two to three hours a day is spent doing therapy. Medically, he is very stable.
Besides Stutzer, Reeve is assisted by a rotating group of aides who help with the heavy lifting and help the nurses on a daily basis. One nurse is always present from the staff, which is rotated every 12 hours. There is also Reeve’s cordial and efficient personal assistant, Michael Manganiello. And if Reeve has an impulse to go somewhere, another aide is on call to help with the logistics. Some come from Bedford; others were hired locally.
Asked about the adjustment necessary to live with all these other people at his side, Reeve says that they become something of an extended family.
“People who are able to blend in with our family are very important, because you do spend a lot of time together, and you want to have a good feeling about them. They become much more than employees and people who you rely on. They are more than just nursing or accessibility. They become a very important part of your life in many ways.”
Reeve allows that arbitrariness of existence can’t really be reconciled.
“It’s just a freak moment. As I came off the horse, I happened to hit my head on the rail, and that’s what did all the damage … if I had missed the rail by about 3 or 4 inches, nothing would have happened.”
Rather than overdo the personal aspect of his injury, as has been seen on Barbara Walters and the Today Show, he would rather talk about his faith in neurological research, in which he says he is very involved now.
“There’s a big piece coming up in Time Magazine in the next couple of weeks. Newsweek did a wonderful article. That was really good because it explained to the average person what’s going on. It made it clear what the problem is and also what the hope is.”
He feels strongly that it will be before the next decade that a cure will be found for his problem.
“The approach that I have the most hope for is based on recent achievements in Stockholm, where they transected the spinal cords of rats and then grafted on nerves from the peripheral nervous system and cemented them in with fibrin, which is a sort of glue that the body produces. And the rats walked. They didn’t just drag their legs behind them, they walked. Now if that could work in humans, it would be an incredible breakthrough.”
The work appears in the current Science journal and was reported on July 26 in The New York Times.
“Dr. Wise Young of N.Y.U., who is a real skeptic, was the one who reviewed this work from Stockholm for acceptance by Science magazine,” Reeve says. “He and I correspond all the time, and what I understand from him is that this may be the breakthrough they’ve been waiting for.”
Reeve also finds cause for optimism in the work of Dr. Martin Schwab in Switzerland, who discovered a protein inhibitor that keeps the central nervous system from regenerating. Now that it’s been identified, Reeve says it can probably be knocked out.
“These are things that a few years ago would have been impossible. Now they offer real hope.”
Reeve persuaded President Clinton to devote $10 million to spinal cord research.
“I think that people realize now that the spinal cord can regenerate, and that the research money is not just for the spinal cord but benefits every condition of the brain or central nervous system, which are really the last frontier of medicine,” he says.
The benefits, he notes, apply to people suffering from MS, Alzheimer's, Lou Gehrig’s disease, paralysis or stroke and also to work being done on brain imaging (a new way of studying how the brain works).
“There is only one degree of separation between any of us and somebody who suffers from a disorder of the brain or central nervous system ,” he says. “You can go up to anyone on the street and say, ‘Do you know anyone with Parkinson’s or MS or Alzheimer’s or even a spinal cord problem?’ Without fail, there will be somebody they’ll know. It’s an aspect of the graying of America. It’s costing us a tremendous amount of money just to maintain these people. Now it’s time to cure them. So whatever I can do to push that along, I’m going do.”
Reeve notes that research money has been withheld in the past because of the fear that it wouldn’t do any good, but he is now heartened that the president and many people in Congress have been won over to the new hope.
“Even an incremental improvement will help,” he explains. “For example, if you are able to get someone the use of an arm, then they can drive a car and go back to work, and then they are off the rolls of Medicaid. So instead of going on slashing programs, reducing hospitals, cutting back on all kinds of care facilities, a better way to approach it is to put our best brains on curing these diseases: Take a proactive view of it, and reduce the cost of Medicaid.”
When asked how the meaning of fear has changed for him, Reeve simply states that he doesn’t really live with fear. Sure, there were the inevitable moments of fear when he was in intensive care and couldn’t breathe at all, but he says that someone always got to him and that it didn’t take long to move out of fear and into recovery.
“I’m not in any pain, and I don’t really have much to be scared about — I haven’t for quite awhile. I have a very, very good support system and a lot to be hopeful for, so I don’t really suffer.
“I take both a short view and a long view,” he adds. “I think that a lot can be accomplished if the public support is there. I compare my situation to Kennedy’s call for a moon landing by 1960: People thought that he was irresponsible and that that would be impossible. Well, I just don’t buy into that. People may have to work a little harder, but I really think we’re on the threshold of new discoveries that will make this time in the chair temporary … if you look at the space program, it took a president, it took public support, it took money and it took good science. With that, they conquered the frontier of space. In a similar way, we can conquer the last frontier of medicine. There is not only a
humanitarian, but also an economic incentive to do that now.”
Reeve, of course is no stranger to using his celebrity and intelligence to champion important causes. Whether it was helping to save Images Cinema in Williamstown or flying to Chile to speak on behalf Chilean actors whose lives were in danger, he can count as many successes on cultural or humanitarian issues as he has had successes on stage and in film. He’ll spend a weekend in August as the master of ceremonies for the opening of the Paraolympics in Atlanta.
He has been continuing environmental work, and was just given the Partners Award by the American Oceans Campaign. He also works with the Creative Coalition.
“We spent most of the last year trying to bring the upstate and downstate interests in New York to work together to protect the New York City watershed area. We managed to get the Legislature to approve a billion dollars toward that end to buy land around the watershed and to help rebuild the aqueducts into the city … also, we worked hard with Concerned Citizens for the Environment and the Sierra Club to defeat Interpower of New York. It would have been a huge coal-burning co-generating plant, and their emissions of sulfur, carbon dioxide and 82 other pollutants would have landed right here in the Berkshires and Southern Vermont.”
That was a five-year, David-and-Goliath struggle that resulted in the federal Environmental Protection Agency withdrawing a permit they had given to the company.
“I’m working mostly now on insurance reform and on raising insurance caps from a million dollars to $10 million,” Reeve said.
Will that be in time to help him?
“Possibly, but it’s not really for me. I’ll be all right. It’s more for the patients down the hall; it’s for people who don’t have the resources.”
Reeve says a number of ideas have been put forward regarding acting roles (including one by a producer who would like to remake “Rear Window”), but the one he accepted is one that allows him to impact and perhaps help change public awareness. He’ll play a small part, that of a quadriplegic outpatient, in a television film that is currently called “Snakes and Ladders.” The film, which was written since Reeve’s accident, is about a family that runs out of insurance when boy is injured and becomes a quadriplegic.
“Hopefully, it will get a big audience on TV. I’m just pleased that someone is making a film about a real-life topic. You know, a lot of these TV movies tend to be about terrorized wives or the disease of the week, but I think this will be an interesting film.”
He sees a dearth of films that offer truthful or valuable portrayals of persons with physical handicaps and says the most important was “Coming Home” (in which Jon Voight plays a Vietnam war vet). Reeve also feels that Gary Sinise’s character in “Forrest Gump” realistically captures the emotions that some people feel about their disability. He says the bitterness of that character seems very accurate and admires “the moment that you see him standing at the wedding, standing on artificial legs but obviously moving forward in his life.”
Reeve, himself, has played a bilateral amputee on Broadway in Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July.” Unfortunately, Reeve notes, most roles depict persons with similar disabilities as either being pathetic victims or villains.
“One script that I was just offered was a quadriplegic who turned out to be the bad guy. I didn’t think that was a good idea.”
As a director, he had experience at Cornell and says he directed parts of the “Superman” movies and parts of another film he starred in called “The Aviator.”
He says directing comes pretty naturally to him.
“Fred Zollo (one of the producers of “In the Gloaming,” “Quiz Show” and “Mississippi Burning”) said, ‘You should have been doing this years ago. It’s too bad that it’s taken an injury to force you into doing something that you should have been doing all along.’”
He thinks part of his strength as a director comes from having been an actor for so long.
“Also I’m naturally bossy, and now I can put it to legitimate use,” he jokes.
Manganiello, who is unobtrusively working at Reeve’s computer, good-naturedly concurs.
“No, but I have a lot of opinions about how things should go, and as an actor I’ve had to restrain myself many times,” Reeves says. “And no, again, I don’t see it as ordering people around. It’s facilitating the work of other talented people. But I’m more than willing to make decisions — I like taking responsibility for a project, which is not something that you’re supposed to do as an actor.”
WTF Producer Michael Ritchie invited Reeve to direct for the WTF this year, but Reeve didn’t come up with a play soon enough.
“Michael, much to my surprise, set the season very early. In the old days, Nikos [Psacharopoulos, the founding WTF director] sometimes picked the August plays in July. But I think the way Michael has gone about it is wonderful. I missed this year, but maybe next season. I’m very grateful that I have an open invitation.”
He’s not sure what he’d like to direct yet.
“It will hit me someday. There is nothing burning right now. I think you should only direct something when you have a passion for it.”
He says he felt that passion in the WTF’s recent “All My Sons,” which he found “heart wrenching.” He thought that both it and “The Ride Down Mount Morgan” were impeccable productions that marked quite an achievement for the theater.
As a WTF board member, Reeve has considered the problem of keeping the theater vital in the coming decade.
“It’s important to remember that this is a theater festival, not a summer stock company, and that means that it has to be bold, and it has to take risks and that it has to challenge its audience. I think Michael Ritchie has done a tremendous job, even in his first year, of taking on that assignment ... I think when you can take a play like “All My Sons” — I’ve seen productions of it that play as very melodramatic family drama — and with a brilliant director and brilliant cast, you really rediscover the play. That’s what’s got to happen so that the classics are really rediscovered.”
He also thinks that the Main Stage should be used for new works, and that the festival needs to bring a younger and more diverse audience into the theater.
“We need people to come from North Adams and Pittsfield, not just the well-to-do tourists on their way through. It needs to be a theater that really speaks to the community, meaning the whole area — Albany and into Vermont, the smaller communities around the Berkshires. If they get word that exciting things are happening on the stage, then they’ll come. If our best work could transfer to New York, that would be a good thing, too. But I think that this festival ought to remember its tradition and its heritage, which is one of rediscovery.”
Reeve feels that Ritchie’s extensive work in New York has given him access to many innovative artists.
“He’s a young guy, and he’s got new ideas. I hope he is given a permanent home here.”
Reeve has also taken on another major project, a book he is writing about his life with Roger Rosenblatt (author of “Our Children of War). So far they have 1,500 pages of transcript, for the book that Random House plans to publish sometime in 1998.
When I ask how he works with a collaborator, he jokes, “Very well: I talk and he listens. And then he writes and I make corrections. No, it’s where he helps to focus and shape the thoughts that I have. Then he comes back to me, and I will fine tune what he does. I may talk and he’ll say, ‘No let’s go further with that or let’s go in a different direction.’ Some of the other publishers wanted the book in early 1997 or even this year. I said, ‘But I don’t know anything. I need more time to discover, to gain perspective on what’s happened — and on what’s going to happen. We hope that by 1998 to write a very uplifting final chapter … it’s going to have to deal with transformation really … it will be very draining to do but very rewarding.”
When he walks again, will he carry on exactly as he has before?
“It will depend upon how strong a recovery it is, but other than that — hopefully, I’ll regain full use of my whole body, in which case I don’t see any limits, although I promised my wife that I won’t compete in cross-country anymore. We already sold the saddle. But I can certainly see doing dressage or equitation. I’d love to ski again, downhill, I miss skiing a lot.”
Reeve skied all his life and taught his kids to ski.
He praises his wife’s work in what he describes as a stunning revival of “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
“I don’t know what she’s going to do for the fall yet,” he says. “We worked it out that her job is being an actress. Someone once said, ‘Never turn your wife into your nurse or your mother.’ And I’m very lucky that we can have nurses who do that sort of maintenance for us. But it is very important to a marriage to not let that role change. So Dana is my wife; I’m her husband — those are our roles — and parents. But you don’t want it to deteriorate into — I mean, it’s not her job in life to take care of me, although she does take wonderful care of me. It is important that she maintain her own identity and her own freedom to do the sort of work that she wants to do.
“If she gets a job that shoots in Russia, I’d miss her like crazy, but I wouldn’t hold her back.”
Although Reeve has often shunned the association with heroic roles that he has played, he has now become a real-life hero to many people. Asked to comment on that, he unsurprisingly says, “I don’t really think in those terms.” Then he reflects, smiles and says, “I’ll sort of leave that analysis to other people.”
It’s an easy analysis.
Ralph Hamman is The Advocate’s chief theater critic.