MOUNT KISKO, N.Y., Oct. 11 (UPI) -- Christopher Reeve, who gained international fame as the star of the 1978 feature film "Superman" and went on to become a champion for spinal-cord research following a paralyzing horseback-riding accident in 1995, died suddenly in New York at age 52.
Reeve's publicist, Wesley Combs, told the New York Daily News the actor was undergoing treatment for a pressure wound in recent days but lapsed into a coma at his home Saturday in Bedford, N.Y. He died of cardiac arrest Sunday at Northern Westchester Hospital.
Reeve was paralyzed from the neck down in a fall at a May 1995 steeple-jump competition. He became an active advocate for spinal-cord research and vowed he would walk again.
Born Sept. 25, 1952, in New York, Reeve was the son of writer-English professor Franklin Reeve and journalist Barbara Johnson. He began his acting career in summer stock, and began appearing on the TV daytime drama "Love of Life" while attending Cornell College. His first big break came in 1976, when he made his Broadway debut in "A Matter of Gravity," playing Katharine Hepburn's grandson.
Two years later Reeve was chosen from 200 candidates to play the best-known comic-book hero ever in "Superman." He went on to play the Man of Steel in three sequels, charming audiences with his deft handling of the dual personalities of Superman and his mild-mannered alter ego, Clark Kent.
Reeve's other screen credits included "The Bostonians" (1984), "The Remains of the Day" (1983), "Deathtrap" (1982) and "Somewhere in Time" (1980).
His fans were shocked when the news of his horseback-riding accident broke in 1995, and it appeared for a time that his career was over.
The actor was thrown from his 7-year-old roan gelding, Eastern Express, when the horse abruptly stopped while approaching a jump during the Commonwealth Dressage and Combined Training Association finals at Commonwealth Park in Culpepper, Va. An emergency medical team responded immediately and found Reeve, who was wearing a helmet, unconscious. He was taken to the University of Virginia Medical Center, where doctors diagnosed fractures in the first and second vertebrae of the neck.
The spinal cord was not severed, but Reeve developed pneumonia. Following 24 weeks of rehabilitation at the Kessler Institute in West Orange, N.J., Reeve returned to his home in Bedford, N.Y., in late December 1995.
In a televised interview after the accident, Reeve told ABC's Barbara Walters that he did not expect to take another step.
"Either you do or you don't (recover)," he said. "It's like a game of cards. Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you don't. But I think the game is worthwhile."
Reeve showed resiliency, returning to work less than two years after the accident. In April 1997 he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to help promote the premiere of his directing debut, the HBO movie "In the Gloaming."
Reeve remained active in the entertainment industry until shortly before his death. His most recent major project was as the director and co-producer of the A&E movie "Brooke Ellison." Based on the book "Miracles Happen: One Mother, One Daughter, One Journey," the movie told the true story of a girl who was paralyzed at age 11 but went on to attend Harvard University.
Reeve had also appeared as the eccentric scientist Dr. Swann on "Smallville," The WB action-drama series focused on Superman's young adult life. In September it was reported that Reeve and his "Superman" movie co-star Margot Kidder would appear in two episodes of the show this season, but a publicist for the show said Monday that only Kidder had been booked for those episodes, which will go on as scheduled.
In November 2003 Reeve announced that, after undergoing surgery at University Hospitals in Cleveland for an experimental procedure, he was able to breathe without a ventilator for the first time since his accident. Reeve demonstrated his recovered ability during another interview with Walters.
"I've never done this in public. It's the first time," he told Walters.
The interview was part of a promotion campaign for Reeve's book, "Nothing Is Impossible: Reflections on a New Life."
Reeve joined California Gov. Gray Davis for a September 2002 ceremony at which the governor signed into law legislation allowing embryonic stem-cell research in California.
"Since stem cells were first isolated in 1998, the political debate has had a chilling affect on our scientists," said Reeve at the ceremony. "It is painful to contemplate what advances could have been made."
In August 2001 President George W. Bush restricted federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research to a select number of existing cell lines.
The issue came up at last Friday's town-hall-style debate between Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Kerry referred to Reeve in a statement supporting embryonic stem-cell research and issued a statement Monday calling Reeve an American hero.
"He was an inspiration to all of us and gave hope to millions of Americans who are counting on the life-saving cures that science and research can provide," said Kerry. "He met every challenge with a courage and character that broke new ground in this struggle."
In January 2004 the Chilean government honored Reeve with the highest honor it can bestow upon non-Chileans, the Grand Cross of the Bernardo O'Higgins Order. The award was given in recognition of Reeve's 1987 visit to Chile to organize a protest march in support of 77 Chilean actors who at the time were threatened by the military regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
"Christopher Reeve was one of those human beings who in the zenith of their careers were willing to raise their voices for human rights in Chile during some of the darkest years of our history, and we've come to express our gratefulness with this distinction," said Maria Soledad Alvear, Chilean foreign secretary, during a ceremony at Reeves' Bedford home.
Reeve said the trip forever changed how he viewed his profession.
"I never again accepted censorship," Reeve said. "I've since done what I wanted and said what I've felt."
Reeve was married to actress Dana Morosini. They had one son, Will, 12. He had previously had a son and a daughter -- Matthew, 25, and Alexandra, 21 -- with Gae Exton, the co-founder of a modeling agency whom he had met in London while filming "Superman."
Funeral plans were not immediately announced.
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