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FOR THE HORSEMEN AND HORSEWOMEN of Culpeper County, Va., Saturday, May 27, was made for riding. The day was fair, the fields green and soft, and some 300 equestrians had turned out for the day's events at the spring horse trials of the Commonwealth Dressage and Combined Training Association—a three-day-long competition in precision horsemanship held on 200 sparsely wooded acres of the Commonwealth Park equestrian facility. As a rider in one of that day's cross-country jumping events, actor Christopher Reeve, 42, seemed happy and at ease. Wearing his blue and silver riding colors, knee-high boots, off-white breeches and a protective vest and helmet, he focused on the course as he took Eastern Express, a 7-year-old chestnut Thoroughbred he had bought earlier this year in California, through the paces.

In recent months, Reeve had become a familiar sight in the area. Locals said he seemed determined to excel in a sport in which seemingly effortless grace belies what is actually a physically and mentally demanding exercise in control. He often practiced several hours a day. Casual observers, watching a competitor gallop by, seldom appreciate the momentum that must be built, and the timing and balance that must be achieved, to launch a 1,200-pound animal and its rider over a stone wall or fence. Unless something, suddenly, goes wrong.

For Reeve, all that was apparently required for disaster was a slight shift in his weight. The actor and Eastern Express were galloping easily toward a zigzagged, three-foot-high rail jump, the third of 15 jumps they were to navigate on the two-mile course. "He was in the middle of the pack on the scoreboard, and he was pretty excited about it," says Lisa Reid, 42, a 24-year veteran horse trainer who first met Reeve a year ago and witnessed his May 27 ride. "The horse was coming into the fence beautifully. The rhythm was fine and Chris was fine, and they were going at a good pace."

But then, Reid says, that seamless synergy between horse and rider dissolved suddenly, and devastatingly. "The horse put his front feet over the fence, but his hind feet never left the ground," she says. "Chris is such a big man. He was going forward, his head over the top of the horse's head. He had committed his upper body to the jump. But the horse—whether it chickened out or felt Chris's weight over its head, I don't know. But the horse decided, 'I can't do this.' And it backed off the jump." But Reeve kept moving, pitching forward over the horse's neck. To Reid it appeared that Reeve first hit his head on the rail fence, then landed on the turf on his forehead. "He was unconscious when I got there. He was not moving, he was not breathing," said Helmut Boehme, an organizer of the horse trials. To Boehme, it appeared that "the life had gone out of him."

The fall, Reeve's doctors say, caused multiple fractures of the first and second cervical vertebrae in his spinal column, those closest to the skull—a grievous injury that has left the actor paralyzed, unable to use any of his limbs or even to breathe without the aid of a respirator. As of last Wednesday, doctors speaking at a hospital press conference refused to comment on the extent of the damage to Reeve's spinal cord or predict if the paralysis is permanent. "Christopher Reeve remains in serious but stable condition," said Dr. John Jane, a neurosurgeon at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, some 45 miles from the equestrian grounds, where Reeve was flown by emergency helicopter less than an hour after medical personnel resuscitated him at the riding event and stabilized his pulse at the local Culpeper hospital. "He may require surgery to stabilize the upper spine in the near future. At this time it is premature to speculate about his long-term prognosis." Unofficially others at the medical center express less optimism. Says one staffer: "They are praying for a miracle."

Sharing those prayers were members of Reeve's large extended family. His wife of three years, singer-actress Dana Morosini, 34, and their son, Will, 2, kept vigil in Charlottesville. So did the woman with whom Reeve lived for much of the '80s, British-born advertising agent Gae Exton, 43, and their two children, Matthew, 16, and Alexandra, 12. "We do not know what lies ahead," Reeve's brother Benjamin, 41, a lawyer, said in a news conference last Wednesday. "It means everything to Christopher and his family to have all of your thoughts [and] good wishes."

Reeve's mother, Barbara Johnson, a reporter for Town Topics, a local newspaper in Princeton, N.J., where the actor grew up after his parents divorced when he was 3, was one of the first to arrive at the hospital. She was soon followed by Reeve's father, Franklin, 67, a novelist and professor of creative writing at Connecticut's Wesleyan University.

The anguish and worry fell especially hard on Morosini, the woman whom Reeve has credited with teaching him to behave maturely in his adult life. Five months after he left Exton in 1987, Reeve met Morosini while she was performing at a cabaret in Williamstown, Mass., where he has performed summer theater for years. The courtship was gradual. "I really wanted to make sure I was not getting into a relationship on the rebound," Reeve told PEOPLE in 1992. "It was a case of what happens to you when you're not looking. Happiness sneaks up." For her part, passion also came to Morosini as a surprise. "I thought I would look at this as 'What I Did Last Summer,' " she recalled in 1992. "I didn't expect to really fall in love." Five years after they met, the two married in Williamstown, and a month later their son Will was born in Massachusetts. "Dana is the one who sees all the positive sides of me, because she has gotten me to lighten up," Reeve has said. "She is my life force."

The tragedy is magnified further by its timing. Reeve has been moving through one of life's transition periods, evolving dexterously from the winsome, carefree hunk who had made his name in four Superman movies into a more seasoned performer, a committed family man and passionate political activist. It is a difference that Reeve has embraced. "One thing about acting is that as you change, what's open to you changes. You get dealt new cards all the time," he said recently. "I'm enjoying getting older. Older faces are more interesting—particularly my face, which was a little on the bland side when I was younger."

Reeve has come to terms with what he recognizes as the almost disastrously early blooming of his career. A 1974 student at New York City's Juilliard School, where he studied acting—and roomed with classmate Robin Williams—Reeve boarded a rocket to overnight stardom when in 1977 he was picked from 200 hopefuls to star in Superman. It eventually spawned three sequels that, with the original, earned nearly $1 billion worldwide. "I don't think I was ready for [sudden fame]," Reeve has said. "That can happen in this business, where the opportunity and your development don't go together, particularly if you have a big success early."

His recent work has ranged from science fiction—playing a country doctor battling an evil race of alien children in this spring's John Carpenter film Village of the Damned—to society drama in Merchant-Ivory's 1993 production of The Remains of the Day, in which Reeve, as a wealthy American congressman, played opposite Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Two film projects attest further to the diverse roles Reeve has lately accepted.

In HBO's Above Suspicion, costarring Joe Mantegna, Reeve starred, chillingly, as a policeman who becomes a paraplegic after a shootout. And until his accident, Reeve was to have been in Ireland this week, filming scenes for Kidnapped, a remake of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale of a young man's adventures among Scottish rebels in the 18th century. There have been a few miscues as well—his part as buffoonish TV foreign correspondent "Baghdad Bob" in 1994's Speechless and his turn as a priggish British matinee idol in the 1992 comedy Noises Off—but Reeve learned to take the misses in stride, in part because he had built an authentic life outside acting.

Currently copresident of the Creative Coalition—an advocacy group of artists, including Ron Silver, Glenn Close and Susan Sarandon, whose concerns run from homelessness to the environment—Reeve helped Vice President Al Gore clean up a beach in New Jersey in 1993 and traveled to Chile in 1987 to speak on behalf of writers jailed for their political beliefs. Last February, Reeve testified before a Senate committee; arguing against a Republican proposal to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. "Chris is one of the most passionate, articulate and educative people I've ever met," says actress Blair Brown, the Coalition's copresident. "He gets to the core of every issue, with good-heartedness and good sense."

Reeve's injury came doing something he loved: sports. An energetic games-man, he skied, ice-skated and played vigorous tennis. Reeve's version of a wrap party after filming the first Superman was to skipper a sailboat from Connecticut to Bermuda. For years, until he sold his $300,000 turboprop in 1991, he often flew solo across the Atlantic. In 1984 he was injured in a parasailing accident off Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. Still, Reeve has lately seemed to make some concessions to time's advances. When asked not long ago about prospects for a fifth Superman installment, Reeve looked down at his torso and laughed. "I'm in pretty good shape," he said. "But my guess is that people don't want to see Superman with a spare tire hanging over his yellow belt."

As a horseman, Reeve posed for a helmet-safety poster for the American Medical Equestrian Association and had volunteered to narrate a 4-H Club video on head-injury prevention. "He's been very kind and professional and caring," says Jean Gulden, the Washington State 4-H leader who organized Reeve's participation in the video.

For now, Reeve's family, friends and colleagues can only wait and hope. Many who had worked with him on Broadway or in films—including Katharine Hepburn, Jane Seymour and Margot Kidder—went public with their sympathy and prayers. Director Robert Halmi Sr., 71, recalled working with Reeve 18 months ago on a forthcoming CBS miniseries, The Black Fox, for which Reeve, playing a cowboy, was in the saddle for days at a time. "He was so in control," says Halmi. "He did all his own stunts. That's why his accident is so difficult to believe. It is too unfair that this should happen to a young man in his prime."

GREGORY CERIO
MARY ESSELMAN and ALICIA BROOKS in Culpeper, JANE SIMS PODESTA and AVERY CHENOWITH in Charlottesville, MARCIA C. SMITH in Princeton, JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles, LISA K. GREISSINGER in New York City and bureau reports

  • Contributors:
  • Mary Esselman,
  • Alicia Brooks,
  • Jane Sims Podesta,
  • Avery Chenowith,
  • Marcia C. Smith,
  • Joyce Wagner,
  • Lisa K. Greissinger.