Here are the most memorable Christopher Reeve movies. There was a lot more to the actor and director than just Clark Kent

By Gary Susman
Updated October 11, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
Christopher Reeve, Superman
Credit: Christopher Reeve: Gunther/Warner Bros./

The most memorable Christopher Reeve movies

”You’ll believe a man can fly.” That was the advertising tagline behind 1978’s Superman, which made viewers believe not only that Christopher Reeve could fly, but that he could probably do anything else as well. Even after his crippling 1995 equestrian accident, he made us believe he’d be able to walk, someday. He didn’t live long enough to make that dream come true, but that Kryptonian will of steel, underneath that affable Clark Kent charm, were elements of his most memorable projects, and they made us believe him in many roles, even the cads and opportunists. He also proved similarly credible behind the camera, as a TV director. Here are the films and TV movies for which he’ll be most remembered.

Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980) The greatest special effect in that first Superman may have been Reeve’s slyly comic performance as the aw-shucks superhero. He let Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman do all the scenery-chewing, while he retained Superman’s mystery by underplaying. Yet he let us know, without winking, that he grasped the absurdity of playing an all-powerful being who has to disguise himself as the awkward and graceless Clark Kent. In the even better Superman II, Reeve makes that sense of alienation poignant, as he tries to give up his powers for love, only to see his past come back to haunt him with a vengeance. (The film was an obvious inspiration for 2004’s Spider-Man 2. It also spawned two more forgettable sequels of its own.) Reeve, who manages to appear virtuous without seeming at all dull, registers the conflict of a man who realizes that the world needs him, but that he will never belong.

Somewhere in Time (1980) This movie was laughed at upon its release, but in the intervening years, it’s become something of a swoon-worthy chick-flick classic. Reeve is a playwright who falls in love with an image in an old portrait and who figures out how to travel back in time to woo the woman (Jane Seymour) in person. Reeve’s earnestness and charm make him convincing as a romantic with a passion stronger than time.

Deathtrap (1982) What was more shocking, seeing Reeve give Michael Caine a passionate, open-mouthed kiss or seeing him as a caddish, scheming playwright? In this twisty, clever thriller, Reeve knew he was playing against type in a number of ways, and he did so with relish and an infectious sense of fun.

Street Smart (1987) The man who played Clark Kent portrayed a lot of reporters in his career, none more cynical and unscrupulous than the magazine scribe he played here. He fabricates an article about a colorful pimp, only to be pressured by a dangerous real-life pimp (Morgan Freeman, in a career-launching role) who thinks the story is about him. The justice system believes the same thing and subpoenas Reeve’s nonexistent notes. It was another chance for Reeve to play against type, and he’s certainly believable as an ethically compromised man who gets in over his head.

In the Gloaming (1997) After his accident, Reeve turned to directing with this HBO movie about an AIDS patient (Robert Sean Leonard) who returns to his parents’ home to die. Reeve, who was nominated for an Emmy for his work, draws unsentimental performances from Leonard, Bridget Fonda (as his icy sister), and especially Glenn Close, as the mother who belatedly comes to understand and love her son. EW described the short film as ”superior to any domestic drama Hollywood has released in theaters in at least a decade.”

Rear Window (1998) Reeve proved he had no shortage of nerve by taking on, as his first major post-accident role, a beloved Jimmy Stewart part, in this bleak and chilling update of the classic Hitchcock thriller. As a wheelchair-bound man who’s convinced he’s seen a neighbor commit murder, Reeve lent a reality to the role that Stewart could not. But Reeve also proved (in a performance his peers recognized with a Screen Actors Guild award) how expressive he could be, even with his voice and mobility limited. ”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,” Reeve said in an interview at the time. ”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.”

What are you favorite Christopher Reeve roles?