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411: Reeve: A Real Superman

The first time Christopher Reeve appeared in public after his 1995 accident and recovery was at a big black-tie dinner for the Creative Coalition.

Chris had been very involved with the actors' non-partisan group when it began, so it was an extra-special event.

I do remember that no one knew what to expect, and there was a sense of anticipation and nerves. I was sitting at the table right against the stage, a spot where you could hear Reeve's complicated breathing apparatus from behind the curtain. What shape would he be in when he appeared, we wondered?

And then his motorized wheelchair brought him out to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.

He made a speech, the first of many I would hear him give over the last several years, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Christopher Reeve was determined, we learned that night, not to fade away.

Over the years since a 1995 horseback riding accent left him a quadriplegic, I had the good fortune to meet Chris and Dana Reeve on many occasions. As time went on, and Chris's breathing became remarkably better, it was almost amazing how much traveling he was able to accomplish — more than most well people.

To say he was a role model, a standard-bearer or a hero is a vast understatement. Just think of his accomplishments since the accident (never mind his huge career that preceded it): He directed two TV movies and acted in a third. He wrote a bestselling memoir. And he became a beacon for other quadriplegics, giving them hope where there had been none.

At the annual Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation (search) dinner, the room was always filled with friends and admirers in wheelchairs, all of whom looked to Chris as their personal Superman.

He told me at the Tony Awards in June 2003, when we ran into each other backstage, that he wrote or called at least four people a week who had been in paralyzing accidents to give them courage and support.

"And I can give them so much encouragement," he said. "When I had my accident, there was no one and nothing. Stem cells," he predicted then, wisely, "are going to be the next big debate."

You're going to read a lot in the next few days about Reeve's friends and family, the people who took care of him.

If there was any one more super than even Chris, it was his wife Dana. Has there ever been wife so devoted or loving?

Chris's older son, Matthew — whose college roommate Dhani, son of Beatle George Harrison (search), suffered his own father's bizarre near-murder by an attacker and then his demise from cancer — has always been at his side.

Former HBO chief Michael Fuchs was always there with private planes and health care. Reeve's buddies from his days in acting school, Robin Williams and Kevin Kline, as well as Glenn Close and countless others, rarely missed an opportunity to be with him or be supportive.

So were Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, with whom Chris shared a birthday and, in some years, a party.

Of course, the saddest part of Chris's death comes in that he had made so much progress. He was determined to breath off his tube, and had advanced to the point where his public speaking was unaffected by his ailments.

His sense of humor was constant. At another Creative Coalition (search) event, in 2001, Reeve was supposed to introduce Playboy publisher Christie Hefner. But she was detained in traffic, leaving Reeve — who'd been wheeled on stage — out on a limb and determined not to be stared at.

"I could just filibuster," he quipped to the star-studded crowd, "or take the highest bid to get me off stage. Fifty cents?"

Well, no one ever wanted Christopher Reeve off that stage. He will be sorely missed.