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40 years Ago, Christopher Reeves Got Brutally Honest on Live TV – His Surprising Message Is Still an Inspiration Today
Christopher Reeve and Marlon Brando Superman

40 years Ago, Christopher Reeves Got Brutally Honest on Live TV – His Surprising Message Is Still an Inspiration Today

Why Christopher Reeves' brutal takedown of one of the greatest actors, Marlon Brando, remains inspirational even today.

Today, the late actor Christopher Reeve is most widely known for having suffered a terrible accident while horseback riding in the spring of 1995. Reeve, a few months shy of his 43rd birthday, would be left paralyzed from the neck down. He would live for another 10 years, during which he became a globally-recognized and celebrated activist for people living with disabilities.

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But in some ways, the wonderful work Reeve did during the challenging last 10 years of his life have outshined the fine actor and entirely decent human being he was before the accident and paralysis. Reeve was an actor who, even after shooting to international fame thanks to his turn as Superman in several feature films, not to mention a number of other starring roles in film and on television, always managed to stay poised, humble, and seemingly quite aware of who he was and the privilege he gained through his work.

Why Christopher Reeve Took Marlon Brando to Task

During a notable interview with talk show host David Letterman in the late winter of the year 1982, a young Christopher Reeve – he was 29 at the time of the taping – called out one of the most famous and venerated actors of American history: Marlon Brando. Asked by Letterman what it had been like to work with Brando, and likely expected to give a sort of “soft ball” answer, like “Oh, he’s amazing,” Reeve took the chance to call out Brando and, by extension, any and all famous folks who took their work, their peers, and the public for granted.

Reeve said, in part: “I don’t say this to be vicious, but I don’t worship at the altar of Marlon Brando, because I feel that he’s copped out in a certain way. He’s no longer in the leadership position that he could be. He could really be inspiring a whole generation of actors by continuing to work but… he doesn’t care anymore…”

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The young actor goes on to make it clear that he faulted the celebrated older star for no longer taking his craft seriously, for no longer caring, and for wasting his gifts, for Reeve did indeed call Brando a “wonderful actor” and a “brilliant man,” but in a way, those positive attributes only made it worse that Brando had begun to “phone it in,” as Reeve said, when it came to his acting as well as his relationships with fellow actors and with the public.

It’s as if Marlon Brando had, in Reeve’s opinion, felt he had grown so important as to no longer owe anything to anyone. And in Reeve’s opinion, this was fed into and only made worse by the media, which would lavish attention on the star of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront” whether he gave a damn or not.

And of course Brando was hardly the first nor will he be the last celebrity to phone in their work and their relationship with the fans of it.

Do Celebrities Owe the Public More Than They Give?

Christopher Reeve in Superman outfit in Superman 4.

There are plenty of famous folks out there who use their fame and influence for good. We can look to singer Lady Gaga or actor Sean Penn and laud their tireless activism (and disregard a few questionable moves in the case of the latter, such as that whole trip to Mexico to interview drug kingpin El Chapo).

We can look to former President Jimmy Carter for an example of a man who, even in his late 90s, still does good works for others. We can witness how much money has been given away by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to which both of its eponymous founders remain committed even after their separation. (Granted, presidents and businesspeople are not traditional celebrities; we include them to illustrate what can be done with wealth and influence.)

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On the other hand, there are a lot of celebrities out there who do very little for the public or their peers or, really, for anyone but themselves. We’ll not name names here, because what good what it do? Instead, let’s simply ask if a person whose riches and influence come thanks to an adoring public, be it for their acting, singing, or, in our day and age, for better or for worse, for their simply having achieved fame somehow, does a person like this owe a part of themselves, their time and effort and goodwill, to others?

We wholeheartedly argue yes, for without the public, and without the support of others in their industries, they would simply not be where they are. A scientist may labor on in anonymity and achieve great breakthroughs. A doctor need not seek out acclaim when she cures a patient. A pilot needs no fan support to fly a plane safely. But without fans, actors, singers, and other famous people are not famous at all, and are instead irrelevant. So yes, they owe us their best.

Christopher Reeve’s Most Inspiring Work

Christopher Reeve in wheelchair giving speech at his charity.

After experiencing a catastrophic accident that left us unable to move any part of our bodies below the neck, many among us may well withdraw from life entirely, especially if we had the financial means to do so. Which Christopher Reeve did, but withdraw he did not.

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Instead, even while suffering the lifelong results of his riding accident and while seeking for some cure to his ailments, Reeve became an outspoken activist for the disabled, especially for people living with spinal cord injuries. He knew that with his celebrity status and with the media paying close attention to him after the fall, he could bring much more attention to the issue than most, and that’s what he did.

For the remainder of his life, Reeve spoke, raised funds, wrote, and generally supported causes and research dedicated to making others’ lives better, even though his own would end due to complications of his injury when he was just 52 years old.


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