Had he landed a little to the right, he would have walked away with a few cuts and bruises. A little to the left, and he would have been killed. That was the post-traumatic analysis when, on May 27, 1995, Christopher Reeve — best known for filling out Superman’s tights on the big screen — suffered a paralyzing spinal-cord injury in a horseback riding accident.
Persuaded at the last minute to enter a competition in Culpeper, Va., before leaving for Ireland to shoot the Francis Ford Coppola-produced miniseries Kidnapped, the then-42-year-old Reeve and his thoroughbred Buck had completed two jumps in a two-mile, 18-jump course. On the third hurdle, however, the horse abruptly halted, vaulting the actor from the saddle. Hands entangled in the bridle, Reeve was unable to break his fall. He landed on his head and shattered his first and second cervical vertebrae.
Doctors in Culpeper transported the former Man of Steel to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, where surgeons took bone from his hip to repair his broken neck. He then began endless hours of grueling physical therapy, regimens that continue to this day. In his 1998 autobiography Still Me, Reeve emphasizes that he couldn’t have endured without his wife Dana’s support: ”She said, ‘I’ll be with you for the long haul, no matter what…. You’re still you. And I love you.’ What Dana said made living seem possible.”
Though confined to a high-tech wheelchair, Reeve — who can now breathe for up to 90 minutes without a respirator — became a tireless advocate for spinal-cord research, and in 1996 he established the Christopher Reeve Foundation.
As for his showbiz career, Reeve followed an appearance at the 1996 Academy Awards with his directorial debut, 1997’s HBO film In the Gloaming, about a family coping with AIDS; it was hailed by critics and nominated for five Emmys. In 1998’s ABC remake of Rear Window, Reeve took on his first starring role since the accident: that of the wheelchair-bound voyeur made famous by Jimmy Stewart.
Today, Reeve lives with Dana and their 7-year-old son Will in Bedford, N.Y. (His daughter, Alexandra, 16, lives with her mother, Gae Exton, in England, and son Matthew, 20, is a sophomore at Brown University.) ”I’m in the best health that I’ve been in since I was injured, and my body’s getting stronger all the time,” says Reeve. ”I wouldn’t wish this on anybody, but thank God I can be helpful rather than just take up space…. It gives me a sense of purpose.”
Time Capsule: May 27, 1995
At the movies, less than a year after blowing away audiences in Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson star in the trilogy capper Die Hard With a Vengeance. On TV, 17 million Americans tune in to the two-hour season finale of Beverly Hills, 90210. In music, Hootie & the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View lands at No. 1 after 44 weeks on the Billboard chart. And in the news, Isadore ”Friz” Freleng, the self-taught animator behind Porky Pig and other Warner Bros. characters, dies at age 89.