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An actor, an activist, but ever a gentleman

Special to The Times

Chris Reeve’s death last week at 52 was of course sad and surely sadder still because it was not a great surprise. His courage in the face of the terrible hand he was dealt is known to us all. Sen. John F. Kerry mentioned him in the second debate. He didn’t have to explain who he was talking about or what had happened to him. Chris was a popular film star but, if the truth be told, once something of a joke, one that he was in on, but still a joke. How seriously were people expected to take Superman?

That all changed after his accident. His courage and his dedication to finding a cure for spinal cord injuries such as his own made him respected and admired by people who didn’t have much interest in his role as the man of steel. I think as time goes on he will come to stand for a particular kind of courage in adversity.

We made “Street Smart” together in the late ‘80s. He played a New York reporter who made up a story and ran afoul of Morgan Freeman, who in that movie was nobody to mess with. During preproduction, Chris and I worked on a final polish of the script. As he was playing a part loosely based on me, I wasn’t always ready to accept changes without a squabble. Whenever my temperature rose, Chris would say, “I feel like a walk. What do you say?” The production offices were near Times Square and we usually wandered uptown to Central Park, talking quietly, working through our problems. Of course, people recognized him.

For reasons he could never quite comprehend but that always amused him, black teenage boys took a special interest, saying things like, “Hey! Supah-man. You come out on the TV.” It always amused me, but then I only heard it occasionally. Chris listened to it countless times. He was astonishingly patient and polite. He smiled and maybe waved and allowed the bolder ones to fall into step with us for a while. He always kept walking, managing to be friendly but not inviting any greater intimacy. Those kids, it seemed to me, always went away happy.

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He enjoyed his fame and took advantage of the many perks of office, allowing restaurants to waive the check and pretty girls to all but swoon in his presence. I recall him talking about stardom once, perhaps on one of those walks, saying one of the odder aspects of it was that people he met usually told him about some vague connection they had to him, typically something like, “My cousin used to live on your block,” or “I saw you backstage at some concert.” The times I witnessed this, Chris always managed to look interested as if he was glad to be reminded of a pleasant time. He knew that whomever he saw in passing would talk about it to others and everyone he actually spoke to would remember it for years, perhaps adding to the encounter and allowing it to grow in significance in future tellings.

Part of his behavior was normal to his background. There are few film stars from upper-middle-class WASP families. Meryl Streep comes to mind -- but it’s not typical. Chris grew up in Princeton, N.J., and New Caanan, Conn., and he went to Cornell University. His father, F.D. Reeve (who, if it’s possible, is even better-looking than his famous son), is a professor of Russian at Wesleyan University. Chris had the attendant manners and demeanor of his class.

There’s a scene in “Street Smart” of Chris stepping into the shower. I don’t recall writing it, but there it is, Chris Reeve without his knickers on for a few seconds, shot from behind. As he was about to do that scene, he said, “No, no. I can’t do this. It’s not artistically justified. I’ll never do it, it’s so demeaning” all the while eagerly taking off his trousers. He had a sense of humor but he didn’t make wisecracks. He was funny that day.

Once, Chris and I and Jerry Schatzberg, the director of the picture, were having lunch in a coffee shop near the production office. An embarrassed young man came to the table and explained he was a film student and would Chris be able to look at his script with an eye perhaps to appearing in it. It was hard for him to ask. He knew he was intruding. In a few words, Chris put the guy at ease, wished him luck with his project and said no. I’ve been in similar situations with other name actors. I never saw anybody handle it better and with more decency.

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Rest in peace, Chris. You surely deserve it.

Writers Guild contract

The Writers Guild has finally reached a tentative agreement with the studios regarding a new contract. That ought to be good news but I find it hard to be enthusiastic.

We had aligned ourselves with the Directors Guild in the belief that with the added power of our support they could negotiate a good deal that we would then inherit. Well, they did. For themselves. There are improvements in the health fund and some improvements in minimum payments, but there’s nothing for the DVD sales. Getting our fair share of that goldmine was the big issue here.

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The spin from the guild will surely be about how this deal is worth millions more than what was offered five months ago. True. But this deal or something very like it surely could have been negotiated in May or June.

The press release about all this contains a tepid endorsement from Herb Sargent, president of the Writers Guild East. Membership on both coasts have to approve the deal before it’s final. My sense of it is there’s no appetite for a strike and so this thing will probably go through.

David Freeman is a screenwriter and the author most recently of “It’s All True.” This page from his diary is one of an occasional series.


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