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COVER STORY

Back Through a 'Rear Window'

November 22, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Christopher Reeve never thought he would have a professional career again after a horseback riding accident three years ago left him a quadriplegic with a ventilator for life support. So he couldn't believe his ears when his rehab doctors began discussing the former Superman's return to work.

"I thought, 'I can't even eat solid food yet. I have to be turned every two hours and I can only sit up in the chair for three hours because of pressure sores on my backside,' " Reeve recalls. "They were taking the long view and I was just trying to get by day by day."

The doctors, he says, suggested that he could direct or write a book or even act. "I thought they were just humoring me," Reeve says. But their initial push helped him get his mind off his immediate problems "and look further down the line."

Since his accident, Reeve has made his directorial debut with the acclaimed HBO film, "In the Gloaming," and has published his well-received autobiography, "Still Me." On Sunday, he takes on his first starring role since the accident in "Rear Window," ABC's retelling of the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock movie based on Cornell Woolrich's famous short story.

Unlike the coming remake of Hitchcock's "Psycho," which seeks to duplicate the earlier film shot-by-shot, this "Rear Window" is altered substantially to reflect the experiences of its star and executive producer.

"It's not just a straight suspense story," Reeve explains. "The suspense is interwoven into the story of a man putting his life back together."

In this new version, directed by Jeff Bleckner ("Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story"), Reeve plays divorced architect Jason Kemp, who is left a quadriplegic in the aftermath of a car crash. Daryl Hannah plays Claudia Martin, his architect colleague with whom he initially has a difficult professional relationship because he's resentful she's taken over his projects during recovery.

With the use of a device called a sipping straw, operated with his breath, Kemp is able to maneuver his wheelchair and even operate a video camera. He uses his computer via vocal commands. To pass the time, he looks out the rear window of his apartment at his neighbors across the alley. When he believes he's witnessed a murder in one of the apartments, no one believes him.

"The idea in this film is to raise the stakes," says Reeve. "In the original film, Jimmy Stewart is in a wheelchair, but he only has a broken leg. He's not nearly at the same disadvantage as a vent-dependent quadriplegic is."

Director Bleckner says the first act takes Reeve's character from "suffering an auto accident through his whole rehab to coming home and beginning to deal with the hard realities of restructuring his life."

That includes a frightening occurrence called "pop-off," which occurs when the plastic ventilator tube attached to his throat pops off and leaves him without air. Reeve experienced "pop-offs' several times while in intensive care and rehab.

Reeve, 46, says he's in his best health since the accident. "During '96 and '97, I was hospitalized 11 times for various problems," he says matter-of-factly. "I had two blood clots, a collapsed lung, pneumonia. All kinds of stuff. I'm free of that and exercising away."

The big news, Reeve reports, is that he has feeling all the way down to the base of his spine. "That's really going to be important for recovery, because that means there are more motor neurons intact than they realized. The other piece of good news is the ventral side of the spinal chord, which controls motor functions, is completely intact. So I am a prime candidate for recovery because they know how to regenerate nerves in humans now. It's just a question of the funding for clinical trials."

The actor hopes "Rear Window" will give hope to quads that they can experience loving relationships.

"One of the greatest fears, particularly when young guys are injured in diving accidents, is that no woman would want them," Reeve explains. "Why pick a life with somebody who has, as I say in the movie, 'damaged goods?' The fact is that it happens time and time again that it ends up not being an obstacle. You see sometimes quads getting married and they are able to have children.

"So when Claudia begins to be somewhat flirtatious, my character brushes it off because of his low level of confidence. But it does blossom into romance."

Reeve, says director Bleckner, "is really good in this. There is a degree of reality and depth that is going on in the movie that he brings to it because of the nature of the character and how the character is restructured to make him fit into it and fit him in many ways. It's very compelling."

It took Bleckner a few days to understand that he couldn't shoot Reeve in wide shots. "I realized while I was directing that I can't do all of these setups because he can't move," the director says. "The wider the shot, the bigger the performance has to be. The tighter the shot, of course, the more intimate everything is. A lot of the movie is shot really jammed in his face, which is wonderful. He has a wonderful face."

"I have never had so many extreme close-ups in my life," Reeve concurs. "It was like taking an X-ray."

"Rear Window" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC.

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