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The Late Show with David Letterman - May 12, 1998

The following television interview was transcribed for the newsgroup by Kimberley Sitterley, a David Letterman fan. The bracketed narrative details are from Kimberley Sitterley as well, not the speakers.

[Christopher Reeve is sitting in his wheelchair next to Dave as Late Show comes out of commercial and the audience gives him a standing ovation.]

LETTERMAN: Three years ago our first guest suffered a tragic accident. It left him paralyzed from the neck down, and since then he has directed a movie, he has set up a foundation to fund medical research, and he has also written this autobiography entitled, "Still Me." Ladies and gentlemen, a truly inspiring individual, Christopher Reeve. [applause]

REEVE: Thank you.

LETTERMAN: It's good to see you.

REEVE: Thank you.

LETTERMAN: I'll just say a couple of things here, and then you can respond to them. First of all, in thinking about you being on the show for quite some time -- and by the way, thank you for considering us -- you want to be sure that you don't say silly things or dopey things, and this is kind of the home of silly and dopey things, and so in the beginning of the show I introduced you as an American hero, and it just kind of came out of me, and there was nothing really that I had considered or even thought about saying, but in many ways, in many respects, you certainly are heroic, but does it make you uncomfortable to be described that way?

REEVE: A little bit, because I have so many privileges, you know, I've got financial resources and the best help, and I think heroes are people who have ordinary circumstances and have to fight through incredible obstacles, I mean the day in and day out struggle for insurance and all that, and so I have it pretty easy by comparison. I think those ordinary people who are working really hard, they are the American heroes.

LETTERMAN: So to me and I think to anybody else watching that, would find it unbelievable that you can honestly have that perspective.

REEVE: I do think that, yeah.

LETTERMAN: You hear from people, letters, calls, all the time. Do you find those meaningful?

REEVE: Oh, unbelievable. When I was in i.c.u. in Virginia I got 400,000 letters from people all over the world, heads of state and people I hadn't seen since the third grade and stuff like that, and they run the whole gamut of things, and I remember I got one letter from a woman who went on for pages saying, "I really feel so terrible for you, and I can really identify with you. I feel your pain, because for many years I suffered from chronic indigestion." [laughter] Well, okay, you know.

LETTERMAN: My god. [applause] Have you thought about Tums, ma'am? People who are well-meaning and want to say things to you, are there any things that they can't -- any cliches that you hear -- and you've heard every clichÈ possible -- that mean anything to you at this point?

REEVE: Any kind of positive contact is appreciated, and I remember, you know, one of the last movies I did was called, "Above Suspicion," and I played a paraplegic, and I went out to a rehab center to train to learn how to do a transfer onto a mat and all of that. I remember every time I'd leave the place I'd go, "Thank God that's not me," and I look back at how smug I was thinking, you know, whew, as if nothing had ever happened. So the point is we are all connected, and it could happen at any time, and I regret the attitude I used to have about people who are disabled.

LETTERMAN: So it's interesting. Do people seem silly and frivolous to you now? [Christopher Reeve laughs.]

LETTERMAN: Because everybody I know, we spend most of our time just whining about everything. Now you know something that we don't know, don't you?

REEVE: Well, I nearly kicked the bucket twice in 1995, and so I have very little time for, you know, just wasting it. I find I am able to be more truthful with people and that I reach out more than I did before, you know, I try to spend my time in a more worthwhile way. You now I used to be pretty self-centered, you know, ambition and all those things that actors have, and I'm a little more relaxed about that now. It doesn't matter so much.

LETTERMAN: Tell me about the injury itself. What exactly is it that you have? And by the way, three years ago, that's a remarkable anniversary that we're coming up on here in every respect.

REEVE: Yeah, Memorial day weekend, yeah.

LETTERMAN: Tell me exactly what it is. What is broken? What happened here?

REEVE: Well, I totally decimated my first cervical vertebra and my second, and so my body and my spinal and my head were not connected. Only my neck muscles were holding my head on, and fortunately I didn't suffer any brain damage, at least none that I can detect. [laughter] But, you know, that's what they tell me at any rate. But they literally had to put my head back on my body, and a wonderful surgeon, Dr. John Jane at the University of Virginia, was the one who operated on me, and they had to make it up. They had never done anything like this before, because this is what is called a hangman's injury, you know, like if you get dropped through the trap down and then cut down, sent to rehab and told to have a nice life.

LETTERMAN: This is where, is it the brain stem comes out of the brain, and is that the beginning of the spinal cord? Is that what that is?

REEVE: Yes, yes. Now, if you injure your brain stem you're in really big trouble, because you can't even move your face, but I'm what's called a C2 incomplete which means the second cervical vertebra, there's a gap between the second and the third. It's had only 20 millimeters wide, and that's why I am a prime candidate for recovery when they have regeneration.

LETTERMAN: Now, forgive me here again, but I find this in an odd way fascinating, and who would be a better expert than yourself? The spinal cord was bruised, was damaged, was severed, was made incomplete somehow?

REEVE: Yeah. One of the bone chards on the first vertebra nicked and hemorrhaged at the second level. So it's just a hemorrhage that caused nerve damage, and it's only one centimeter wide by 20 millimeters across. That's it. If you put your finger across it, you wouldn't even notice.

LETTERMAN: And this obviously interrupts the electrical flow from the brain to the extremities?

REEVE: Right.

LETTERMAN: How many people in this country have this injury? Is it common?

REEVE: 250,000, another 12,000 every year.

LETTERMAN: And have you met a lot of these people?

REEVE: Yes. I've met a lot in rehab, and I met a lot because I travel all over the country giving speeches and talking to people. So I have met a lot of hard luck cases.

LETTERMAN: And what is your feeling when you are with these people, other people for whom life has dealt this?

REEVE: Well, we are out of the dark ages, that really there is reason to hope. I am lucky. I can call the scientists almost on a daily basis and say, "What's happening?" And we are now really making progress. They are about to be able to have human trials in regeneration by the end of the year. So I'm going to be up and out of here within, I would say, within two to three years I can say good-bye to this. [applause]

LETTERMAN: Are you like the best thing that could have happened to this problem? Is that is a way to look at that? Is that a fair way to look at this?

REEVE: Not a job I would have chosen.

LETTERMAN: Obviously.

REEVE: But actually when there is a human face on it, you know, what Rock Hudson meant to Aids, Betty Ford to substance abuse, it helps to focus public attention and make a difference. So I have got to take on this new job, and it's not my entire life, because I don't want to be defined by my injury. I want to do other things like directing and acting and all that, but I'm very lucky that I can make a difference.

LETTERMAN: And it's interesting, and I thought about that this afternoon, this obviously is not your self-definition.


LETTERMAN: Your self-definition has not changed.

REEVE: In my entire life in the three years since I've been injured I've never once had a dream where I'm disabled. My subconscious still says, "No, you're a whole man and you're going to be back together again."

LETTERMAN: The treatment will be -- it's destroying a protein that prevents regeneration? Is that what it is?

REEVE: Exactly right.

LETTERMAN: And it's been successful in laboratory experiments.

REEVE: So successful that you wouldn't even know the rats had anything wrong with them, and now they just have to make it appropriate for humans, and that should be accomplished by the end of this year, early next year, and I am a prime candidate for regeneration, because the gap that has to be crossed is so small. So I've got everything going in my favor. I'm very lucky. [applause]

LETTERMAN: What is the -- I think it's both good and bad that people are aware of this ailment, this injury, as much through sports now as anything else.

REEVE: Right.

LETTERMAN: And I've become aware, and I guess everybody else who has seen football on television, that there is something that can be done at the moment of the injury that will make a difference. Do you know what that is and was that available to you?

REEVE: Yes, it was. It's called methylprednisalone, and if it is administered within eight hours it will reduce the damage by about 20 percent, and now they are working on stronger drugs to give people immediately that can stop the swelling. It's the swelling that's the problem.

LETTERMAN: I see, because that just increases the damage?

REEVE: Exactly right. It's all blood cells.

LETTERMAN: So anything we can do immediately improves the prognosis.

REEVE: Absolutely, because after the injury, more cells commit suicide, called programmed cell death, and if we can stop that we will stop the injuries the way they are happening.

LETTERMAN: Were you knocked unconscious when this happened?

REEVE: No, unfortunately I was conscious. I don't remember it, but I went over the jump, landed on my head, flipped over, and I said, "I can't breathe," and I was still conscious and flailing for breath for three minutes, and they got to me luckily, because real brain damage starts at four minutes. So we have to figure out exactly, you know, how much was actually done to me, but I'm very, very lucky they got to me quickly.

LETTERMAN: It's just amazing that a person can undergo this circumstance and still find reason, legitimate reason, to say that you were lucky. I mean, it's incredible, but you were lucky, because the seconds are ticking away, and things would have been altogether different.

REEVE: I mean, I've got a wife and a family who need me and who still think I'm worth it, and that makes all the difference in the world.


REEVE: I can't check out here. I've got a lot to do.

LETTERMAN: I'll tell you what. If you can hang around for a second, we have got to do a commercial, and we will be right back. We are visiting with Christopher Reeve. (recess.)

LETTERMAN: Welcome back. Christopher Reeve is here. The book is "Still Me." Also on the show in a bit, Hanson. Let's talk a little bit about -- you mentioned your family, and we talked about friends and the injury and the accident and so forth. What is your relationship like now with your son, for example? How does that work?

REEVE: Well, we do things a little differently. Normally I would be teaching him how to skate. I'm a big hockey player and he's a big hockey fan, but he plays out in the driveway, and what I do is I coach for a while, and then between periods I use the wheelchair as a Zamboni, and I come out there and do the ice, and he loves that. It's great, you know. We always have good ice at our house.

LETTERMAN: This looks like it's a state of the art deal. [Dave is referring to Chris' wheelchair.] I mean, getting around New York City, is that tougher than you might want?

REEVE: I can tell you where every pothole is, you know, because I'm in the back of the van, and you know, coming in here I bump around a lot, and yesterday -- actually well today coming in was a pretty bad ride. I think maybe I should go get a CAT scan afterwards. It's just like my head's banging back and forth. So Mayor Giuliani, you gotta spend a few bucks on the streets. [applause]

LETTERMAN: Fix the city.

REEVE: But this wheelchair that I am in, this is state of the art, and people who were with my condition before this would not have been able to get around without being pushed, but I can get around with a sipper. I put it down right now, but what I do is I blow into it different commands, different strengths. Now, this takes practice, believe me, and I started -- I didn't do very well. I remember the first day I had the chair I was in the big rotunda out at the rehab center, and a lot of area, and I was practicing going backwards and forwards and turning left and right. It's all done with the strength of the breath, so you have to be very careful. Now, on Friday afternoon this very nice lady comes to play the piano for people at the rehab center, and everybody gathered around, and she plays show tunes, and I was wheeling around in the middle of the room, and I decided, well, I've got this tape, I'll go back down to my room now and just zip along down the corridor. So there off I went, and suddenly just as I got to the piano, and she's playing, "Getting To Know You," I turned a hard right, smashed right into the piano, backed her up about five feet, and she didn't even miss a note. [laughter] It happens all the time.

LETTERMAN: Do you wake up some mornings and forget that this has happened?

REEVE: You know, I'm always following my dreams, and there is a little period -- when I was in rehab it took longer, but now it's like -- you know, it took me about 30 seconds, and I go, okay, all right, and then I adjust quickly, because I've gotten used to it, but the thing that also, you know, just keeps me going and should keep other people going is that we are right on the threshold of curing this. So this will be an interesting chapter. I'm going to write a book after that one right there when I walk. I'll write another book. [applause]

LETTERMAN: It's interesting for a million different reasons, but people that you come across in your life, many of them are just in aimless pursuit, no goal, no direction, and you now have this second life that you have dedicated to overcoming something, and you have set a goal, and you will achieve it, and in that respect again you are lucky, because many, many people never have anything to shoot for.

REEVE: Yeah, and then also what happens, you know, if they've been kind of aimless before and then have an injury, then what, what are they going to do? A lot of people lose their livelihood. I'm very lucky. I had always meant to direct, but my ego got in the way, because every time, you know, I was going to direct something, then I'd get an acting job, and say, "Oh, I'd rather be in front of the camera," but now, you know, so I was actually, you know, I got a chance to trade upwards and direct a movie, and that was a good thing. I'm very lucky in that way.

LETTERMAN: Your fellow actors will be happy to hear that you refer to it as "trading up," leaving that scum behind. You're now a director. [laughter]

REEVE: I know.

LETTERMAN: Let's talk about other things here in the book, and I guess a relationship that people are aware of, another wonderful person, Katharine Hepburn.


LETTERMAN: Who, by the way, is celebrating a birthday.

REEVE: 91 today.

LETTERMAN: 91 years old today. [applause] You met her when you were a kid, 22 or something like that?

REEVE: She was doing a play on Broadway called "A Matter Of Gravity," and the other lead was her grandson, and she saw about 200 actors, and I happened to get an audition, and I came in and I was nervous. So I tried to get control of the situation, and she's sitting out in the dark in the theater, and I thought I'd try to, you know, sort of curry a little favor, and so I called out into the darkness, I said, "Miss Hepburn, I'm sure that my grandmother, Beatrice Lamb, would like to be remembered to you." They were classmates at Bryn Mawr in 1924. And she said, "Oh, Bea, I never could stand her." [laughter]


REEVE: Next show I disappear.

LETTERMAN: What is she? Because you were very close.

REEVE: Yes, we were very close.

LETTERMAN: And in fact, there was at some point, I remember, a suggestion that maybe there was romance there.

REEVE: That was wild, that thought. She was 66 and I was 22. But that, you know, that could be fun.

LETTERMAN: Well, that's what I'm asking.

REEVE: She treated me like a grandson. She never had children of her own, but because I was playing her grandson, it kind of took on more than just a job, you know, she really expected me to toe the line, and she could be very warm and very loving, but also very kind of frightening too.

LETTERMAN: Did you get to know her, did you get to find out what really was at the core of that woman?

REEVE: Yeah, I believe I did. We were together for a year, and we have stayed in touch since then, and it really is that old Yankee work ethic and sort of self-respect, and also talk about somebody who doesn't let anything get in her way. She just really was, back in the days when women had no opportunity in the film business, she just made it happen. She was a real trailblazer.

LETTERMAN: Did you talk to her about Spencer Tracy?

REEVE: I, you know, yes, I did, because she brought it up a lot. Spence was very much a part of her life, you know, even years after he died, and she would always talk about the technique of his acting, which was really non acting, you know, which made him so compelling.

LETTERMAN: When you look at those films of Katharine Hepburn, regardless of what she was in, regardless of the stage of her career -- first of all, a more stunningly beautiful woman is not on the planet.

REEVE: I would have crawled on my hands and knees to meet her. When I was a kid I would have crossed the country on my hands and knees, you know, just to say hi.

LETTERMAN: And like everybody who is good at something, it looked -- what she did just looked effortless.

REEVE: Yeah, but the problem I had is on the first day of rehearsal she said to me, "Now, be fascinating, Christopher, be fascinating." And I said, "Well, that's easy for you to say. The rest of us have to work at it." But she somehow was always Katharine Hepburn and the character at the same time, and people look at the truth, the integrity inside her and they responded to it.

LETTERMAN: That is the best combination. She was an actress and a movie star.

REEVE: Yeah, and also -- what she said to me -- I always thought acting was a way to sort of disappear into a character, and she said, "No. What you must do is reveal the truth within yourself. You've got to let the audience see the joy, the pain, all the emotions, and they have got to come from you. Don't fake it. Don't try to act. Let it go."

LETTERMAN: 91 years old. Listen, when you write the other book -- and by all means you can come back before you write the other book, but when you write the other book, please come back. It would mean a great deal to me.

REEVE: It would be my pleasure.

LETTERMAN: Thank you very much. Christopher Reeve. His book is called, "Still Me." [Another Standing Ovation]

The end.

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