Hollywood casting is a nutty process that's seldom as simple as just finding the ideal candidate for the role, but every now and then they really do get it right. Back when Superman:The Movie was coming together, there was pressure from on high to put a known quantity like Robert Redford or Burt Reynolds in the cape and tights. To their credit, the producers held out for a fresh face, an unknown actor who wouldn't bring along the baggage of prior roles or personal fame.

In the end, they settled on Christopher Reeve, a serious-minded young Julliard graduate with a strong resemblance to the comic book Superman and, as it turned out, an understanding of and kinship with the character that made him a superhero in his own right. Ultimately it would become difficult to tell where the actor ended and the character began.

In his every scene as the Man of Steel, Reeve conveyed with grace and seeming effortlessness the essential core of Superman: the kindness, compassion and big-heartedness of a being who has unlimited power and dedicates it to the service of others. There has to be a temptation for actors to approach this type of role from one of two extremes; either swaggering around with deadly serious, macho bombast or spoofing the genre with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Reeve took a new tack and gave us a Superman who was comfortable in his own skin, neither anxious to prove his superiority nor apologetic for walking around in tights. He wore the cape as royalty wear their raiments, not with showy bravado but with the casual ease that comes from being born to greatness.

The publicity machine for "Superman" put forth one of the most memorable tag lines in moviedom: "You will believe a man can fly." The fact that they delivered on this promise was due as much to Christopher Reeve as to the teams of special effects artists who toiled on the film. Reeve spent untold hours in harness, suspended over a studio floor in front of a bluescreen, working to create the illusion of graceful flight. As a glider pilot, he knew something about aerodynamics and with subtle gestures and shifts of his frame was able to convincingly suggest the way a body might indeed soar along the currents and thermals, if only we could beat that ancient spoiler of dreams, gravity.

Reeve went on to do three Superman sequels of (it must be said) wildly varying quality. He also made a name for himself as a "serious" actor in such films as Death Trap, Remains of the Day and the cult favorite Somewhere in Time. But unlike other veterans of comics-based projects, he never felt "above" his most famous role, or looked down on it in any way. He remained proud of his work as Superman and spoke of the character with fondness and reverence.

In May of 1995, an accident robbed Reeve of his mobility and very nearly his life. Paralyzed from the neck down, he showed in his darkest hour what heroism is really about. He became an advocate for disabled persons and led the fight for medical research that he felt may have returned mobility to himself and others. He continued to work in films and win awards for that work. He wrote a bestselling memoir. He gave other paraplegics a reason to hope for the future. Above all, he never gave up the struggle to live life on his own terms, becoming in the process the closest thing many of have seen to a real Superman. "A hero," he once said, "is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

I believe Christopher Reeve showed the world, on screen and off, what it means to be a hero. As Superman he could bend steel in his bare hands and change the course of mighty rivers. As Chris Reeve, in the end, he was happy to lift his index finger without assistance. But he showed us that acts of true heroism don't rely on how big your muscles are or what they can or cannot do. The strength that really matters is in the heart and mind and spirit of each of us. What matters is to take whatever it is you've been given -- in Superman's case the powers of a god or in Reeves' case, ultimately, just the power of celebrity, unflagging optimism and a gift for public speaking -- and turn it to the greater good.

In a treasured comic book story from the Silver Age, Superman, convinced he's close to dying, performs great works on behalf of humanity and leaves behind a final message. Burned onto the surface of the moon by heat vision, it reads, "Do good to others and every man can be a Superman." It was a message Christopher Reeve heard, understood and passed on in his own way to a world of people who never read a comic book. He leaves behind him a legacy of personal courage and public service, a world better educated to the plight of the handicapped, a medical profession more focused on a cure and audiences reassured that the best qualities of their onscreen idols don't have to evaporate when the production lights turn off.

A few years ago my nephew stopped in the middle of some backyard game to announce, "Now I'm Superman." Since we'd never discussed the character before, he thought he should offer some explanation of who Superman is: "He helps people." It's hard to convey how heart-warming it was to know a kid of seven, obsessed with feats of might and power, understood so clearly what really mattered about the character, and that he could sum it up so completely in three little words. I was reminded of the moment on screen when Margot Kidder's Lois Lane first meets the Man of Steel and asks, "Who are you?" This is his big chance to stand with arms akimbo and feet planted apart, cape flowing in the breeze, and bark out authoritatively, "You can call me...SUPERMAN!" Instead, Reeves' Superman gives a kind, reassuring smile and says, "A friend." That's the real Superman; he's not here for adulation, he's just here to help.

When we lost Christopher Reeve, we all lost "a friend," whether we'd met him or not. He made us believe a man could fly. More, he proved to us that we all can fly. Turns out the secret's not in the leg muscles, after all.

“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.”
- Christopher Reeve (1953-2004)

Graphic at top of page created by Jim Bowers of CapedWonder.com!