Why you should care

Because if you’re playing a flying superhero, it can’t hurt to have a pilot’s license.

It wasn’t a bird, but it was a plane that first caught the attention of a future Superman when he was just a kid in the big city. “I used to be walked down the street in my stroller and I would get whiplash from [watching] the planes overhead,” New York-born actor Christopher Reeve told reporters about how his fondness for flying was first kindled in the city whose landmarks he would one day circle in a red cape.

And well before the Broadway-turned-Hollywood actor, who died in 2004, was suspended 30 feet above a film studio floor or dangled from a crane 240 feet over Manhattan’s East River, the trained pilot had logged thousands of hours in the air. Flying was Reeve’s passion, and his experiences in flight not only shaped his performance as Superman but also would prepare him for life after a tragic accident 20 years ago left him paralyzed and permanently grounded.

At age 20, before earning admission to the prestigious Juilliard School in 1973, the struggling 6-foot-4 actor had two possible career paths as he saw it. “If I didn’t make it as an actor,” Reeve later told Flying Magazine, “I had a romantic notion to move to Alaska, get my seaplane rating and get into the charter business up there.”

Superman’s producers weren’t so crazy about their young star flying without his suit on.

A few years later, Reeve, who had won a part opposite Katharine Hepburn in Broadway’s A Matter of Gravity, earned his license and cobbled together $8,000 from his early acting gigs to buy his first plane, a Piper Cherokee 140. The introspective Reeve flew his craft all over the country, alighting on grass fields and sleeping under the stars. “I just love coming down after three or four hours in the sky and being someplace else,” Reeve explained. “The personal freedom was just unbelievable.”

Once Hollywood came calling, Reeve would often fly himself to publicity appearances and gigs in Los Angeles and New York, even once he became recognizable the world over as the Man of Steel. And even after hours spent dangling in his “funny underwear,” Reeve used his newfound wealth to purchase a glider in Switzerland, which he considered the “closest I can get safely to really flying.”

christopher reeve (UG003589)

Reeve in 1989.

Source Jim Sugar/Corbis

Superman’s producers weren’t so crazy about their young star — whom they had found after a two-year search that considered Robert Redford, James Caan and Bruce Jenner, among others — flying without his suit on. And despite their somewhat ironic request for Reeve to remain earthbound during the filming of the iconic picture, the die-hard aviator continued to sneak off on Sundays to a local flying club to work on his multi-engine rating, which he earned not long after the 1978 film grossed more than $300 million worldwide at the box office.

Reeve’s aviation knowledge, however, would prove to be a real asset to the role, one which, along with his real, non-Styrofoam muscles, made him by far the most convincing Superman to have donned the cape on film. While suspended from a wire, Reeve would sell the illusion of flying by imagining himself in flight, his arm movements — for example, extending one while twisting the body to turn right or left — borrowed from what he had learned about gliding, and his toes extended and pointed to make what he called “a streamlined fuselage.”

Reeve continued to pursue both acting and flying, including doing all of his own flying in 1985’s The Aviator, though it seemed the latter served as a necessary respite from the former. “So much of the acting world is undisciplined and chaotic. I love the discipline of flying,” he remarked.

After being thrown from his horse on May 27, 1995, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down, Reeve would find that just living required the former superhero to summon his reserves of self-discipline like never before. But soon Reeve re-emerged, from the confines of a wheelchair, to take on his next role as a real-life hero, raising awareness and money for spinal cord injury research. In his 1999 autobiography, Still Me, Reeve wrote that when Superman first came out and he was asked almost daily to define a hero, he gave the rather conventional reply that it was “someone who commits a courageous action without considering the consequences.”

“Now my definition is completely different,” he said. “I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

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