Christopher Reeve (1952 – 2004)
The 6’4” Christopher Reeve won out over thousands of others for the lead in Superman (1978). Because he was decidedly slim he had to gain 30lbs in weight to portray the ‘Man of Steel’, a process that saw him spend hours each day in the gym and required him to eat two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners every day. His weight trainer throughout that period was British weight-lifting champion David Prowse, the man inside the Darth Vader suit in the ‘Star Wars’ films.
David Prowse (L) aka Darth Vader
Although he will always be remembered for the less than challenging role of Superman, Christopher took his acting very seriously. In his final year at Cornell University he was one of just two actors selected to attend New York’s famous Juilliard School, under the renowned actor John Houseman. The other student chosen was none other than Robin Williams. The two young hopefuls became lifelong friends. Towards the end of Christopher’s life Robin quietly helped pay his medical expenses.
Chris & Robin – friends to the end
In November 1987, long before his accident, Reeve received worldwide acclaim as a humanitarian when he flew to Chile to stand in solidarity with writers and actors who courageously protested the decision of President Augusto Pinochet to threaten with execution 77 of their colleagues for their left wing views. Writer Ariel Dorfman had personally requested Reeve’s help, although he was not the writer’s first choice. He hoped to get Meryl Streep but she was on location in Australia. He then approached actress Margot Kidder (Lois Lane in Superman), but she astutely felt she was not famous enough. Aided by telegrams of support from Laurence Olivier, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Bates, Julie Christie and others, plus the backing of Amnesty International, Chris delivered a speech in what appeared to be a converted airplane hangar to several thousand protestors. The next day Pinochet withdrew his threat of execution. In January 2004, long after Pinochet had been ousted from the presidency, the Chilean Chancellor presented Chris with the Bernardo O’Higgins Order for his humanitarian work in Chile that day.
writer and activist Ariel Dorfman
An extremely affable man, Chris formed a strong friendship with Katharine Hepburn that fuelled entirely false rumours that he and the 66 year-old Kate were having an affair. They met in 1976 when Reeve starred opposite her in his Broadway debut in ‘A Matter of Gravity’. Kate was 66 and he was 22. ‘I believe I was fairly close to what a child or grandchild might have been to her’, he said. Jane Seymour, his co-star in Somewhere in Time (1980), was so impressed by his kind and unaffected nature that she even named one of her children after him.
with Kate on Broadway with Jane Seymour in Somewhere in Time
Dana & Chris Reeve
In 1995 Chris Reeve was paralysed from the neck down when he was thrown from his horse, ‘Eastern Express’, during a cross-country riding competition in Culpeper, Virginia. Ironically, the last character he portrayed prior to his accident was that of a paralysed individual in Above Suspicion (1995). The picture was released just six days before he was paralysed in real life. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation devotes its energies and resources to encourage people with paralysis to lead useful lives despite their appalling incapacity, just as Chris did from 1995 until his death in October 2004 at the age of 52. His devoted wife Dana fell to lung cancer in 2006 at just 44. One of many newspaper tributes after Chris’s passing was one in The Journal News in 2004. It featured a little boy in a wheelchair, saying of Chris: ‘He was the Man of Steel; he had incredible vision; he used his powers to save people. Nothing could stop him. And before that I think he acted in some Superman movies.’ R.I.P.
Quite often I am pleasantly surprised by the multiple talents of some of the stars I research. Take for instance Michael Callan. I first noticed him in the 1965 comedy/western Cat Ballou, in which he played the smart-talking, smarmy (but charming) love interest of Jane Fonda. Already he was 30 years old and not a newcomer by any means. In fact, he had been taking voice and dance lessons from the age of eleven and performing as a comic and a dancer in Philadelphian night clubs for years. He also did spots at the Copacabana and several Vegas showrooms.
the next James Dean? Maybe not.
He moved to New York and landed a dancing part in the 1954 Broadway musical ‘The Boyfriend’, starring Julie Andrews. Three years later he played ‘Riff’ in the original Broadway production of ‘West Side Story’ and pretty soon Columbia Pictures came calling. They saw in him the potential to become a teenage heart-throb in the James Dean mold. He came across as a sullen, smirking, charismatic leading man. They were not much interested in his dancing, so they tossed him into a rather tired 1959 western starring the aging Gary Cooper (he was 57) and the 40 year-old Rita Hayworth whose great beauty had also faded. The film, They Came to Cordura, also featured another teenage heart-throb named Tab Hunter.
The picture was attacked by the critics for a couple of reasons. Cooper was simply far too old to play the lead. Thirty years too old in fact. He was also clearly ill during the shoot. In 1961 he would die from cancer. The other contentious issue was the implied homosexual relationship between Cooper’s character and Tab Hunter’s. Not surprisingly, John Wayne positively loathed the film for that reason – and said so. Interestingly, Cooper arranged for his daughter to ‘date’ gay actor Tab Hunter during filming. Three years earlier he had arranged for her to date his co-star Anthony Perkins (also gay) when they were shooting Friendly Persuasion (1956). Perhaps, he figured she would be safer dating gay stars than straight ones. He was probably right.
with Evy Norlund in Evy & James Darren – wedding
The Flying Fontaines
Callan starred in The Flying Fontaines (1959), playing a notorious womanizer, a man with considerable charm but a spineless opportunist, nevertheless. He seemed to suit that kind of role to perfection and it more or less became his screen image from then onwards. His co-star in this picture was the 1958 Miss Denmark Evy Norlund, a 20 year-old beauty who retired from film-making after completing the film to marry singer James Darren in 1960. As of this writing (January 2017) they are still married and have two children.
with Jane Fonda in the terrific Cat Ballou
Because of restrictions in his Columbia contract Callan was unable to play ‘Riff’ in the movie version of West Side Story in 1961, the role going to Russ Tamblyn. It made him a star. Although Michael managed to do a little dancing in films such as Pepe (1960) and Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), he was mainly used in playboy, womanizing roles. Movie musicals went on the decline in the sixties anyway, and were completely out of favor by the seventies.
Michael & Patricia in Occasional Wife
In 1966 a television series came along that fit Michael like a glove. It was called ‘Occasional Wife’ and co-starred a young actress named Patricia Harty. The couple fell in love on-screen and off and were soon married. For whatever reason their real-life marriage seemed to ruin the illusion they played in the series and it lasted just one season. Their marriage survived another few years. From then on Michael did a lot of guest appearances in TV series throughout the seventies and eighties, but he never achieved the success or recognition his looks and talent merited. He is now 81, his last screen appearance – a decade ago in 2006.