January 27, 1997 12:00 PM

IT’S NOT THAT CHRISTOPHER REEVE doesn’t appreciate the vocal abilities of his wife, singer-actress Dana Morosini. Or, for that matter, those of Broadway and TV star Mandy Patinkin. Or Carly Simon. Or country crooner Mary Chapin Carpenter. But after watching their polished performances at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., on Jan. 12, the 44-year-old actor is most impressed with the unscripted debut of an entirely new act: the audience. Composed primarily of locals who shelled out from $75 to $500 each to be on hand at the first Christopher Reeve Foundation benefit, the gathering—about 1,180 strong—warbled along to such standards as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Getting To Know You.” “I guess a prerequisite to living in Princeton,” joked Reeve backstage, “is that you have to be able to sing.”

Or to inspire. The manicured university town (pop. 12,200) 43 miles from Manhattan was home to Reeve from age 4 to 20. That was long before Hollywood turned him into Superman, and before a riding accident in Virginia on May 27, 1995, stripped him of his ability to walk, to wrap his arms around his loved ones, even to breath unaided. Reeve has never been, he told PEOPLE last week from his home in Westchester County, N.Y., in the habit of looking back: “I tend to focus on what’s right in front of me.” But this is his first trip to Princeton since his accident. Traveling through the bitter-cold streets of his youth in a van specially equipped to handle his $15,000 Invacare wheelchair, accompanied by Dana, 35, two nurses, an aide and his personal assistant, who are now his constant companions, Reeve cannot help waxing nostalgic.

Crossing Lake Carnegie, where he used to play hockey in the winter, he remembers the time he and his little brother Benjamin, now 43 and a lawyer near Boston, decided to set their goldfish free in the quiet waters. On Cleveland Lane is the spot where he and his neighbor from across the street, young Mary Chapin Carpenter, waited for the Princeton Day School bus. And then, of course, there is the stage at McCarter Theatre, where the 9-year-old Reeve first appeared in Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Yeoman of the Guard—and eight years later almost missed his. cue during a performance of Troilus and Cressida because he was watching the NBA play-offs backstage. “Princeton absolutely formed me,” says Reeve. “It set me on a path that brought me great, great happiness.”

It is fitting, then, that he returned there to kick off his foundation, aimed at raising funds to help the disabled meet their needs and further the research that will some day, he hopes, bring him another great happiness: the ability to walk again. “It is not a question of if,” says Reeve, “but when.” Reeve says he is heartened by the advances scientists are making in the area of spinal cord regeneration. But while they work on, Reeve says, what is needed is money—hundreds of millions of dollars—for research that, the actor feels, will put him and some 250,000 other Americans with similar injuries back on their feet. His mother, Barbara Johnson, 65, an assistant editor at the local Town Topics weekly newspaper who helped coordinate the concert, was, she admits, “somewhat embarrassed” at the ticket prices to her son’s fund-raiser. (She and Reeve’s father, Franklin, 68, a professor of creative writing at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, divorced in 1956.) But as Reeve saw it, the $15 price tag Johnson had in mind wouldn’t raise enough cash—and Reeve, the chair of the American Paralysis Association board since last May, isn’t shy about asking people to do (and spend) whatever it takes.

“Chris will be the father of spinal cord regeneration for all time,” says Mandy Patinkin, the former Chicago Hope star, who has known Reeve since they met at the Juilliard School in Manhattan in 1983. “I think God sent Chris to be the man to do this because of his heart and courage and awareness and fight. The ironies are unbelievable. He’s more than Superman.”

And yet, though he spoke to an audience of more than a billion worldwide at the Academy Awards last March and millions at the Democratic convention in August, Reeve was unsettled by the prospect of appearing live before old friends and neighbors. “People have gone to such trouble for me,” he says. “I’m grateful for it, but I get a little embarrassed.” In part, perhaps, because since leaving in 1970 to study English at Cornell—and later establishing himself as a star in the four Superman hits as well as in films such as 1993’s The Remains of the Day—he has not remained close to his roots. “While I have very wonderful memories of growing up in Princeton, and people I was very close to when I was in high school, I’ve not been good at staying in touch,” he says. “[Before the benefit] my mother would say, ‘So-and-so’s coming,’ and I’d think, ‘How wonderful it’ll be to see that person!’ And I’d realize I hadn’t done anything to make that happen in the past.”

The future, of course, changed irrevocably that May afternoon in ’95, when Reeve fell from his horse—head first—smashing the two upper vertebrae in his spine. As Morosini sits amid the dust and disorder of their Victorian-style home (she and Reeve have been sleeping in the dining room while construction crews create a first-floor master bedroom and raise a formerly sunken living room), she vividly recalls those early terrifying days. At first, she says, their son Will, now 4, was too frightened to look at his father, lying motionless in a bed at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville. “He had this fear, as small children do, that he would catch his father’s illness or that I would get sick,” says Morosini. “He was doing a lot of play-acting where he was falling off his hobby horse and saying, ‘I hurt my neck,’ and I would say, ‘Well, your neck is okay, but Dad’s neck is not.’ Eventually, on a very courageous day, he said, ‘I want to see Daddy’ ”

Will, it turned out, adjusted to his father’s new state more quickly than his parents. “The first few months were just about survival,” says Reeve. After a five-week stay in Charlottesville and 24 weeks of rehabilitation at the Kessler Institute in West Orange, N.J., he had to learn how to adjust to—and accept—the fact that he was no longer able to sweat, control his bodily functions or feed himself. Rigorous exercise—from half an hour to several hours a day—has given him the strength to hold his head upright for 45 minutes—up from three minutes when he first returned home. And in the past few months, he reports, he has gained sensation in his back. For her part, Morosini strives to make life as normal for both herself and Reeve as she can. On the rare occasions when the two go out to dinner or a movie, she says, she calls ahead to make sure Reeve will have easy wheelchair access: “Every time Chris is reminded of his disability, it’s depressing for him. I don’t want him to have to say, ‘It’s too much trouble, let’s go home. I hate this.’ ”

Neither Reeve nor Morosini, who have both gone to psychotherapists to help cope with the accident, is self-pitying. “I would say I’m making the best of a bad situation,” he says. “Much has been lost. But it doesn’t serve any purpose to dwell on it.” And, as he sees it, something has even been gained. Without old hobbies such as skiing and riding to divert him, says Reeve, “I find I have more time to visit with friends on a Sunday afternoon.” He has taken up directing (his HBO drama In the Gloaming is set to air in May) and is coauthoring a book about his life, scheduled for publication next year.

In the meantime, there are exercises to be done, money to be raised by the Christopher Reeve Foundation (RO. Box 277, F.D.R. Station, New York, N.Y. 10150-0277)—and, as Reeve is reminded every day, small pleasures to enjoy. “Mmmm,” he says when Dana nuzzles his face before the concert in Princeton, “warm cheek.” For a moment his eyes close and he smiles, not the Hollywood grin he still musters for public appearances but a gentle, private smile. “The idea is that you get another chance—in life, in relationships—if you’re open to it,” he has said at a press conference earlier in the day. Later, as his wife reaches down to kiss him during intermission, it is clear that Reeve is making the most of every chance he gets. “If I never go anywhere again,” he says, visibly moved by his hometown’s outpouring of affection, “this will have been enough.”

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER

JANE SHAPIRO in Westchester and Princeton

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