Years ago, when Barbara L. Johnson talked to friends about her son Christopher Reeve and his plans to pursue an acting career, her response was usually this:
“People would say, ‘You don’t really want him to go into this awful profession, do you?’ To which I would say, ‘I can no more stop him than I could stop a train!’ ”
Johnson, who lives in Princeton and is a retired journalist — she covered numerous beats for the Town Topics weekly newspaper from 1975 until 1997 — was reminded that she had made a pun on her son’s most famous movie, “Superman,” and she laughed heartily.
Johnson admits that when she heard another Superman film was in the works — director Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns,” scheduled for sneak previews Tuesday — she wasn’t enthusiastic.
Reeve, who died in October 2004 from complications related to his paralyzing fall from a horse, starred in four Superman movies between 1978 to 1987. To many, he still defines the character, (born in comic books and popularized on a TV series) who vacillates from shyness to heroics.
“Frankly, I was somewhat taken aback: Why would they do another Superman movie? They’ve done it to death. And hadn’t my Chris done, you know, hadn’t he been it?”
With his chiseled features and broad, boyish grin, the 26-year-old Brandon Routh bears a fair resemblance to Reeve, who also was 26 when “Superman” debuted.
“People had always kind of told me that I looked like Christopher Reeve, so I thought, ‘OK, we’ll just do this for the Halloween party.’ And I won the hundred dollars,” Routh told The Associated Press. “And everyone, my co-workers, were kind of shocked by my resemblance.”
Johnson said she “got over (my) self-centeredness” when she learned that director Singer had grown up in West Windsor, was a graduate of the high school there (West Windsor-Plainsboro) and that his mother lives in Princeton.
“Bryan talked at our (Princeton public) library last November in our Christopher Reeve lecture series,” she said. “It was initiated in Chris’ honor. Bryan turned out to be a lovely, modest, unassuming and generous person who was clearly intelligent. And he was very thoughtful about how they were going to approach this icon Superman.
“When I got up to thank him at the end, I said, ‘Well, Bryan, obviously I had mixed feelings about (the) making (of) another Superman movie, but now that I have met you and seen a small clip from your movie, I can see it’s in good hands, and I wish you well with it.’
“I think he was relieved I had given him a sort of benediction,” said Johnson, who is divorced from Reeve’s father, Franklin.
Warner Bros., distributor of the new and vintage Superman movies, has made a print available of “Superman Returns” for an advance screening Tuesday at the Garden Theatre for the benefit of Princeton Public Library, with which Johnson is actively involved.
“Warner Bros. has very generously made possible a benefit showing for the public library. You get free popcorn and a free beverage and on the way out, a free poster of the ‘Superman Returns’ movie from Warner Bros. They gave Chris a convertible Thunderbird after ‘Superman 1,’ a red one. I have a photo of that,” Johnson said.
Singer also is a producer of a documentary available on DVD titled “Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman.” Johnson said she has a “bit part in the documentary,” which traces the iconic hero’s rise in our popular culture. The library will host a screening of “Look, Up in the Sky” at 7 p.m. Thursday. The event is free and open to the public.
Reeve, who grew up in Princeton, was a man of many gifts and interests, his mother said. He first appeared in a theatrical production while attending a boy’s school in Princeton. After that, Johnson said, there was no stopping his trajectory to becoming an actor.
In May 1995, the horse Reeve was riding stumbled and he was thrown from it. The actor sustained critical injuries and was a quadriplegic until his death in 2004 at age 52. His widow, Dana Reeve, who with her husband worked for the disabled through the Christopher Reeve Foundation, died of lung cancer this year at age 44. The foundation has helped raise more than $55 million for research grants.
“Chris was extraordinary,” his mother recalled. “He was endowed with a great many extraordinary talents. He had a wonderful mind, wide-ranging interests, a willingness to take risks. He was an athlete and scholar with a passion for acting, which began very, very early. I think there was a little classroom production of ‘Cinderella’ when he was in the first or second grade. He played the prince.”
But Reeve, who later played against his hunky heroic type in such movies as “Switching Channels,” definitely played against type when he was 11 at the Princeton Country Day School: He portrayed a Scottish housemaid, complete with accent, in the school’s production of “Witness for the Prosecution.”
“The director told me later that Chris, even at 11, was always asking for direction and always thinking through his characters,” Johnson said. “He did the same thing when he played on Broadway with Katharine Hepburn (in ‘A Matter of Gravity’). He wondered what a nephew would do when visiting his aunt (Hepburn) — bring flowers!”
Reeve made his debut in the “Superman” movie series in 1978, after touring in stage works and with several TV credits under his belt. Instantly, he was a soaring star.
“He took the Superman role, quite frankly, as a career move. He felt, even with the risks it entailed, that it would mean he would get a greater recognition and he could bypass the cattle call.
“The risks, he knew, would be of typecasting, and he was always looking for lots of variety,” Johnson said.
In 1987, ensconced in the public sensibility as upbeat Superman, Reeve mined the Clark Kent domain: He portrayed a naive journalist working undercover to write about New York’s world of drugs and prostitution in “Street Smart.”
Did Reeve ask his mother, a working journalist, for tips on his role?
“No! Chris did his own interpretation. He wasn’t going to ask his mom; Mom only
worked for a weekly!” she said.
Johnson says her son’s contributions are lasting and real.
“He worked in so many areas — the Environment, with Bobby Kennedy on clean Hudson waters and, at great risk, he traveled to Chile on behalf of playwrights and actors threatened by the Pinochet government,” she said. “He stood up and spoke for them, in a few words of Spanish. And he was asked to run for Congress after the accident. He considered it but decided against it because he wouldn’t have had the strength or health to do it.”
After his debilitating accident, Johnson said, her son continued his energetic involvement in good deeds, with his trademark sense of humor.
“He was marvelously interested in so many things,” said Johnson. “He was willing to take risks, which probably did lead to his premature death. Maybe he should have started on horses, in a highly competitive sport, when he was a very young boy, not in his late 30s.
“I think one of the most important things that Chris did for many, many people was, after his accident and becoming a quadriplegic, he showed them that there is life after a spinal cord injury or after a stroke. You don’t have to sit in the dark feeling sorry for yourself.
“I think that he touched many, many, many people and certainly that was an enormous contribution to the quality of life of the people who had been afflicted with something as restrictive or disabling as a spinal cord injury.
“He didn’t just help quadriplegics like himself,” added Johnson. “I know for a fact that a lot of others were kind of led to thinking their way into a happier, more productive life.
“And that may well be his most lasting contribution.”
BY ELEANOR O’SULLIVAN