Gary Susman
October 11, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Christopher Reeve, the Superman star who came to be seen as a real-life hero for the indomitable attitude he showed after he was paralyzed in an equestrian accident, died Sunday at age 52, his family announced. While being treated for an infected pressure wound — a bedsore-type ailment that’s a common complication of paralysis — Reeve suffered a heart attack on Saturday and slipped into a coma from which he did not awaken. Wife Dana Reeve issued a statement on Monday, thanking the staff of New York’s Northern Westchester Hospital and ”millions of fans around the world who have supported and loved my husband over the years.”

Reeve was a little-known, Juilliard-trained actor with a soap opera (Love of Life) and one movie credit (in the submarine thriller Gray Lady Down) to his name when he was picked to star as the Man of Steel in 1978’s Superman. The movie shot him to instant stardom and spawned three sequels, but it also trapped him forever in the public’s mind as Clark Kent, despite dozens of other film, stage, and TV roles — notably, the time-traveling romantic in Somewhere in Time (1980), the scheming playwright in Deathtrap (1982), the lying reporter in Street Smart (1987), and the American diplomat-turned-English country gentleman in The Remains of the Day (1993).

An avid athlete, Reeve was rendered quadriplegic when he was thrown from a horse in 1995. Always insisting that one day he would walk again, he traveled the country as an ardent advocate of stem cell research (Sen. John Kerry cited him as a friend when discussing the issue in Friday’s presidential debate) and continued to work as an actor and director on TV. He was nominated for an Emmy for his direction of 1998’s In the Gloaming, a made-for-cable movie about an AIDS patient and his family, and he won a Screen Actors Guild award in 1999 for his starring role in a remake of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, in which he updated the James Stewart role of a wheelchair-bound man who believes he’s witnessed a murder from his apartment window. Coming full circle, he’d also appeared in a recurring role on Smallville, the WB drama about the pre-Superman Clark Kent. His most recent project was The Brooke Ellison Story, a TV biopic he directed about a young woman, paralyzed from the neck down in a childhood car accident, who completed her education and earned a degree at Harvard. It premieres on A&E on Oct. 25.

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