When Christopher Reeve Surprised the World at the Oscars

The 1996 Academy Awards saw a surprise appearance by Christopher Reeve, less than a year after a major accident...

Christopher Reeve Hollywood Walk of Fame Star
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On May 27 1995, the late Christopher Reeve’s life changed forever. An enthusiastic horse rider, he was taking part in a dressage event in Virginia. All had been going well, until his horse – ‘Buck’ – went to tackle the third fence of the course, and abruptly stopped. Reeve was thrown from the horse, landing headfirst.

Reeve’s first and second vertebrae in his spine were shattered, instantly leaving him paralyzed from the neck down, and no longer in control of his breathing. And while, over time, he would get to a point where he could breathe for around 90 minutes at a time away from his ventilator (as much through sheer bloody-mindedness and utter determination), things would never be the same for him.

Yet the big screen Superman became, in the eyes of many of us, an even more important superhero than ever before. He wrote candidly about his accident, and how he struggled to adapt in the year or so immediately afterwards in particular, in his memoir, Still Me. And in the aftermath of his accident, he remained out of the public eye, attempting to rehabilitate and come to terms with things behind closed doors.

It was no easy path he followed, but then he encountered what he described himself as a “turning point.” The 1996 Academy Awards were to be produced by Quincy Jones for the first time, and in February of that year (around nine months since Reeve’s accident), Jones put a call in to Reeve. Would he, Jones asked, be interested in making a special appearance at the Oscar ceremony come the end of March?

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It was a big moment.

Reeve had been at the Kessler Rehabilitation Center based in New Jersey and had gone from being a recluse there to talking to many of the other patients also at the center. But outside of the doors of Kessler, he had barely been seen by the public. To audiences around the world, he was still the man in the red cape, battling Lex Luthor and saving the world. He was (understandably) cagey. Now quadriplegic, Reeve was dependent on a special adapted wheelchair if he wanted to move around, and on the small army of people around him. In his head, there were umpteen reasons to decline Quincy Jones’ offer.

But Reeve said yes.

“I was extremely grateful for this invitation because it was a gesture of inclusion by the film industry – a gesture I took to mean that I had not been forgotten by my peers after nearly 20 years in the business,” Reeve wrote. He and Jones “talked for a while about my moment on the Oscars. I would speak briefly about socially relevant films and urge the Hollywood community to remember how influential and necessary such work can be. I told Quincy I was flattered and would certainly think about it. Then, on a wild impulse, I accepted on the spot.”

To give you an idea just what Reeve had committed to, here’s the next paragraph from Still Me:

“As soon as I hung up the phone, it dawned on me that I had just agreed to appear live in front of two billion people, in a wheelchair, breathing on a ventilator, and with no way of knowing whether my body would remain still during my five to seven minutes onstage. If I hit a bump as I wheeled on, I might spasm and end up slumped in an awkward position, and there might not be time to put me back together again before the curtain went up.”

His decision would be a pivotal one, not least in his work in what would ultimately become The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. But even though there were two months between Reeve saying yes to Quincy Jones and the Oscars itself, there was a long, long way to go.

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The risks, as Reeve outlined in his quote above, were not insignificant. Involuntary body spasms were now common in Reeve’s life. He had moments too where the air supply to his chair would cut off. There were potentially unforeseen medical issues as a result of the journey across America to the Oscars’ Los Angeles venue. Then there was the fact that Reeve knew people would see him as he’d become rather than how they knew him, flying around the screen.

There were also stresses, albeit ones that pale in comparison, on the side of the Academy Awards. It was decided to keep Reeve’s appearance a secret due to two pieces of thinking. Firstly, if a physical issue cropped up, then it’d allow him to quietly back out. Secondly – and what actor can resist this? – the dramatic impact of his appearance in the first place.

The logistics of a surprise guest at the Oscars were significant, of course. Each year, Premiere magazine used to run an in-depth behind the scenes piece on the Oscars telecast, albeit a year after the event. In its report on the 1996 Academy Awards, run in its April 1997 issue, it noted that on the day of the Oscars, a special behind closed doors rehearsal with Reeve was organized at 8:30am. Reeve was out of the building again before most of the hubbub of the day’s preparation began (and before most people even knew he’d been there), but in that time, he vetoed the use of John Williams’ iconic Superman music when he came to the stage. It was decided he would appear on stage with no music at all.

But even before he got to the stage, Reeve got an appreciation of just how many people were rooting for him. Given the secrecy of his appearance, he obviously couldn’t appear on the red carpet, and had to be quietly smuggled into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the show was taking place. Even if people knew he was in the Los Angeles area, the secret may have been spoiled.

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Inevitably, many did see Christopher Reeve, yet they kept the surprise. More than that, they showed no shortage of support. Again, from Reeve’s autobiography, “another completely unexpected benefit came out of the Oscar adventure. During my stay in Hollywood, I entered hotels and buildings through garages, kitchens, and service elevators, and met cooks, waiters, chambermaids, and maintenance crews. Many of them said they were praying for me. Others looked me right in the eye and said, we love you, Superman. You’re our hero.’ At first I couldn’t believe they meant it. Then I realized that they were looking past the chair and honoring me for a role that obviously had real meaning for them, I didn’t feel patronized in any way. Clearly a part I had played 20 years before was still valued. The fact that I was in a wheelchair, unable to move below my shoulders, and dependent on the support of others for almost every aspect of my daily life had not diminished the fact that I was— and always would he— their Superman.”

What I like about Reeve’s book, incidentally, is how human it is. That he talks candidly about his flaws and his mistakes. About how he nearly gave up. In the full context of his own writing, it makes moments like the passage above cause the hairs on your arms stand on end.

But back to Oscar night. Before he appeared on stage, it turned out there was a slight hitch. As he was rolled to where he needed to be on stage, Reeve’s chair went too quickly, and he took a bump as he went through a doorway. Expecting a spasm, nothing happened. Reeve breathed out, and then this happened. Remember: nobody in the crowd, or us watching at home, knew this was coming…

“In the green room there is a rare round of applause, and quite a few tears,” noted Premiere, adding that “lines that sounded clichéd when read by an able-bodied stand-in are now charged.”

Reeve had chosen, in conjunction with Quincy Jones, the film clips that were shown after his introduction. And he wrote that afterwards, “I felt as euphoric as the day our PDS hockey team beat the mighty Kent School and I had a 2–0 shutout.” I’m guessing, not being a hockey person, that’s quite euphoric.

I watched that Oscar show live (it was the year that Mel Gibson took home Best Picture gold for Braveheart), and I can barely remember a thing about it. But I do remember Christopher Reeve. I remember his appearance stopping me dead, and me listening to every single word. I remember thinking it felt important. And that Reeve really was a superhero.

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That one appearance would change quite a lot for Reeve. He began accepting more and more public engagements. He would go on to direct three features, and take on some limited acting roles, including the lead in a TV remake of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. And, along with his wife, Dana, he would channel more and more energy into what became the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, that to this day provides support and help for those living with and affected by paralysis, as well as lobbying for investment in proper research.

Reeve’s story didn’t have the happiest of endings. He died on Oct. 10, 2004 at the age of just 52. He died of a cardiac arrest, reportedly caused by a bad reaction to an antibiotic that was treating an infection. His beloved Dana, who took over the running of the foundation following his death, died of lung cancer at the age of 44, on March 6, 2006. Irrespective of religion and beliefs, it’d be a hard heart to hope they didn’t find each other again out there somewhere.

They did, however, leave the world a foundation that continues their work, and now bears both their names.

And in Christopher Reeve, the world genuinely had a superhero to root for. Rest in peace, Superman.

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