FIVE DAYS AFTER MY ACCIDENT I had a 50-50 chance to live," Christopher Reeve told the ballroom full of celebrities and entertainment executives. "I was hanging upside down [in a hospital bed], and I looked and saw a blue scrub hat and yellow gown and heard this Russian accent. There was Robin Williams being some insane Russian doctor." Christopher Reeve, his voice clear, his gaze reaching to the edges of the light-dimmed room in New York City's Pierre Hotel, was making his first public appearance since breaking his neck during a May 27 riding competition. "I laughed," Reeve continued. "And I knew I was going to be all right."

And now, so too did the 500 guests attending the annual dinner of the Creative Coalition—an advocacy group for issues ranging from arts funding to health care—of which Reeve, 43, is copresident (with actress Blair Brown). Billed as an awards ceremony honoring Williams and Nickelodeon president Geraldine Laybourne, the dinner turned into a lovefest for Reeve. "It's like Christmas having Chris here," said actress Blythe Danner. "He's such a generous man."

"He's a bright light, a bright spirit," said singer Carly Simon. "He reaches out to so many people."

A few of Reeve's friends greeted the actor and his wife, Dana, 34, in a suite before his appearance. "He was in great spirits," says television producer Linda Ellerbee. "Chris was talking about coming through the tunnel [into Manhattan, from his rehabilitation institute in New Jersey]. He said he never knew how many potholes there were in New York."

Upon entering the ballroom in an electric wheelchair—to a 5-minute standing ovation—Reeve explained why he'd come. One of his former English teachers, he explained, would not abide students missing class: "He said, 'The only excuse for nonattendance is quadruple amputation,' so I thought I'd better show up." He introduced Dana—"I owe her my life"—and then Williams, who confessed to visiting Reeve's hospital room "as a Russian proctologist. The results were good," said Williams, as he launched into 10 minutes of quips—including an offer to auction Reeve's tie, actually his ventilator pipe—that had his friend smiling throughout.

Williams, who has known Reeve since they were drama students at the Juilliard School 22 years ago, praised his friend's work for the coalition. "You're on a roll, bro," he said with uncharacteristic earnestness. Then with a twinkle, he glanced at the wheelchair and added, "Literally."