'Actor -- Superman -- Hero': Cornell honors alumnus Christopher Reeve '74

Christopher Reeve came to Cornell already a seasoned professional actor and with ambitions far beyond Ithaca. But he was proud to attend the same school as his grandfather.

"Chris was disappointed that he was not accepted at Yale," said the late movie star's mother, Barbara Johnson, before unveiling a plaque in his honor at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 18. "But he was accepted at Brown and Cornell, and he wanted to go to Cornell because of my dad."

Christopher Reeve's mother, Barbara Johnson, unveils the plaque dedicated to her son at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, Nov. 18, while John Foote, president of the Class of 1974, looks on.

Cornell and the Class of 1974 celebrated the life and memory of Reeve, actor and activist, with a day of events that also included screenings of his films and the formal announcement of an endowed scholarship in Reeve's memory.

David Feldshuh, the Schwartz Center's artistic director, and Stephen Cole, associate professor of theater, shared their memories of Reeve at the dedication of the plaque, which reads:

"Christopher Reeve '74, 1952-2004, Actor -- Superman -- Hero. Remembered by His Classmates and Friends."

When Reeve came to Ithaca for a screening of "The Remains of the Day" in 1993, "he said he hoped to return to Cornell, to teach a class or perhaps act in a play," Feldshuh said. "Chris unfortunately did not have a chance to return to Cornell, until today."

Provost Biddy Martin related the story of Reeve's grandfather, Horace R. Lamb '16, LLB '20, a poor tailor's son who attended Cornell on a Telluride Association scholarship. She marveled at Reeve's accomplishments as a director, producer and author, as a stage and screen actor and, following an equestrian accident in 1995 that left him paralyzed, as a tireless advocate for the disabled and for medical research. "He achieved more between 1995 and his death, under extraordinary circumstances, than many of us achieve in our lifetimes, in excellent health," Martin said.

Class of 1974 Vice President C. Evan Stewart said the class had so far raised $50,000 for the Christopher Reeve '74 Scholarship for undergraduates majoring in theater, film, music and English.

In her lecture "(American) Victorian or Superman?" Sabine Haenni, assistant professor of film and American studies, analyzed Reeve's roles in James Ivory's "The Bostonians" (1984) and "The Remains of the Day" (1993) and Richard Donner's "Superman -- The Movie" (1978).

"I do admit to liking 'Superman' quite a lot," Haenni said. "I'm part of that generation of scholars taught to take popular culture very seriously."

Reeve brought a vulnerability to his roles, including the superhero, that appealed to audiences, she said.

Reeve once said of his most famous role, "I tried to downplay being a hero." Instead, he played up his portrayal of Clark Kent, with the quip, "It's not just that he can't get the girl, he can't get a taxi."

"He worked hard on all of his movies," Johnson said of her son. "I went to London where he was filming 'Superman,' and it wrapped on his 25th birthday. I remember the film crew coming over to me, shaking their heads, saying, 'You'll never know what he went through to do this.'"

Cynthia Bernstein-Goun '74 was Reeve's fellow Risley Hall resident and classmate in an 18th-century French literature course. "He came into class speaking French like all the French majors, even though he wasn't," she said. "I couldn't believe he was only 19; he had such poise and carried himself like a man in his 30s. When he told me he got into Juilliard, it was such an accomplishment. He's been a great inspiration to me ever since."

Bernstein-Goun saw Reeve again in 2002 giving a lecture in New Jersey on stem-cell research for cancer and diabetes. "He was speaking without cards, for over an hour -- he could have been a scientist," she said. "I truly believe he'll have an effect on mankind."

To donate to the Christopher Reeve '74 Scholarship Fund, contact Carol True-Palmer in the Office of Alumni Affairs and Development, at (607) 254-6136 or ctp3@cornell.edu.

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Nicola Pytell