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Directorial labor of love filled Reeve’s last days

Times Staff Writer

Last Saturday, Christopher Reeve called producer Howard Meltzer to say how happy he was with “The Brooke Ellison Story.” He had just seen a DVD of the two-hour film he directed about a bright young girl, paralyzed at age 11 from a car accident, who graduated from Harvard University with honors at 21. “He said, ‘This is good. This is the film I started out to make,’ ” Meltzer said. The film would turn out to be his last completed project.

It was one of those moments that in retrospect seem to have been exquisitely and inexplicably timed. At 52, Reeve, paralyzed by a riding accident nine years ago, went into cardiac arrest Saturday evening and slipped into a coma. By Sunday evening, the story of his own life was finished.

“The whole project had an aura about it from the get-go,” said Ellison, 26, in a telephone interview from her home near Stony Brook, N.Y., where she is pursuing a PhD. “Now it’s taken on a whole new level of significance, it’s almost hard to explain.”

Saturday was the first time since they started production last summer, Meltzer said, that he had heard a smile in Reeve’s voice. “No one was harder on Chris than Chris,” he said. As a director who understood his subject and a high-profile advocate for the disabled, Reeve had felt a heavy responsibility to get the story right, according to the producer.

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The movie is based on the book “Miracles Happen: One Mother, One Daughter, One Journey” by Ellison and her mother, Jean. Starring Lacey Chabert as Brooke and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and John Slattery as her parents, it was already slated to air on A&E; on Oct. 25. As Reeve’s last film, it is receiving more attention now than it would have, and Ellison is taking on more of the scheduled interviews on her own. “I know how passionate Chris was about this ... and I know how much he wanted the world to see it,” she said. “There is an important story here, something bigger than either one of us alone.”

Reeve was intrigued with the idea of telling the Ellisons’ story but held a meeting with the family before concluding there was enough drama to sustain a feature film, said Meltzer, who brought him the idea and with Reeve on board tried to sell it first to Disney, where it languished for a year, and then to A&E; Network, which snapped it up.

Ellison was paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe on her own following a car accident. With her mother as constant caregiver, attending classes by her side while her father cared for their other two children, she finished her undergraduate education and also completed her master’s in public policy at Harvard.

Reeve had been similarly paralyzed after a 1995 horseback riding accident. He returned to acting and two years later made his directorial debut with the TV movie “In the Gloaming.”

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“If you had asked Chris to make a movie about his life, he’d say it’s not that amazing. ‘Everybody stood by me, helped me out, there’s nothing to talk about,’ ” Meltzer said. Reeve noted in some interviews that his story differed from Ellison’s in that he had had a long and accomplished life -- including years of portraying Superman -- before his accident and that he had no shortage of financial support after. In contrast, the film follows the Ellisons’ sacrifices and struggles to make ends meet when the insurance runs out.

But the two had a bond beyond their situations, Ellison said. “We both have a determination, a feeling of not wanting the situation to define us any more than is absolutely necessary. And a strength of family.”

Reeve hoped the film would convey the reality of living day in and day out for a quadriplegic, Meltzer said. One painstaking scene shows the hours of dressing and bathing Ellison needed to get ready for school. “He wanted people to understand that every day is a challenge for people with spinal cord injuries,” the producer added.

As Reeve told an interviewer, “I wanted to make a movie about paralysis because I give a lot of speeches, I do a lot of interviews, but that doesn’t reach nearly as many people as a film.”

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Reeve traveled to the location shoot in New Orleans with a team of caregivers, and worked 10 hours a day, said Bob DeBitetto, A&E; senior vice president for programming, who was on the set. “A control room was set up for him down the hall, or quite a distance from the set and the actors,” he said. “Real-time video conferencing capability was put into place so he could speak with his actors or anyone else.”

Despite the responsibility that weighed on him, Reeve maintained a dry and intelligent sense of humor that he used to defuse tensions on the set, DeBitetto said.

“It was one of the most positive, inspirational sets I’ve ever had the opportunity to witness,” he said. “Everyone, from the actors to the grips and electricians checked their ego at the door. To see Christopher and his work ethic, his focus and passion and dedication to getting this job done, given his physical handicaps, was an inspiration. Everybody was giving 110% because he was giving 110%.”

At the completion of some scenes, Meltzer said he saw “grips and gaffers with tears in their eyes, crying.”

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In the end, much of the story had to be left on the cutting room floor -- scenes of the hardships of her siblings, for instance, and how the parents managed to maintain a strong relationship when others in similar circumstances separated or divorced.

The litany of problems is almost endless, Ellison says. In making a film, she agreed with Reeve’s goal of balancing reality with hope. “You need that sense of hope and optimism. Otherwise, people don’t get a full sense of what it’s like.”

Both she and Reeve had faith that scientific research would progress to the point of returning mobility to quadriplegics. Ellison said they talked about their belief that one day they might walk again.

Reeve had been looking forward to making the television talk show circuit with Ellison and attending the movie’s New York premiere, Meltzer said. The actor left an unfinished animated movie, “Yankee Irving,” about a father and his baseball-playing son who reach their goal despite obstacles. Production on that project will continue with a 2006 theatrical release date planned, according to producers at IDT Entertainment.

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Friends say in the years following his accident, Reeve lived with the elevated sense of life that often accompanies brushes with death. “He once said to me, ‘I don’t know how much time I have left in the world,’ ” Meltzer said, “ ‘so I want to make sure everything I do is something I really care about.’ ”


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