Christopher Reeve, who became an international star in 1977’s Superman and then proved to be a real-life superhero when a 1995 near-fatal riding accident turned him into a worldwide advocate for spinal cord research, died of heart failure Sunday, his publicist said. He was 52.
Reeve fell into a coma Saturday after going into cardiac arrest while at his Bedford, N.Y., home, publicist Wesley Combs told the Associated Press. His family was at his side at the time of death.
Reeve was being treated at Northern Westchester Hospital for a pressure wound, a common complication for people living with paralysis. In the past week, the wound had become severely infected, resulting in a serious systemic infection.
“On behalf of my entire family, I want to thank Northern Westchester Hospital for the excellent care they provided to my husband,” Dana Reeve, Christopher’s wife, said in a statement. “I also want to thank his personal staff of nurses and aides, as well as the millions of fans from around the world who have supported and loved my husband over the years.”
Reeve’s life changed forever when on May 27, 1995, when he was thrown from his horse during an equestrian competition in Virginia. “The horse put his front feet over the fence, but his hind feet never left the ground,” horse trainer Lisa Reid, who witnessed the accident, told PEOPLE at the time. “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 … 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. His neck was broken.
The tragedy was magnified further by its timing. Reeve had 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 was a difference that Reeve 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 had said.
Reeve was dealt a winning hand early on. A 1974 student at New York City’s Juilliard School, where he studied acting – and roomed with classmate Robin Williams – the 6’4″ Reeve rocketed to stardom less than three years later when 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 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. ”
Later on, success would come in small stages. Nearly a year ago, at his foundation’s annual fundraiser in Manhattan on Nov. 24, Reeve had a tough act to follow: himself. At the 2002 event, Reeve surprised the crowd by moving his index finger, the result of intense physical therapy. Last year Reeve pulled off an even more astounding feat: He spoke before a live audience for the first time without using his respirator. “Ever since I was about 7 years old I’ve tried to avoid having to get dressed up and wear a necktie,” he joked. “Finally I get my wish.”
His remarkable progress was due to the successful – and experimental – implanting of four electrodes on his diaphragm in February 2003, which enabled Reeve to go as long as 20 hours at a time without his respirator. The journey wasn’t all smooth sailing. He battled two post-surgery lung infections and pneumonia. “I’ve also choked a couple of times, because timing the normal breathing while eating is something I had to relearn, ” Reeve told PEOPLE.
Still, the operation and his facing up to its aftereffects, both positive and negative, were typical of Reeve’s determination. A few months after the accident, he told interviewer Barbara Walters that he considered suicide in the first dark days after he was injured. But he quickly overcame such thoughts when he saw his children.
“I could see how much they needed me and wanted me … and how lucky we all are and that my brain is on straight.”
While filming Superman in London, Reeve met modeling agency co-founder Gae Exton, and the two began a relationship that lasted several years. The couple had two children, but were never wed.
Reeve later married Dana Morosini; they had one son, Will, 12. Reeve also is survived by his mother, Barbara Johnson; his father, Franklin Reeve; his brother, Benjamin Reeve; and his two children from his relationship with Exton, Matthew, 24, and Alexandra, 20.