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Man of Steel

America remembers Christopher Reeve -- The Man of Steel pushed past personal tragedy to become a national hero

Long before he stepped into a phone booth and threw on that red cape, Christopher Reeve had already learned to fly. The classically trained actor — who died Oct. 10 of complications from an infection in Mount Kisco, N.Y., at age 52 — was an accomplished pilot who frequently tried to entice his colleagues to fly with him. ''He was always wanting us to go on his plane,'' recalls early costar Christopher Plummer. ''I remember an actor who had to make a play one night. We were up in Michigan and he was stranded. Christopher grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and flew him to New York.''

Reeve became synonymous with the flying superhero he brought to life in four films, but it was only after a tragic, epochal 1995 horse-riding accident left him paralyzed that the Superman moniker truly fit. Already an American icon, he transformed himself from action hero into heroic activist.

''Destiny threw a tremendous mountain'' in his path, says friend and supporter Steven Spielberg. ''He showed us that through courage, tenacity, generosity, and faith we can all be Superman.''

The well-bred son of Northeastern intellectuals, Reeve graduated from Cornell University and seemed headed toward a career in sophisticated drama when he entered Juilliard. But in 1977, just 25 and coming off a part opposite Katharine Hepburn on Broadway, he won the widely coveted role of Superman. ''When we met him,'' recalls executive producer Ilya Salkind, ''he was a string bean!'' Six foot four and no more than 190 pounds, Reeve bulked up, adding muscle to match his all-American looks. ''He had that smile which said, 'You think I'm getting by with this?!''' recalls frequent costar Ned Beatty. ''I always loved that.''

Who didn't? Critics may have called his acting stiff, but the ITALIC {Superman}] movies became hits. Rather than rest on his action-hero laurels, Reeve branched out into a variety of movies, from Merchant Ivory costume dramas to comedies like ITALIC {Switching Channels}] to the horror flick ITALIC {Village of the Damned}]. Actress and longtime friend Jane Seymour was struck by his kindness during the filming of ITALIC {Somewhere in Time}]: ''When I started shooting I was really sick, and he came to my room and handed me all these books and flu remedies. [He was] just the sweetest guy in the entire world.''

And the actor had long made charitable work a big part of his life. ''We attended three Special Olympics,'' Salkind recalls, ''and Christopher was incredible. He was just so natural and so warm. These children, they felt it, they felt the person.''

Those skills served Reeve well following the accident that confined him to a wheelchair for the past decade. Rather than retreat from public view, he became, through congressional lobbying and multiple TV appearances, the world's most prominent proponent of research to cure paralysis.

But while the focus of Reeve's life shifted, he never gave up his craft. He won raves for directing the 1997 HBO movie ITALIC {In the Gloaming}], took home a Grammy for the recorded version of his acclaimed memoir ITALIC {Still Me}], earned the respect of a new generation of comic fans with his appearances on ITALIC {Smallville}], and drew kudos for his impossibly strong focus and energy. ''He never acknowledged the profound physical limitations his crazy accident dumped on him,'' says director Jonathan Demme. ''His mind was always flying.''

(Additional reporting by Rebecca Ascher-Walsh and Michelle Kung)

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