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COVER STORY

Ready When You Are, C.R.

Christopher Reeve debuts as a director with a story that resonates with his own life. When he comes to work, he says, 'I feel joy.'

November 03, 1996|John Clark | John Clark is an occasional contributor to Calendar

POUND RIDGE, N.Y. — The first thing you notice about Christopher Reeve, of course, is that he's in a wheelchair. His head is in a brace. His arms are strapped down. His hands, which are beautifully manicured, are displayed on hand rests. A respirator tube, which helps him breathe, is inserted at the base of his neck. Sometimes he runs out of breath when he's talking. Occasionally he has spasms that require his limbs and tubes to be put back in place. It's been more than a year since his fall from a horse rendered him a quadriplegic.

The second thing you notice is that you forget about all this. According to Colin Callender, executive vice president of HBO NYC Productions, which is producing Reeve's directorial debut, "In the Gloaming," everyone who meets him has that experience.

"It's absolutely extraordinary," Callender says. "I think it's a tribute to him and how he won't let it get in the way of his ability to do things he wants to do. I remember visiting him, and his young son ran in and talked to him. I have a son exactly the same age as Chris', and I saw he related to Chris as any son would relate to any father. The fact that Chris was in the physical condition that he was in didn't impact at all on the way in which his son playfully related to him. He manages to put everyone at ease."

*

This is evident on the set of "In the Gloaming," which is being shot on an estate in Westchester County, about an hour north of New York City. The shoot is proceeding much like any other. The grounds resemble a truck stop. Aside from the jumble of cables and lights, the producers have dressed the interior of the house, which is semi-colonial, to reflect the reserved taste of moneyed WASPs.

Reeve, 44, sits in one of these rooms in front of a monitor that shows a living room scene as the camera sees it. Because of the noise the respirator makes, he cannot be on the set itself, although he tries to see it in person during rehearsals. Around him is the usual fluctuating group of crew members: the unit production manager, first and second assistant directors, director of photography and, discreetly, a nurse. His wife, Dana Morosini, visits, as does his mother-in-law. Sometimes he talks to the actors (in this case, David Strathairn and Glenn Close) over the production sound system.

"Mike up," he says as Close tries to get his attention between takes. "I'm listening, Glenn."

Other times they huddle around to confer with him. What he says is audible to everyone and always expressed with economy. Everything he says and does is public, whether it's giving direction, eating or quietly fulminating when the pace of the production is too slow.

"We're rapidly running out of reasons not to shoot this," he says.

You can't help but think that there's a kind of moral authority when he says things like this. As "In the Gloaming" executive producer Fred Zollo ("Quiz Show," "Ghosts of Mississippi") puts it: "It's tough for anyone not to run around and do their work when Chris is here every day--early."

Reeve doesn't use his disability as a weapon. In fact, he often makes jokes at this own expense. Alluding to his respirator, he says, "It sounds like I'm scuba diving." Staring at the monitor between shots: "I'm sitting here watching TV. There isn't anything else on." Discussing his directorial qualifications: "Getting me was an administrative oversight." In a comment to Strathairn that is completely straight but is unself-conscious in a way that says more than any joke does: "You look like you do the Stairmaster."

"The only word I have for it is I think he's a man who's full of grace," says Close, who has known Reeve for years. "It's grace the way he deals with his affliction in the eyes of others around him. If he had a different frame of mind, it would be humiliating for him when his body does things that he has no control of and it's there for everyone to see. It's an existence that, when you think about it, always comes down to 'I wonder how I would act under similar circumstances.' "

"In the Gloaming" touches some of these issues--and a few others besides. It's an hourlong drama, set to air in May, about a young gay man with AIDS (played by Robert Sean Leonard) who is estranged from his family (his parents are played by Close and Strathairn) and returns home to die.

Zollo says the script, by playwright Will Scheffer, was considered a strong one, and HBO initially tried to enlist an A-list director--names like Robert Redford, Rob Reiner, Ron Howard and Milos Forman were kicked around. Finally, then-HBO Chairman Michael Fuchs had the idea of offering it to Reeve, an old friend.

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