Reeve's Real-Life Human-Rights Role in Chile : Superman Moved to Give Moral Support to Threatened Actors

Times Staff Writer

Christopher Reeve was between productions on Nov. 22, hanging out at his home in Williamstown, Mass., when he got a call from writer Ariel Dorfman, a man he had never met, and for that matter, has yet to lay eyes on.

But Reeve had read Dorfman's piece on the op-ed page of the New York Times two days earlier warning that 77 of Chile's leading actors had been threatened with death if they refused to leave their country by the end of the month.

Would Reeve mind flying on down to Santiago to appear at a rally on behalf of those actors, Dorfman, an exiled Chilean novelist and journalist currently teaching at Duke University, asked the performer best known for flying through the air with a cape and a huge "S" emblazoned on his chest?

"How do you answer when someone says, 'We really think you could directly save the lives of 77 people?' " Reeve said in an interview in his big, airy triplex opposite the Museum of Natural History here. "Do you say, 'But I have to go to the bank?' 'But I've got some letters to write?' "

Reeve assented instantly. "It didn't require much soul-searching," he said. "I couldn't think of anything coming up for me more important than that."

As it turned out, Reeve's action not only proved successful for the Chilean actors, but for Reeve it was an enlightening experience as well. He returned with a new consciousness about the relationship between art and politics, and about the artistic luxuries of a democracy. It was not that Reeve had distinguished himself as a defender of human rights in Chile, or indeed anywhere else in the Third World. His knowledge of political events in Chile, he admits, was limited to "the general awareness you get through the weekly news magazines." He knew, for example, "like most Americans, that Allende had been killed," and he knew "that there was an election coming up in '89 in Chile and it was rigged."

Until then, in fact, Reeve had been fairly cautious in expending his charitable energies, sticking largely to safe causes like homelessness, hunger, Save the Children, cancer funds, "the list goes on."

Reeve was not even Dorfman's first choice for a North American actor to bring attention to the plight of the Chilean dramatists. He wanted Meryl Streep, but she was filming in Australia. He tried Margot Kidder, but she didn't feel she was famous enough. Finally, Dorfman called his friends Rose and William Styron, the poet-and-novelist husband-and-wife team. Superman, a.k.a. Reeve, was their suggestion.

Dorfman, as Reeve explained, "thought that a possible solution, at least temporarily, would be to attract a great deal of attention on behalf of these 77 actors which would embarrass Trizano, the terrorist squad, into at least a temporary halt" of its well-publicized plan to execute the actors whose political theater took direct aim at the Pinochet regime.

Such terrorist groups "usually operate covertly, taking people out of their homes at night," never to be seen again, Reeve learned. By casting light on such tactics, Dorfman told Reeve, "the terrorist groups would begin to lose credibility."

Eight days after that first telephone conversation with Dorfman, Reeve found himself stepping sleepily off the plane in Santiago. "I'm a pilot," he said. "I don't sleep on planes."

Accompanied by Dorfman's wife Angelica, Reeve was joined by a German actor, two Argentine actors and an actor from Spain. Already, telegrams in support of the rally on Nov. 30--Trizano's, and presumably, Pinochet's, deadline to the Chilean actors--had come in from Laurence Olivier, Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Vanessa Redgrave and others. With no official endorsement or protection from the U.S. Embassy, Reeve nonetheless was traveling under the official sponsorship of the Actors Equity Assn. as well as Amnesty International.

As they made their way into the city, Reeve was struck by the beauty of Santiago. "I thought, God, what a great town, it's like L.A.," he said. "The rich people live in the hills, just like Beverly Hills or Mulholland, and the poor people live in the flats, like Watts."

Except that in Chile, as Reeve realized immediately, "There is complete stratification of the society." Whereas North Americans live with at least the illusion of social mobility, in Chile, said Reeve, "you just cannot move out of your level of society."

As in Los Angeles, many talented young actors in Chile resort to appearing on television soap operas in order to support themselves. But in defiance of the government-backed terrorist groups' threats, said Reeve, these same young actors "walked around the streets with white T-shirts with big red targets on them and letters that said 'Shoot Me First.' "

Reeve himself was present when one threatened actor, Julio Jung, picked up the telephone in his apartment "and heard live machine-gun fire at the other end."

That night's rally, with the theme Vida y Arte , or Life and Art, was scheduled for 8 p.m. in a sports stadium in one of Santiago's poorer sections. By 5 p.m., the stands were filled to capacity. At 7, the police declared the performance canceled. In moments, said Reeve, 300 troops with machine guns had cordoned off the area.

Reeve marveled at the resourcefulness of the dissidents. "This happens all the time, so they already had another plan," he said. "You have to have Plan B in case the police stop Plan A."

But Plan B called for the demonstration to be moved to a midtown garage which Reeve said resembled nothing so much as a "rusty airplane hangar." Several thousand people could jam into the dilapidated structure, by using a single door, "about 10 feet wide," in the center of the building.

"The atmosphere had become more highly charged," Reeve said. With the latest police activity, "the actors were angry now."

As the teen-age son of a college professor in the 1960s, Reeve, now 35, had seen his share of protests. But in North America, "There is a basic assumption that nothing is really going to happen to you. You can go in and speak your piece," Reeve said. In Santiago, with "people literally hanging from the rafters," and singing in the streets, "there was a great deal of discussion about whether I should go in there."

After all, "this was clearly defiance" of police orders. What had begun as a statement of good will "could definitely be construed now as political."

Several actors, with tears streaming down their faces, "just didn't think I would come out if I went in there," Reeve said. But Edgardo Bruna, president of the local actors' union, assured Reeve he was safe. With "six big, huge, husky guys" surrounding him, Reeve began to make his way through the crowd.

There was screaming, stomping, people tearing at his clothes like no fan display he had ever seen in his life, Reeve said. "It was unbelievable, the kind of reception I associate with the Pope, or maybe the Beatles at Shea Stadium."

But Superman, the mythic figure of hope and possibility, felt oddly humble. Reeve experienced a sense of awe as he took his place on the stage, "and suddenly, they all began to sing in unison the song of their movement, 'He Will Fall.' "

Summarily the lights went out, standard practice in Chile. The crowd, "which minutes earlier had been screaming, now stood silently," a full 30 minutes, until the lighting was restored, Reeve said. "That was incredible to me. They knew exactly when to release their feelings."

Finally it was Reeve's turn to speak. Clutching a letter from Actors Equity signed by many of the United States' most prominent actors and directors, Reeve began to read in Spanish.

" Nosotros , actores y artistas, " he read, the first words he had ever uttered in Spanish. He had spoken French and studied Latin in high school, but up until then, not one word of Spanish, "not even ' buenos dias ,' " had crossed his lips.

In English, Reeve thanked the crowd for "this amazing day." He looked forward to returning to the United States, he told them, "and telling them what a brave and beautiful people you are."

A folk singer began to sing quietly. Silently, the same crowd that had besieged Reeve as he entered, parted as he left.

Reeve left the following day, but received word from Dorfman and others almost immediately upon his return that the plan had worked. "Pinochet, for all intents and purposes," Reeve said, "has called off the dog." Not noted for a rollicking sense of humor, the Chilean dictator, said Reeve, "has made a joke of the whole thing," a fact that is taken by the Chilean actors as at least a temporary indication of retreat.

"This was not Superman to the rescue," he said. "It was me as a private citizen, and as an actor in a country where we take the freedom to perform for granted, helping fellow professionals in a country where they do not."

Certainly Superman had provided Reeve a profile for such activities. His international reputation as an airborne destroyer of evil made him, as Dorfman put it, "palatable to all sides in Chile, the left, the center and the right."

But as Reeve likes to point out, "If you know me as Superman, fine. But we have to remember that Superman is light entertainment, and this is real life.

"This was not just an adventure story, this was not in the comic books," Reeve said. "I think we in America are desensitized to this."

In any event, Reeve himself suffers from "a problem" in that "I constantly forget that I played Superman." His spacious living room features posters from his Broadway plays and pictures of his children, 4-year-old Alexandra and Matthew, 8, not mountains of Superman memorabilia. On a late afternoon two days before Christmas, Reeve wears not a skintight blue suit or nerdy Clark Kent glasses, but baggy old corduroys and a ratty Shetland sweater, the best and most enduring of Yankee uniforms.

"It was a fun part to play, and a decade of my life that I will always be very nostalgic about," he said. But Superman, for Reeve, is hardly his lifeblood or his ongoing identity.

A stranger until now to major international human rights work, Reeve said he would do it again, readily, if someone asked. "Although probably not in Chile, not right away, because it would look like an individual crusade. I think it's more effective if other actors say the same thing."

His statement in Chile proved also to be 48 hours that changed Reeve's own world, as he recognized new truths.

"For them, life and art go together," Reeve said of the performers he met in Chile. "Here, art is a nice decoration for our life."

In Chile, he said, "It was so moving to me to see the hunger and need of these people expressed by these actors. There's a real solidarity between the actors and the people they perform for."

In the United States, "we have a political process. We can imagine change, and we can see change," Reeve said. "But that cannot happen in Chile. That is something they have to imagine in the theater."

He smiled the smile that melted Lois Lane's heart.

"Would I give up everything I have to live like that? Would I give up all my assets? No. I don't want to be accused of being a hypocrite."

But would Reeve volunteer his services on behalf of other artists suffering from political oppression? "Yes. Of course."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World