NEW YORK — Christopher Reeve was between productions on Nov. 22, hanging out at his home in Williamstown, Mass., when he got a call from writer Ariel Dorfman, a man he had never met, and for that matter, has yet to lay eyes on.
But Reeve had read Dorfman's piece on the op-ed page of the New York Times two days earlier warning that 77 of Chile's leading actors had been threatened with death if they refused to leave their country by the end of the month.
Would Reeve mind flying on down to Santiago to appear at a rally on behalf of those actors, Dorfman, an exiled Chilean novelist and journalist currently teaching at Duke University, asked the performer best known for flying through the air with a cape and a huge "S" emblazoned on his chest?
"How do you answer when someone says, 'We really think you could directly save the lives of 77 people?' " Reeve said in an interview in his big, airy triplex opposite the Museum of Natural History here. "Do you say, 'But I have to go to the bank?' 'But I've got some letters to write?' "
Reeve assented instantly. "It didn't require much soul-searching," he said. "I couldn't think of anything coming up for me more important than that."
As it turned out, Reeve's action not only proved successful for the Chilean actors, but for Reeve it was an enlightening experience as well. He returned with a new consciousness about the relationship between art and politics, and about the artistic luxuries of a democracy. It was not that Reeve had distinguished himself as a defender of human rights in Chile, or indeed anywhere else in the Third World. His knowledge of political events in Chile, he admits, was limited to "the general awareness you get through the weekly news magazines." He knew, for example, "like most Americans, that Allende had been killed," and he knew "that there was an election coming up in '89 in Chile and it was rigged."
Until then, in fact, Reeve had been fairly cautious in expending his charitable energies, sticking largely to safe causes like homelessness, hunger, Save the Children, cancer funds, "the list goes on."
Reeve was not even Dorfman's first choice for a North American actor to bring attention to the plight of the Chilean dramatists. He wanted Meryl Streep, but she was filming in Australia. He tried Margot Kidder, but she didn't feel she was famous enough. Finally, Dorfman called his friends Rose and William Styron, the poet-and-novelist husband-and-wife team. Superman, a.k.a. Reeve, was their suggestion.
Dorfman, as Reeve explained, "thought that a possible solution, at least temporarily, would be to attract a great deal of attention on behalf of these 77 actors which would embarrass Trizano, the terrorist squad, into at least a temporary halt" of its well-publicized plan to execute the actors whose political theater took direct aim at the Pinochet regime.
Such terrorist groups "usually operate covertly, taking people out of their homes at night," never to be seen again, Reeve learned. By casting light on such tactics, Dorfman told Reeve, "the terrorist groups would begin to lose credibility."
Eight days after that first telephone conversation with Dorfman, Reeve found himself stepping sleepily off the plane in Santiago. "I'm a pilot," he said. "I don't sleep on planes."
Accompanied by Dorfman's wife Angelica, Reeve was joined by a German actor, two Argentine actors and an actor from Spain. Already, telegrams in support of the rally on Nov. 30--Trizano's, and presumably, Pinochet's, deadline to the Chilean actors--had come in from Laurence Olivier, Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Vanessa Redgrave and others. With no official endorsement or protection from the U.S. Embassy, Reeve nonetheless was traveling under the official sponsorship of the Actors Equity Assn. as well as Amnesty International.
As they made their way into the city, Reeve was struck by the beauty of Santiago. "I thought, God, what a great town, it's like L.A.," he said. "The rich people live in the hills, just like Beverly Hills or Mulholland, and the poor people live in the flats, like Watts."
Except that in Chile, as Reeve realized immediately, "There is complete stratification of the society." Whereas North Americans live with at least the illusion of social mobility, in Chile, said Reeve, "you just cannot move out of your level of society."
As in Los Angeles, many talented young actors in Chile resort to appearing on television soap operas in order to support themselves. But in defiance of the government-backed terrorist groups' threats, said Reeve, these same young actors "walked around the streets with white T-shirts with big red targets on them and letters that said 'Shoot Me First.' "
Reeve himself was present when one threatened actor, Julio Jung, picked up the telephone in his apartment "and heard live machine-gun fire at the other end."