Margot Kidder once flew higher than most Hollywood celebrities--on the arm of Superman.
But the gravel-voiced gamin who made $100,000 a week playing spunky Lois Lane was hospitalized Wednesday after she was found cowering in the backyard of a Glendale home in dirty clothes with her hair hacked off. She had been living in the bushes for several days, had 40 cents in her pocket and appeared frightened and paranoid, police said.
Kidder, 47, whose life had been variously marred by heavy drinking, debt, injury and professional obscurity since her "Superman" days in the late '70s and early '80s, had been reported missing since Sunday. She had failed to show up at the Phoenix airport on her way to an assignment to teach acting at Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher, about 160 miles away.
Police who found her Tuesday described her as disoriented, wearing clothes she had acquired in a trade with a transient and she was missing her front dental plate.
"She was in very poor condition," said Glendale police Sgt. Rick Young.
"She was wearing disheveled clothing, cast-off clothing, and apparently had cut her own hair off with a razor blade in an attempt to alter her appearance," Young said. Kidder told police she had been "living in the bushes . . . for a couple of days," he said.
The actress told police she had been assaulted and was being followed, but there was no evidence to substantiate that, authorities said.
She was placed in a psychiatric ward for observation, Glendale police said. A police spokesman directed additional questions about her to the county-run Olive View Medical Center in Sylmar. Administrators there refused to confirm that Kidder was a patient.
John Blake, Kidder's manager, confirmed that the actress was under a doctor's care in a local hospital, but refused to name the facility.
When he last spoke with the actress Friday, there was no indication that anything was wrong, he said.
"Margot didn't appear to be wrestling with anything," Blake said. "She had been working steadily, her spirits were high. . . . I don't know what's going on."
When Kidder did not show up to teach the acting class, Blake said, he filed a missing persons report Monday.
Police said Kidder, who lives in Montana, had been in Los Angeles for several days and was supposed to fly to Phoenix from Los Angeles International Airport.
James Miley, 18, a theater major at Eastern Arizona College, said college officials waited for Kidder on Sunday night at the Phoenix airport.
Born in Yellowknife, in Canada's Northwest Territories, Kidder developed an interest in acting when her family moved to Toronto.
She began her film career in the late '60s, typically as an attractive, unglamorous gal-pal--the kind of role suited to her high-cheekboned, angular look. She appeared in such movies as "Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx," and "Mr. Mike's Mondo Video."
She hit the jackpot in 1978 when she played Lois Lane opposite Christopher Reeve in "Superman," a role she reprised twice. At the height of her fame, she was one of the best-known and best-paid Canadian performers in the United States.
Her private life, however, was frequently in turmoil, she said in interviews in years past.
She hung out with wild-living journalist Hunter Thompson, and introduced him to her then-husband, novelist Thomas McGuane, who wrote "The Missouri Breaks."
"I spent four years being drunk a lot of the time," she once said.
In the book "The Choices We Made: Twenty-Five Women and Men Speak Out About Abortion," Kidder described a botched illegal abortion that nearly cost her her life.
She also traveled the path of liberal political activism blazed by Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, at times allowing her politics to overshadow her career. She counted Jesse Jackson and Pierre Trudeau as friends, and became such a high-profile critic of the Gulf War that some columnists derided her as "Baghdad Betty."
Things began to unravel financially for her with an ill-fated attempt to make a movie out of Margaret Atwood's "Lady Oracle." She spent a fortune, she told an interviewer, but could not get the movie produced.
Then, in 1990, while filming a cable television series in Canada based on the Nancy Drew mysteries, she injured her spinal cord in a seemingly minor auto accident.
Unable to work but resisting back surgery, she plunged into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, lost her home in bucolic Sneden's Landing, N.Y., and filed for bankruptcy protection.
At one point, she peddled her jewelry up and down the diamond sales district on 47th Street in New York. The tabloids had a field day.
"Surviving now is tough," she told "Entertainment Tonight."
"There were many times when I just so desperately wanted to die," she told an interviewer for The Times in 1992. She said the need to remain alive to care for her daughter, Maggie, then 16, was paramount.
In interview after interview in the recent past, she presented herself as a survivor who had gone through a hard time but was fighting her way back to the top.
Last year, in addition to TV guest spots on shows such as "Murder, She Wrote" and "Tales From the Crypt," she was featured in a low-budget independent film "Never Met Picasso," an ensemble comedy/drama yet to be released.
She has been married three times, to McGuane, actor John Heard, and to French director Philippe De Broca. All ended in divorce.
Christopher Reeve, who played Superman in the movies that topped Kidder's career--and was paralyzed from the neck down in a riding accident in May 1995--said Wednesday, "If anything unfortunate happened to Margot Kidder, my heart goes out to her."
Marc Minarik, 24, who lives on Ross Street in Glendale, said he saw Kidder in a neighbor's rear yard, where police found her.
"She looked like she hadn't eaten in a few days," he said of Kidder. "I was shocked as hell."
Minarik described the Kidder he saw as "a very, very sweet, nice person. . . . I wish her well, and I hope her family can give her some consolation."
Times staff writer Efrain Hernandez and correspondent Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this story.