One of my favorite quotes is an old French proverb that says, “We know the true worth of a thing when we have lost it.”
It is one of those insightful pieces of wisdom that we would be wise to retain, yet only remember once it is too late.
The passing of Christopher Reeve last week and the nation’s subsequent reaction was certainly no exception to this rule.
Often when a celebrity figure passes away, there is much to be said on their behalf as we recall their own unique contributions to the eccentric animal that is American pop culture. In the past month alone we have bade farewell to such stars as Rodney Dangerfield, Janet Leigh and Johnny Ramone. All legends within their own right; but their deaths somehow lacked the impact left in the wake of Reeve’s passing.
His legacy is alone unto himself. He may not be remembered as the most talented or most successful actor of his generation, but he may perhaps be remembered as the most human.
Reeve, over the past quarter century, had carved his own special and unique niche in American culture.
Initially bursting onto the scene with his role as Superman, he quickly became a cultural icon and carried out a successful acting career, one that he dictated by his creative urges and not by his paycheck.
Using his newfound celebrity, Reeve became a political activist over the years, from appearing before the United Nations to promoting more ecologically-friendly fishing habits, to protesting in Chile for 77 artists targeted with death warrants for expressing themselves.
When his infamous horse-riding accident occurred in 1995, leaving him a quadriplegic and incapable of breathing without the help of a ventilator, the nation poured its collective heart out to him.
Suddenly the man who had become synonymous with leaping tall buildings with a single bound was to be constrained to a wheelchair from then on. Little did we realize, however, that his true strength was just on the cusp of being revealed.
Within a year of his accident, Reeve began to accept public-speaking engagements, most notably his emotional speech at the Academy Awards in 1996 in which he challenged the industry to expose more social issues. Over the course of the next decade he became the unofficial spokesperson for the disabled. Reeve poured his life into addressing the field of medical research for spinal cord injuries and their subsequent funding. Appearing before Congress and lobbying to various levels of national and international government, he tirelessly pursued the cure that he always believed was only a matter of time.
In many ways, he personified what many of us aspire to be. He was the altruist and pacifist, possessing an intelligent eloquence capable of moving those around him and touching those who would listen.
Many would have allowed such a situation to consume them, but Reeve allowed it to fuel him toward loftier goals. Even in the past few years he had begun to allow his creative juices to flow again, garnering much praise in his directorial debut with the HBO special The Gloaming.
Christopher Reeve once said about Superman, “The key word for me on him is ‘inspiration.’ He is a leader by inspiration. He sets an example. It’s quite important that people realize that I don’t see him as a glad-handing show-off, a one-man vigilante force who rights every wrong.
Basically, he’s a pacifist, a man who comes along and says, ‘What can I do to help?’ ” As far as I’m concerned, he may as well been talking about himself.
Noah Potvin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.