BEDFORD, N.Y. - Christopher Reeve, the star of the "Superman" movies whose near-fatal riding accident nine years ago turned him into a worldwide advocate for spinal cord research, died Sunday of heart failure, his publicist said. He was 52.
Reeve fell into a coma Saturday after going into cardiac arrest while at his New York home, his publicist, Wesley Combs told The Associated Press by phone from Washington, D.C., on Sunday night.
Reeve was being treated at Northern Westchester Hospital for a pressure wound, a common complication for people living with paralysis. In the past week, the wound had become severely infected, resulting in a serious systemic infection.
"On behalf of my entire family, I want to thank Northern Westchester Hospital for the excellent care they provided to my husband," Dana Reeve, Christopher's wife, said in a statement. "I also want to thank his personal staff of nurses and aides, as well as the millions of fans from around the world who have supported and loved my husband over the years."
Reeve broke his neck in May 1995 when he was thrown from his horse during an equestrian competition in Culpeper, Va.
Enduring months of therapy to allow him to breathe for longer and longer periods without a respirator, Reeve emerged to lobby Congress for better insurance protection against catastrophic injury and to move an Academy Award audience to tears with a call for more films about social issues.
He returned to directing, and even returned to acting in a 1998 production of "Rear Window," a modern update of the Hitchcock thriller about a man in a wheelchair who becomes convinced a neighbor has been murdered. Reeve won a Screen Actors Guild (news - web sites) award for best actor in a television movie or miniseries.
"I was worried that only acting with my voice and my face, I might not be able to communicate effectively enough to tell the story," Reeve said. "But I was surprised to find that if I really concentrated, and just let the thoughts happen, that they would read on my face. With so many close-ups, I knew that my every thought would count."
In his public appearances, he was as handsome as ever, his blue eyes bright and his voice clear.
"Hollywood needs to do more," he said in the March 1996 Oscar awards appearance. "Let's continue to take risks. Let's tackle the issues. In many ways our film community can do it better than anyone else. There is no challenge, artistic or otherwise, that we can't meet."
In 2000, Reeve was able to move his index finger, and a specialized workout regimen made his legs and arms stronger. He also regained sensation in other parts of his body.
Reeve's support of stem cell research helped it emerge as a major campaign issue between President Bush (news - web sites) and John Kerry (news - web sites). His name was even mentioned by Kerry earlier this month during the second presidential debate.
As for the strain of traveling to Hollywood, Reeve said: "I refuse to allow a disability to determine how I live my life. I don't mean to be reckless, but setting a goal that seems a bit daunting actually is very helpful toward recovery."
His athletic, 6-foot-4-inch frame and love of adventure made him a natural, if largely unknown, choice for the title role in the first "Superman" movie in 1978. He insisted on performing his own stunts.
Although he reprised the role three times, Reeve often worried about being typecast as an action hero.
"Look, I've flown, I've become evil, loved, stopped and turned the world backward, I've faced my peers, I've befriended children and small animals and I've rescued cats from trees," Reeve told the Los Angeles Times in 1983, just before the release of the third "Superman" movie. "What else is there left for Superman to do that hasn't been done?"
Though he owed his fame to it, Reeve made a concerted effort to, as he often put it, "escape the cape." He played an embittered, crippled Vietnam veteran in the 1980 Broadway play "Fifth of July," a lovestruck time-traveler in the 1980 movie "Somewhere in Time," and an aspiring playwright in the 1982 suspense thriller "Deathtrap."
"After the first `Superman,' I had the compulsion to do parts that were really weird," Reeve told The Associated Press in 1987. "That freaked people out. I've passed that."
More recent films included John Carpenter's "Village of the Damned," and the HBO movies "Above Suspicion" and "In the Gloaming," which he directed. Among his other film credits are "The Remains of the Day," "The Aviator," and "Morning Glory."
Yet Reeve always will be known to movie fans as the strapping, boyishly handsome stage veteran whose charm and humor brought a new dimension to the characters of Superman and his alter-ego, Clark Kent. The film co-starred Margot Kidder as Lois Lane.
Reeve said in public appearances promoting the "Superman" films, he tried to get children to better themselves.
"They should be looking for Superman's qualities — courage, determination, modesty, humor — in themselves rather than passively sitting back, gaping slack-jawed at this terrific guy in boots," Reeve said.
Reeve was born Sept. 25, 1952, in New York City, son of a novelist and a newspaper reporter. He in around 10 when he made his first stage appearance — in Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Yeoman of the Guard" at McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J.
He starred in virtually all of the theatrical productions at the exclusive Princeton Day School. By age 16, he had joined the actors' union.
After graduating from Cornell University in 1974, he landed a part as coldhearted bigamist Ben Harper (news) on the television soap opera "Love of Life." He also performed frequently on stage, winning his first Broadway role as the grandson of a character played by Katharine Hepburn (news) in "A Matter of Gravity."
Reeve's first movie role was a minor one in the submarine disaster movie "Gray Lady Down," released in 1978. "Superman" soon followed. Reeve was selected for the title role from among about 200 aspirants.
Active in many sports, Reeve owned several horses and competed in equestrian events regularly. Witnesses to the May 1995 accident said Reeve's horse had cleared two of 15 fences during the jumping event and stopped abruptly at the third, flinging the actor headlong to the ground.
Doctors said he fractured the top two vertebrae in his neck and damaged his spinal cord. When he finally was released from a rehabilitation institute in December 1995, he thanked staffed members "who have set the stage for my continued journey." He underwent further rehabilitation at his home in upstate New York.
While filming "Superman" in London, Reeve met modeling agency co-founder Gae Exton, and the two began a relationship that lasted several years. The couple had two sons, but were never wed.
Reeve later married Dana Morosini; they had one son, Will, 11. His wife became his frequent spokeswoman after the accident.
Reeve also is survived by his mother, Barbara Johnson; his father, Franklin Reeve; his brother, Benjamin Reeve; and his two children from his relationship with Exton, Matthew, 25, and Alexandra, 21.
No plans for a funeral were immediately announced.
A few months after the accident, he told interviewer Barbara Walters that he considered suicide in the first dark days after he was injured. But he quickly overcame such thoughts when he saw his children.
"I could see how much they needed me and wanted me ... and how lucky we all are and that my brain is on straight."