Years before he was immortalized as the Man of Steel,
Christopher Reeve appeared on Broadway with Katharine Hepburn
in A Matter of Gravity, held down a continuing role on Love
of Life, and lounged nearby while William Hurt
skinny-dipped onstage at the Circle Rep in My Life.
Every summer he can, he joins the star-filled acting company
at the Williamstown Theater Festival in the Berkshires, even
crooning tunes in the festival's cabaret tent after hours. he
prides himself on the versatility his Juilliard training gave
him. And lest anyone confuse him for a brainless hunk, he
speaks about his craft with earnest articulation.
Still, his image remains formed by his iconic presence in Superman,
Superman II, and Superman III. When he was filming The
Bostonians, he was frequently embarrassed to be stopped
outside the studio by mobs of teenage girls while his
co-stars, legendary actresses such as Vanessa Redgrave and
Jessica Tandy (the original Blanche DuBois) walked by
completely unrecognized. Even on the set, Tandy tended to go
unnoticed as she sat quietly in a corner in the makeup and
costume of a much older, feebler woman. One afternoon, during
the shooting of an outdoor scene, a silence fell over the set
as the sound crew strained to hear if any aircraft threatened
to intrude upon the scene. "Is it a plane?" asked
someone, and a tiny voice from Tandy's corner called out,
"No, it's Superman!"
When we met, Chris wasn't feeling especially super. He had
ground down a disk in his back and was in a lot of pain,
especially since he was performing eight times a week as Count
Almaviva in Andrei Serban's strenuous production of The
Marriage of Figaro at Circle in the Square. So he sprawled
out flat on one huge sofa in his airy Upper West Side duplex
apartment while we talked.
Did you always want to be an actor?
Since the age of 12. Growing up in Princeton, New Jersey,
I was exposed to theater at an early age, and it became part
of my life. I was invited to lay small parts at the McCarter
Theater, that grew to bigger parts, and pretty soon I realized I
was committed to this. i felt it was something I could do that
nobody else was doing -- the way kids look for some kind of
experience that sets them apart from the group. By the time I
was fifteen I had worked as an apprentice at Williamstown, and
at 16 I got my first real professional job. I got the grand
total of $440 for an eleven-week summer season in Boston at
the Loeb Drama Center. I thought: This is it. When I was a
senior in high school, my mother and I had a little
negotiation -- I wanted to go to professional school, Carnegie
Tech, Northwestern, Yale, one of those. She said, "Please
don't do that, please go to college. You need time just to
read some books and think and have friends."
So I went to Cornell and read English and music theory and
skied for four years and went off on acting jobs in the
summer. I picked Cornell because of its inaccessibility to New
York and temptations to work. I had an agent by this time, a
very important New York agent named Stark Hesseltine, who was
starting to send me up for things. I was meeting David Merrick
and Joe Papp; Lynn Stalmaster, who eventually cast me in Superman,
was constantly calling me in on big movies, things like The
Great Gatsby and The Godfather. But by this time I
had the idea of balance in mind. Many of the actors I knew
seemed very limited as people. They were so career-oriented
and so obsessed with getting ahead, they really didn't have
much else going for them. I began to see the point of being
able to discuss other subjects, to be interested in history
and politics and government and music and Russian and French.
So the decision to go to college was a good one. After I got
out, I quickly picked up the professional pace again. i went
to Juilliard for one year, but I dropped out at the end and
said, "I've held back for ages, and I'm now going to call
myself a full-time actor and go for it."
I was living on a budget of $40 a week, and I wouldn't spend
more than $20-25, so I decided to get some money right away
for security. I took a job on a soap opera, Love of Life,
for two years. Suddenly I was making $750, $1000 a week. Whoa!
That was incredible. While I did it, I also appeared all over
town in plays -- at Theater for the New City, Manhattan
Theater Club. Then Stark got me an audition for a Katharine
Hepburn play called A Matter of Gravity. This was a big
ego boost, because she decided she wanted to see [he does
his Hepburn imitation] "all the new actors in New
York." Out of all the "modern" talent she
decided that I should be her grandson. Of course, everybody
thought that was my big break. Now I had made it. My friends
were looking at me as if I was a big star. In fact, I was
supporting Katharine Hepburn in a Katharine Hepburn play. When
the play closed, suddenly I felt a terrible letdown. I quit
the televison show in June. Two years on a soap opera is
plenty. if you stay on a soap opera too long, you get used to
-- oh, I don't know, making heavy drama out of pouring coffee.
Then somebody suggested, "You should be in California.
You really have it to be in the movies." So I hopped on a
plane and went. California was a shock to me. I couldn't
believe the things that people took seriously out there.
What do you mean?
I remember being up for a series called The Man from
Atlantis, about this guy from Atlantis who's part fish.
They said, "God, you mean you don't want to go up for
that stuff?" I said, "No, I don't. You have to
understand. I'm a deadly combination of a preppy and a snob,
and I just don't get this stuff. Leave me alone."
I had gotten my pilot's license a couple of years before. I
took all my savings from that soap opera, and instead of
getting a decent place to life, I spent $4000 on a second-hand
little airplane called a Cherokee 140, which is like a
Volkswagen engine with wings on it. This for me was freedom.
So when I was supposed to be going to callbacks for The Man
from Atlantis, I'd be up gliding in the Tahachapi
Mountains at 12,000 feet. I could not make myself take it
seriously. I'd been nurtured on a classical theater that had
value, and I just couldn't see cashing in. To play those
parts, all you had to do was show up and look nice. That's not
enough to justify getting out of bed. I was looking for a
greater challenge. I look at those six months in 1976 when I
was in California as the nadir of my professional life, when I
was completely without enthusiasm and just couldn't get
motivated at all.
Finally I said to myself, "I really belong back in the
theater." So I put the sleeping bag and food in the back
of this little Cherokee, took two weeks, and flew across the
country. As soon as I was back in New York, I felt the energy,
the electricity, the excitement, and I found my mentor, Stark
Hesseltine, saying, "Well, we wondered how long it'd take
you to come crawling back here." I had two auditions
immediately. One was for a play at Circle Rep called My
Life -- Bill Hurt was playing the lead, Jeff Daniels was
also in it -- and the other was to play Harker and stand by
for Frank Langella in Dracula. I went to both auditions
in one day, got both jobs, and immediately went to work in
this play My Life and thought: Ah, I've landed again!
I'm happy, busy, busy, busy.
I say all this as a prelude to what's coming next, because
suddenly, having been re-established in the theater, I got
another one of those temptations -- to go and screen-test for Superman.
I remember sitting in the dressing room with Bill and Jeff
saying, "You'll never believe what happened today. The
phone rang. They are going to make a movie out of Superman."
They said, "Which? Shaw's Superman? Or the one
with the cape that goes 'up, up, and away'?" We all had a
good laugh. Movie? That sounds ridiculous, it would be stupid.
Then I began to think: Well, at least I can read the script.
Bit by bit I was getting hooked. I read the script, and I
immediately saw a way to play this guy as a gentleman and a
scholar in the old-fashioned sense, as opposed to just a
Then I heard they've got Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Susannah
York, and so on, and they're going to shoot in London, and I
could probably bag a quarter of a million dollars -- goodbye!
I went to London and screen-tested for the part. The idea of
going to London for the weekend struck me as unheard-of,
outrageous. But a part of me just had to try something
terribly unlikely. The screen test was the first week of
January '77, and we started shooting March 28. I left the play
January 15 and went to London and trained for two months.
Were you a body-builder before?
You wouldn't catch me dead in a gym. No way. I was
6'4" and I weighed 190. By July of that year, I weighed
215, and it was all newly acquired muscle. The oddity is that
I really saw Superman as a performance opportunity. It
was an interesting challenge to turn people's expectations
around. They're expecting it to be a cartoon, a joke, camp,
something laughable -- and with a little luck we can make it
romantic and stylish. I think we were able to do that. What I
underestimated, though, was how much that role means to the
public at large. For me, it was a really fun job, but for them
-- the world is looking for heroes, and it's hard to let go.
In retrospect, I sometimes think that right after Superman
I tried a little too hard to experiment. It's not coincidental
that right after Superman I played a gay Vietnam
veteran with no legs in Fifth of July on Broadway, a
psychopathic homosexual in Deathtrap, a crooked priest
in Monsignor -- I went into a kind of denial of the
hero side of me. I played a lot of people you had varying
degrees of sympathy for, but you probably didn't want to be
them. It was not as conscious strategy. It was what I needed
to do. Everybody has a basic need to define himself for the
world, not the other way around. Why is it, for example, that
Gerard Depardieu, as soon as he's proclaimed a great romantic
French actor, suddenly puffs up to 250 pounds? He has another
idea of himself inside. Very few people -- only Arnold
Schwarzenegger that I can think of -- will say, "Yeah,
I'm exactly the way you think I am, and I'm going to cash in
Superman is nothing more than a popular retelling of
the Christ story, or Greek mythology. It's an archetype,
watered down and made in vivid colors for a 12-year-old's
mentality. it's pop mythology, which extends to the actor,
then seeps over to a demand that that actor reflect the needs
of the worshipers. The worship doesn't only go on in the temples -- it goes on in the streets, in
magazines. But, you know, I'm from New Jersey, I'm not from
Olympus or Krypton, so back off 'cause I can't take the
responsibility. The theme of my life at that time was: Screw
you, people, for needing me to be more than what I can be. By
all means, pay five dollars and go see the movie, but leave me
alone. I do think that's fair.
How much does your being tall have to do with becoming an
I'm very naive on that account, because of my father. My
father is a very well-rounded individual, somebody with a
very, very strong intellect who's physically imposing as well.
Today we think of the intellectual as a sort of reedy, dusty
type with a pipe who's not able to cross the street very well.
And we think of the athlete as being thick-headed. When you
find both those aptitudes in the same person, it can be
disorienting. My father had that problem for ages. He just
doesn't look like somebody who's a Russian scholar and a major
poet. So to some extent he impressed on me that you are not
responsible for the way you look. I'm not complaining -- I'd
rather be attractive than ugly, for sure. But you can't stand
back and say, "That's my identity" and just get a
free ride out of it. And this culture does give a free ride to
good-looking people. Because of his work ethic or his own
needs, my father communicated to me that you must find
something more difficult and go chase it.
But being a writer or scholar doesn't depend on how you
look, while being an actor does.
Somewhat, but not as much as you think. I look at Vanessa
Redgrave, a strikingly beautiful woman who's never been
limited by her looks. There's nothing she can't play. All that
really matters is your ability to communicate the truth as you
understand it. And this will transcend appearance.
Unfortunately, you don't often get the chance. Richard
Dreyfuss once said to me, "If your nose is on sideways,
they think you're a better actor, because they sympathize with
you more. But a guy like you, you don't look like you need
help. So if you come out and play a character who's in pain,
we're going to doubt it unless the acting is so good that we
can't deny it." That's the challenge for all
You can make a lot of money just looking good -- that's the
Robert Redford story, I think. He has a lot more talent than
he lets you know about, and he never plays anyone
unsympathetic. He's decided to be the fair-haired boy. I'm
bored by that, and I'm condemned to this fascination with
seeing what else I can handle. The real challenge, which very
few physically attractive actors accept or care about, is to
see how deep I can go, to get people to forget what I look
like. The actor is a ball of Silly Putty -- you twist it, put
cookie cutters in it to make whatever shape you want. This,
combined with the teaching I got from my father, convinced me
that you're not limited to your physical shape. You can move
When the interview was over, we left his building together.
It was the middle of the afternoon, and the elementary school
on his block had just let out. Suddenly we were engulfed by
kids yelling, "Look, look, it's Superman! Christopher
Reeve, Christopher Reeve! Hey, Superman!" Chris turned
bright red, trying to ignore them. Finally he wheeled around
and yelled "Boo!" at a bunch of kids. What none of
them noticed was that, on his way to the chiropractor to deal
with his bad back, Superman was limping.
from Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face (NAL