Christopher Reeve

updated 03/15/1999 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/15/1999 AT 01:00 AM EST

Back in 1977, when he was preparing for the first of his four Superman films, Christopher Reeve pumped iron three hours a day to add 30 pounds to his lanky frame and transform his torso into a ripple of muscle. Today, Reeve, 46, still works out three hours daily, but the goal is far more serious: to keep his muscles from atrophying. Paralyzed from the neck down since a horseback-riding accident in May 1995, Reeve fights a real battle more inspiring than any fictional adventure.

"What makes Superman a hero," Reeve observed two decades ago, "is not that he has power but that he has the wisdom and maturity to use the power wisely." By that definition, Reeve himself has become a hero. Since the fall that left him in a state of total physical dependency, he has not only channeled his creative talent into humanizing the plight of the severely disabled but become, as a Wall Street Journal article put it, "perhaps the most effective medical fundraiser on the planet." Through his lobbying efforts, Reeve helped add $2 billion to the National Institutes of Health's $15 billion budget, raised millions for research into spinal-cord injury and helped persuade New York legislators to pass a bill that channels a portion of speeding fines toward medical research. "And then, I'm still working on trying to raise insurance caps," he says.

As he knows only too well, "it is extremely expensive to be disabled in this country today." It costs $3,500, for instance, to purchase a backup ventilator, the lifeline that enables Reeve to breathe. "I can afford that," he says. "But the average person can't." "When he is on the road delivering motivational speeches, visiting accident victims or honoring the 30 to 40 speaking commitments he accepts annually on behalf of the disabled, Reeve's retinue includes two nurses and as many as four aides. "Every time we leave the house," says his wife, actress Dana Reeve, 37, "it's a production."

When he is acting or directing, Reeve strives not to slow others down. While shooting last year's ABC remake of Rear Window, his first acting gig since the accident, Reeve always arrived at the set early and prepared. "It was interesting to see how quickly a crew can work when a lead actor is just sitting there waiting to do a scene," he says. His wheelchair gained him no edge in creative battles with HBO executives while directing 1997's In the Gloaming, for which he was nominated for an Emmy. "I'm treated just as I always have been," he says. "I wouldn't want to be patronized."

Beyond the love of his wife and three children (two from an earlier relationship), Reeve is sustained by the belief that he will walk again, perhaps by the time he is 50. That would require amazing advances, but some researchers see reasons for hope. "Now, almost all scientists believe that the spinal cord can be regenerated," says Dr. Wise Young, head of Rutgers University's sky's Spinal Cord Injury Project. While Reeve waits, he is making progress (he can breathe for half an hour on his own, feel his hands, shrug his shoulders)—and using every ounce of his influence to hasten that day.

Jill Smolowe
Joseph V. Tirella in Bedford, NY.

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