Christopher Reeve Was Paralyzed at an Equestrian Competition 29 Years Ago: Read PEOPLE's 1995 Cover Story

The 'Superman' actor died nine years later, in October 2004

<p>S. Granitz/WireImage</p> Christopher Reeve out and about (left) and on the cover of PEOPLE in June 1995

S. Granitz/WireImage

Christopher Reeve out and about (left) and on the cover of PEOPLE in June 1995

Monday, May 27, marks 29 years since Christopher Reeve's devastating accident during an equestrian competition left him paralyzed, nine years before his death at age 52.

Born in New York City, the actor shot to fame for his portrayal of the titular Man of Steel in 1978's Superman, and became known throughout his life perhaps as much for his efforts in activism as the rich screen career he built before his accident.

Reeve is the subject of a 2024 documentary titled Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story, which had its world premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and included a screening that moved much of its audience to tears.

"This year, in October, will be the 20th anniversary of dad's passing," Reeve's oldest child, Matthew Reeve, said during a Q&A after the screening, of why it felt like the right time to do the film.

"It all came together really organically," he added, in part.

Read on for an excerpt of PEOPLE’s cover story about Reeve's accident, from June 12, 1995.

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<p>Evan Agostini/Liaison</p> Christopher Reeve and wife Dana Morosini on <em>20/20</em> Sept. 29, 1995

Evan Agostini/Liaison

Christopher Reeve and wife Dana Morosini on 20/20 Sept. 29, 1995

Related: Google Honors Late 'Superman' Actor Christopher Reeve with Doodle Commemorating His Birthday

For Christopher Reeve, all that was apparently required for disaster was a slight shift in his weight.

The actor and Eastern Express were galloping easily toward a zigzagged, three-foot-high rail jump, the third of 15 jumps they were to navigate on the two-mile course.

"He was in the middle of the pack on the scoreboard, and he was pretty excited about it,'' says Lisa Reid, 42, a 24-year veteran horse trainer who first met Reeve a year ago and witnessed his May 27 ride. "The horse was coming into the fence beautifully. The rhythm was fine and Chris was fine, and they were going at a good pace.''

But then, Reid says, that seamless synergy between horse and rider dissolved suddenly, and devastatingly.

"The horse put his front feet over the fence, but his hind feet never left the ground,'' she says. "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 — whether it chickened out or felt Chris's weight over its head, I don't know. But the horse decided, 'I can't do this.' And it backed off the jump.''

<p>ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo</p> Christopher Reeve on his horse prior to his accident, May 1995

ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Christopher Reeve on his horse prior to his accident, May 1995

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. "He was unconscious when I got there. He was not moving, he was not breathing,'' said Helmut Boehme, an organizer of the horse trials. To Boehme, it appeared that "the life had gone out of him.''

The fall, Reeve's doctors say, caused multiple fractures of the first and second cervical vertebrae in his spinal column, those closest to the skull — a grievous injury that has left the actor paralyzed, unable to use any of his limbs or even to breathe without the aid of a respirator. As of last Wednesday, doctors speaking at a hospital press conference refused to comment on the extent of the damage to Reeve's spinal cord or predict if the paralysis is permanent.

"Christopher Reeve remains in serious but stable condition,'' said Dr. John Jane, a neurosurgeon at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, some 45 miles from the equestrian grounds, where Reeve was flown by emergency helicopter less than an hour after medical personnel resuscitated him at the riding event and stabilized his pulse at the local Culpeper hospital. "He may require surgery to stabilize the upper spine in the near future. At this time it is premature to speculate about his long-term prognosis.'' Unofficially others at the medical center express less optimism. Says one staffer: "They are praying for a miracle.''

Sharing those prayers were members of Reeve's large extended family. His wife of three years, singer-actress Dana Morosini, 34, and their son, Will, 2, kept vigil in Charlottesville. So did the woman with whom Reeve lived for much of the '80s,British-born advertising agent Gae Exton, 43, and their two children, Matthew, 16, and Alexandra, 12.

"We do not know what lies ahead,'' Reeve's brother Benjamin, 41, a lawyer, said in a news conference last Wednesday. "It means everything to Christopher and his family to have all of your thoughts [and] good wishes.''

<p>KMazur/WireImage</p> Christopher Reeve and family in New York City at a benefit for the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation


Christopher Reeve and family in New York City at a benefit for the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation

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The tragedy is magnified further by its timing. Reeve has 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 is a difference that Reeve has 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 said recently. "I'm enjoying getting older. Older faces are more interesting — particularly my face, which was a little on the bland side when I was younger.''

Reeve has come to terms with what he recognizes as the almost disastrously early blooming of his career. A 1974 student at New York City's Juilliard School, where he studied acting — and roomed with classmate Robin Williams — Reeve boarded a rocket to overnight stardom when in 1977 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 has 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.''

<p>Cannon/Dc Comics/Kobal/Shutterstock </p> Christopher Reeve in <em>Superman IV</em> (1987)

Cannon/Dc Comics/Kobal/Shutterstock

Christopher Reeve in Superman IV (1987)

A founding member of the Creative Coalition — an advocacy group of artists, including Ron Silver, Glenn Close and Susan Sarandon, whose concerns run from homelessness to the environment — Reeve helped Vice President Al Gore clean up a beach in New Jersey in 1993 and traveled to Chile in 1987 to speak on behalf of writers jailed for their political beliefs. Last February, Reeve testified before a Senate committee, arguing against a Republican proposal to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Reeve's injury came doing something he loved: sports. An energetic gamesman, he skied, ice-skated and played vigorous tennis. Reeve's version of a wrap party after filming the first Superman was to skipper a sailboat from Connecticut to Bermuda. For years, until he sold his $300,000 turboprop in 1991, he often flew solo across the Atlantic. In 1984 he was injured in a parasailing accident off Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

Though always driven to push himself — and sometimes others — to squeeze the maximum human experiences out of life, Reeve has lately seemed to make some concessions to time's advances. When asked not long ago about prospects for a fifth Superman installment, Reeve looked down at his torso and laughed.

"I'm in pretty good shape,'' he said. "But my guess is that people don't want to see Superman with a spare tire hanging over his yellow belt.''

Christopher Reeve on the cover of PEOPLE in June 1995
Christopher Reeve on the cover of PEOPLE in June 1995

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For now, Reeve's anguished family, friends and colleagues can only wait and hope. Many who had worked with him on Broadway or in films — including Katharine Hepburn, Jane Seymour and Margot Kidder — went public with their sympathy and prayers.

Director Robert Halmi Sr., 71, recalled working with Reeve 18 months ago on a forthcoming CBS miniseries, The Black Fox, for which Reeve, playing a cowboy, was in the saddle for days at a time.

"He was so in control,'' says Halmi. "He did all his own stunts. That's why his accident is so difficult to believe. It is too unfair that this should happen to a young man in his prime.''

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