The Julliard-educated actor was plucked from obscurity to the heights of fame as the super-face, super-voice, and super-body of Superman, but never seemed to make it as a superstar after that, even before the tragic accident that changed and shortened his life.
Reeve, hot after the smash success of the instantly-iconic Superman, turned down a host of hit films, allegedly telling his agent to “make a bonfire” of his rejected scripts. He turned down the lead role in the hit Urban Cowboy (later picked up by John Travolta), the Paul Schrader film American Gigolo (he found the subject matter “distasteful” and that role became a starmaker for Richard Gere), and Body Heat (which went to his Julliard classmate William Hurt).
Another Julliard classmate, Robin Williams (one of his best friends) tried to convince his buddy to take on the role of the trans woman ex-footballer Roberta in The World According to Garp. Reeve found the role “an enormous stretch” — possibly reacting to the boos that greeted his character’s man-on-man kiss in Deathtrap (1982) — and said no. John Lithgow picked up the ball and ran the part to an Oscar nomination in 1983.
By then, non-Man of Steel Reeve movies like Monsignor flopped critically and commercially, and even the once-groundbreaking Superman franchise was succumbing to a serious case of diminishing returns with the creakily comic Superman III. He was no longer seen as the hot young actor, the breakthrough find, but the guy in the cape.
He lobbied for the starring role in David Lean’s The Bounty and even had his friend Katharine Hepburn vouch for his “legitimate” acting ability to the director (they’d done theatre together in the mid-70s), but it didn’t materialize. He ultimately took himself out of the running, saying he’d be “miscast” even after co-star Anthony Hopkins called and begged him to take the role. Mel Gibson ended up taking up the part to decent but not great reviews for a different director.
Some respectable roles followed, like 1984’s Merchant-Ivory arthouse release The Bostonians, which saw him play a 19th century Southern gentleman, or as the romantic Count Vronsky in a made-for-TV production of Anna Karenina the following year. But they were never seen by the same level of audience, and the attention more often than not went to his co-stars.
By 1987, he had to strike a deal with the shlockmasters at Cannon Films — if they made a passion project of his, a contemporary drama about journalism called Street Smart, he’d put on the cape to play Superman again. Cannon mostly stuck to their end of the bargain — Street Smart got made, and co-star Morgan Freeman got his first Oscar nomination — but both it and the execrable Superman IV: The Quest for Peace sank at the box office like a stone. Reeve hated Superman IV so much, the only thing he wrote about it in his autobiography was “The less said about it, the better.”
“By the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Reeves wrote, the door had “slammed shut in my face.” His agent had to fight for meetings. Casting directors would tell his agency they were looking for “a fresher face.” Once, he went in to audition for the male lead in Pretty Woman. When he got to the audition, he was told that Julia Roberts chose to skip the meeting. A bored casting director read the lines from the script. About halfway through the planned audition, Reeves, humiliated and angry, tore the pages of the script in two and stormed out.
Around that same time, Reeve eagerly pushed for the central role as a hubristic Wall Street executive who meets his downfall in the upcoming adaptation of the bestselling novel Bonfire of the Vanities. “I know this guy,” he told the producers. “I AM this guy. There’s no part of him that I don’t understand and there’s no part of him that I can’t play.”
One producer allegedly said “I think you’d be great casting for the role, and there’s no way we’re giving you this part.”
15 years after the skinny kid from Julliard surviving on coffee was transformed into the world’s most recognizable, most indestructible man, he was back to where he might have been years earlier — doing Movies-of-the-Week for TV and the very occasional off-Broadway theatre production.
So what is the point of all this? It’s not to mock Reeve, certainly, nor really to lament his career. There were far worse things that happened to him in his lifetime than, um, making movies for Lifetime! He was by all accounts, a good man, a good friend, a good husband, a philanthropist and an activist. His life ultimately was one of achievement rather than failure, even if he might not have thought that while storming out of a Gerry Marshall audition.
No, the point, if there is one, is to illustrate how an actor, a performer, an artist — is subject to both chance and choice, decisions and accidents. How someone can be flying on top of the world one moment, pleading for a part in an eventual flop in another moment. An artist’s career is not like a rocket soaring to its destination, but more ramshackle, more haphazard. Like a fire in the night, whose embers are scattered from place to place; that burns full of heat and light, but can be snuffed out easily, can flit from a blaze to just kindling (or less) in no time.