Reeve doesn’t worry about being ‘Superman’ forever
by Joan E Vadeboncoeur, Entertainment Editor
Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada – The black limousine pulled up to the US-Canada border stop and the pretty blond inspector stuck her headln the window to ask the usual questions — “Where were you born?” and “What is the purpose of your visit to Canada?”
What she saw was “Superman,” not Christopher Reeve, the actor who played him in a the film that amassed a $300 million gross box office around the world.
Another young woman inspector joined her, papers went into the window and, by the time I pulled up to the crossing, both were blushing and squealing, “I got Superman’s autograph!” They managed to calm down long enough to ask me the routine queries, but, as I pulled away, the squeal went up again, “Superman! I can’t believe it!”
Must live with image
It is the image of the muscular man in the red and blue cape with which 28-year-old Christopher Reeve must live. Hollywood loves to typecast its stars, but the young group of actresses and actors staunchly resist. Some succeed; some do not. Reeve could have a more critical problem than most since he signed for a sequel, Superman II, even before the first one was “in the can.” It will reach the nation’s movie screens late this month.
But the tall, brown-haired actor has no complaints about what the film has done for him and how he has been able to deal with the image. He discussed it in an interview for the press preview staged here, returning to the site of one segment of the sequel.
Says Reeve, “Supermanaccelerated my career 10 years. I can choose my own scripts and who I want to work with. But I’ve always had a career and it just keeps moving to different levels. If I hadn’t done the movie, I’d still have been climbing. I had done ‘Matter of Gravity,’ with Katharine Hepburn and a soap opera, ‘Love of Life,’ so I was moving.”
“Typecasting is a depressing phrase, but I don’t think it applies to movie actors today. Maybe it did to George Reeves (the TV ‘Superman’) because he was there every Friday night in the living room for years.”
The Cornell University graduate was rumored to have turned down American Gigolo lest the sex object he would have played would be detrimental to his “Superman” image. Not so, says Reeve. “It was a lousy script.”
Still, he protects the comic strip character he brought to life on screen with a fair amount of heat.
“I’m bored by the macho side. Sure, I had to pump iron and build up for the role, but that’s cosmetic. I see Superman as a role model. He’s a decent guy and there are very few of them today. When talk to children, I try to use him as a chalk talk. I ask them ‘What is a gentleman?’ And ‘What does it mean to be considerate and thoughtful?'”
Separating Superman from Clark Kent appears to be no problem for the one-time Juilliard acting student. Reeve says he works from love for both. “What is love?” he asks rhetorically. “It means inspiration which is the child to the father. That’s Superman II, it’s need, which is the child to the mother. That is Clark Kent as I see him. As Superman, I try to be calm, to look and listen. As Clark Kent, I use energy and nerves.”
The star’s first attempt to break the “Superman” mold proved a disaster when Somewhere in Time flopped miserably. Reeve is neither utterly embarrassed about it nor especially concerned that he was unable to project a different image.
“It was not a brilliant movie,” he concedes up front. “But I thought it would be good to do an old-fashioned romance in the cynical ’80s. It didn’t work. It tried too hard to be beautiful and that’s the kiss of death. It was too pretty and too. heavy with violence, and you have to be sparing with embellishments. I saw it was happening and I tried to compensate and I got very bouncy.” Undaunted, the performer returned to the theatrical side of his career as the crippled homosexual son in “Fifth of July,” Lanford Wilson’s Tony Award-nominated play.
The torrent of letters protesting “Superman” as a gay never came, Reeve says. “I never got one letter saying ‘Shame on you.’ But we were threatened with picketing by the gays because we (Reeve and the actor playing his lover) were two straight guys playing homosexuals. Think of all the guys who played Romeo who would have been shot down if you had to be straight to play that role. We asked them to come and see the show and they did. They were so moved by the beauty that we got cards and letters and even flowers from them.”
Overlooked for Tony
The Tony committee bypassed Reeve, but gave a total of five nominations to “Fifth of July,” including one to playwright Wilson. It is an honor about which Reeve has mixed feelings.
“I don’t think the Tony is a barometer of my work,” he begins. “But I’d love to win one. The Tonys are given for many reasons. They’ve nominated Elizabeth Taylor, and that’s fine because she’s magic and she’s good for the theater. But you have to understand that the Tonys are a combination of politics, emotion and publicity. They are not a serious appraisal of work.”
Instead of a Tony, Reeve received a citation that pleased him almost as greatly. In an onstage ceremony, his five months of working with a man who had two legs blown off in Vietnam for “Fifth of July” were rewarded with an award from a handicapped association. “It was very moving,” he says.
Only a week ago, Christopher Reeve completed his fourth film role as the younger man opposite Michael Caine in the movie version of Deathtrap.
“I’m so sick of thrillers that are all blood and gore. This is like Sleuth, an armchair thriller. I think it outdoes Sleuth.”
That reminded Reeve of the privilege of falling and rising again in the motion picture business. “The critics are just waiting to see me bomb the next time out. But hey, remember Michael Caine may have had ‘Sleuth,’ but he also had “The Island.” Now I don’t listen to any reviews at all. I don’t look at life as a popularity contest any more. I just do the work. I’m much happier.”
Reeve will be spending part of the summer back in Williamstown, where he acted last summer. In the company of Blythe Danner, Ken Howard, Maria Tucci, Roberta Maxwell and Edward Herrmann, he’ll be appearing in “The Greeks,” two evenings, three hours each in length, in which all of the Greek legends will unfold.
In fact, Reeve is so certain he will never become a victim of typecasting that he has signed a contract for “Superman III,” which is due to begin filming next spring and be released in the summer of 1982. Like the group of young actors with whom Reeve associated — such rising stars as William Hurt and Richard Gere — the movie-theater pattern is likely to continue. It is a luxury that making movies affords them.
“I still have four or five scripts on the table,” comments Reeve. “If I run out of scripts to do with Sidney Lumet and Richard Lester (Deathtrap and Superman II directors), then I’ll get worried.”