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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

September 25, 1952

One thing that I was noticing about September 25 is that it seems to be a day in which quite a lot happened.

It's a good thing that this year, September 25 happens to fall on a Tuesday then, because I am not without a shortage of possible topics that I could write about. The one topic that I did choose is a tale that has a plethora of emotions. It's a tale of fame, tragedy, triumph, and perseverence, and I hope that it's an inspirational one for you.

But before we get into that, we should talk about the significance of September 25 throughout history.

303 – Saint Fermin of Pamploma is beheaded in France while on a voyage preaching the gospel

1066 – The Viking invasions of England come to an end with the Battle of Stamford Bridge

1775 – During the American Revolutionary War, Ethan Allen surrenders to British forces in an attempt to capture Montreal during the Battle of Longue-Pointe

1789 – The Bill of Rights, the Congressional Compensation Agreement, and the Congressional Apportionment Amendment are passed by U.S. Congressional

1846 – The Mexican city of Monterrey is captured by U.S. Forces lead by Zachary Taylor

1890 – U.S. Congress establishes Sequoia National Park

1906 – Leonardo Torres Quevedo successfully demonstrates his invention known as the Telekino, which helped guide a boat to the shore. It is widely believed that this invention was the precursor of the modern day remote control

1911 – The ground is broken for the contruction of Boston's “Fenway Park”

1912 – In New York City, a new school is founded, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

1915 – The Second Battle of Champagne occurs

1929 – Jimmy Doolittle performs the first blind flight from Mitchel Field, proving that full instrument flying from takeoff to landing is possible

1955 – The Royal Jordanian Air Force is founded

1957 – Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas is one of the first schools to be racially integrated, with assistance from American troops

1977 – The first annual Chicago Marathon is held, with over four thousand people participating

1978 – Two planes collide in the air above San Diego, California, killing 144 people

1981 – On the same day that Belize enters into the United Nations, Sandra Day O'Connor becomes the first female to be sworn into the United States Supreme Court

1983 – Thirty-eight prisoners escape from Maze Prison in the United Kingdom, the largest prison escape in British history

1992 – NASA launches a $511 million probe into space to Mars in the first U.S. Mission in seventeen years. Unfortunately, the project is a failure

2009 – Barack Obama, Gordon Brown, and Nicolas Sarkozy (the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and France) appear on television for the G-20 summit, accusing Iran of building a secret nuclear enrichment facility.

Another thing that I couldn't help but notice was the sheer volume of famous people who are celebrating a birthday today! These celebrities include Barbara Walters, Brian Murphy, Ian Tyson, Robert Miano, Robert Walden, Josh Taylor, Michael Douglas, Cheryl Tiegs, Cecil Womack, Mimi Kennedy, Mark Hamill, Anson Williams, Luanne Rice, Zucchero, Michael Madsen, Heather Locklear, Beth Toussaint, Keely Shaye Smith, Tate Donovan, Anita Barone, Scottie Pippen, Matt Battaglia, Gordon Currie, Melissa De Souza, Will Smith, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Hal Sparks, Dean Ween (Ween), Brian Dunkleman, Jessie Wallace, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, Eric Moss, Matt Hasselbeck, Robbie Jones, T.I., Chris Owens, Van Hansis, Nicole Fugere, and Jansen Panettiere.

Wow...I am exhausted just typing out all that. So many celebrity birthdays today.

In fact, today's blog subject was also born on September 25.

September 25, 1952, that is.

Unfortunately, the subject of this particular blog is no longer with us, but he was born on this date sixty years ago...and his story started off like that of any young actor entering show business.  He paid his dues in various acting jobs before landing the one role that made him famous, and throughout the years made a living for himself as a well-respected actor.  In one split second, something happened that changed his life forever.  But did he ever give up?  Well, you be the judge of that.

If he had lived, Christopher Reeve would be turning sixty years old.  And today, this blog will be doing a feature on him as a tribute to all the achievements that he was a part of both before and after that fateful May day in 1995.

First, the basics.  Christopher D'Olier Reeve was born on September 25, 1952 in New York City.  He was the son of journalist Barbara Pitney and teacher/novelist Franklin D'Olier Reeve.

Christopher Reeve was bitten by the acting bug at the age of nine.  That was when he was given a part in an amateur performance of "The Yeoman of the Guard".  Six years later, when Reeve was fifteen years old, he was accepted into an apprenticeship at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts.  Although most of the apprentices at the time were college students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, Christopher Reeve looked older than his fifteen years (and behaved in a similar fashion, as he had wanted to impress his father by acting older in age than he really was).  As a result, he had no trouble fitting in with his peers.

During his time with the festival, Reeve was involved in several theatrical productions, and many people raved about his acting abilities.  He even managed to score a compliment from veteran actress Olympia Dukakis, who once told him "I'm surprised.  You've got a lot of talent.  Don't mess it up."

After his 1970 graduation from Princeton Day School, Christopher acted in various plays in Maine during that summer.  His intention was to become an actor straight out of high school, but his mother absolutely insisted that he go to college first.  Christopher applied to several schools (and had gotten accepted into quite a few), but in the end, settled on Cornell University.  He liked the school's close proximity to New York City, which was where he was convinced he could get his acting career started.

Once arriving in Cornell, he immediately joined the theater department, scoring such roles as Pozzo in "Waiting for Godot", and Polixenes in "A Winter's Tale".  During his first year at Cornell, Christopher ended up getting a letter from a man named Stark Hesserline.  He was a high-powered agent who had discovered Robert Redford, and represented Susan Sarandon, Michael Douglas, and Richard Chamberlain.  After seeing Reeve perform, he was impressed by the young actor, and expressed interest in wanting to represent him.  Although Reeve was excited by the offer, it was decided that he would remain in college while meeting with casting agents in New York on weekends.

In the summer between his second and third year of study at Cornell, Christopher took a three-month absence from school where he traveled to Europe to immerse himself in the culture and to help actors based in England and Scotland how to mimic an American accent by reading the newspaper aloud to them.  When he returned, he decided to switch colleges, going from Cornell to Julliard for his senior year.

While at Julliard, he was only one of a few students who was accepted into the school's Advanced Program.  Another student who was also accepted was Robin Williams.  Both Reeve and Williams ended up becoming very close friends as a result of being classmates in the same program.  At some point during his time at Julliard, he was offered the chance to leave the school to join the Acting Company, but Reeve turned the offer down, as he was very close to finishing his program.  And in 1974, he graduated from college.

Shortly after graduation, Reeve ended up landing a role in the television soap opera "Love of Life", and just a few months later auditioned for a play entitled "A Matter of Gravity" in Broadway.  One of the play's stars, the late Katharine Hepburn, watched Reeve's audition and immediately gave him a part.  Hepburn also managed to arrange Reeve's schedule so that he could work on the play and "Love of Life" at the same time.  It would have been great, had Reeve taken care of himself.  Due to a very poor diet (substituting chocolate bars and coffee for actual meals), the poor guy ended up passing out cold after saying just one line, leading to his understudy having to take over.  It was an embarrassing moment for Reeve, but he ended up staying with the play for a few months, developing a very strong friendship with Katharine Hepburn in the process.

Of course, it would only be three years after that play that he would end up getting the role that ended up making him a star.

The year was 1977, and Reeve's agent had told him that he should audition for the lead role in the new film adaptation for the comic book superhero "Superman".  Reeve was intrigued by the role, but he doubted that he would end up getting the part.  Although he stood at 6'4" and was considered to have the same features that many leading men in Holywood had, by Reeve's own admission, he was a "skinny WASP". 

But to Reeve's surprise, he ended up getting the part anyway.  To train for the role, he ended up undergoing an intense training session lasting two months, changing his food intake and exercise routines in order to bulk up for the part.

TRIVIA:  His training sessions were supervised by British weighlifting champion David Prowse who had just finished filming another high-profile film, Star the man who wore the Darth Vader costume!

Long story short, "Superman:  The Movie" was released in December 1978, and was a huge box-office smash, making over $300 million in profits.  The role cemented Reeve's status as a leading man in the genre of action film, and he was involved in three more Superman sequels between 1980 and 1987 (though to be completely honest, the last two films weren't that memorable).

It's important to know that Reeve had other film roles besides the "Superman" series.  Some were critically acclaimed (such as his role in the 1992 film "The Remains of the Day"), and some were critically panned (such as his role in 1995's "Village of the Damned").  But Reeve also chose his roles very carefully, and surprisingly enough, he ended up turning down a lot of roles in some high-profile films.  He turned down starring roles in "Lethal Weapon", "Pretty Woman", "Romancing the Stone", "Fatal Attraction", "American Gigolo", "Splash", and "Body Heat"!

Interestingly enough, Christopher Reeve took on the role of a paralyzed police officer in an HBO film, and he had done extensive research at a rehabilitaton center in California to prepare for the role.  Little did he know that just months later, his role would become all too real.

On May 27, 1995, Christopher Reeve fell off of his horse during an equestrian competition (Reeve had been riding horses since having to learn how to ride one while filming 1985's "Anna Karenina"), and suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down.  He was placed into intensive care immediately, and was closely monitored by doctors there.  At first, Reeve was completely devastated by the accident, and the thought of him never being able to walk or move again was initially too much to bear.  He even contemplated suicide after the accident occured.  Luckily, with the support of his second wife, Dana, Reeve decided that the best thing to do was fight.

Christopher Reeve underwent a surgery to reattach his skull to his spine, which was highly dangerous.  The odds of surviving were fifty-fifty, and Reeve was scared.  But when he received a visit from his old friend, Robin Williams (who was masquerading as a doctor pretending to be a proctologist threatening to give Reeve a rectal exam), Reeve believed that for the first time since the accident, he would be okay.

For eight months, Reeve struggled with being in intensive care.  Because the accident was such that it caused severe damage, Reeve was unable to breathe without the use of a breathing tube, or an artifical respirator.  But by December 1995, he was able to breathe on his own for half an hour at a time without assistance from either.  Doctors considered this to be incredibly remarkable progress given the extent of his injuries.

But then again, Christopher Reeve was a fighter from the very beginning.

Throughout 1996, Reeve began making many public appearances.  He ended up getting a standing ovation at the 1996 Academy Awards ceremony, hosted the Paralympics in Atlanta, Georgia, and attended the 1996 Democratic National Convention.  He made the cover of TIME Magazine in August 1996, and he even took on a narration job for an HBO film "Without Pity: A Film About Abilities" which won an Emmy Award.  By 1997, he took a turn behind the camera, directing the film "In The Gloaming" for HBO, which earned several award nominations, and in 1998, he appeared in the lead role for the remake of the classic Alfred Hitchcock film, "Rear Window".

But his real work after the accident came in the form of activism for spinal cord research.  He founded the "Christopher Reeve Foundation" (now known as the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation), which has raised over $65 million for spinal cord research since its inception.  He also co-founded the Reeve-Irvine Research Center, which has since become one of the leading spinal cord research facilities in the world.  And, in 2002, the "Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center" was opened in New Jersey with the purpose of helping people with spinal cord injuries live more independently.

Christopher Reeve was determined to devote as much research towards this cause for a multitude of reasons.  He wanted to help other paralyzed people realize that they could have a better quality of life, but he also wanted to be able to get the chance to find a way to recover from his injuries, especially after he began to regain some motor control in the year 2000.

Sadly, Christopher Reeve never did see his goal come true.  On October 10, 2004, he passed away at the age of 52 due to complications from sepsis.  In another tragic note, Reeve's widow, Dana, died just two years later from cancer.  He left behind three children, Matthew and Alexandra (from Reeve's relationship with Gae Exton), and Will (his only child with Dana Reeve).  Matthew and Alexandra have since joined the board of directors of the "Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation", ensuring that their father's legacy continues.

Christopher Reeve was a hero to many people.  Many people looked up to him while he was under the guise of Superman, and millions saw him as a strong person who wasn't afraid of anything.  Even after his devastating accident, many people still saw him as an inspiration, and a strong role model. 

Christopher Reeve was a true inspiration and a hero.  And even though he's been gone eight years, his legacy will never die.

And, that's what happened on September 25, 1952.

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