The Person Who Changed My Life
Prominent Americans Recall Their Mentors
Christopher Reeve has distinguished himself in a variety of roles on stage, screen, and television. After graduating from Cornell University, he attended Juilliard under the legendary John Houseman and made his Broadway debut with Katharine Hepburn in A Matter of Gravity. The success of Superman in 1978 and its subsequent sequels not only established ReeveÕs reputation as both a romantic and comic actor, but gave him the opportunity the find diverse roles in film.
Since his accident in an equestrian competition in May 1995 he has been active in raising public awareness about spinal cord injury and in obtaining increased funding from both the public and private sectors to effect a cure. The Christopher Reeve Foundation was started in January 1996 with Christopher and his wife, Dana, respectively, as president and vice president. The foundation raises funds for research for effective treatments; helps fund local and regional agencies that serve the disabled; and serves as a source of information and advocacy for disabled persons.
When I think back to my childhood, I donÕt recall any single individual who shaped my future. Instead, I benefited from the influence of a number of adults, in my family, at school, and in the theater.
My parents separated when I was not quite four years old, and when I was six my mother remarried. My stepfather was a successful stockbroker who already had four children from a previous marriage, but he was more than willing to take on the responsibility of two young boys who came along with his new wife. My father, an academic, had also remarried and soon had three more children with my stepmother. I spent much of my childhood shuttling back and forth between the two families.
The two households could not possibly have been more different. In my fatherÕs house there were always writers and musicians. By the time I was seven I had asked my mother for piano lessons, which I continued to take through my freshman year at college.
My father was also very athletic. In the winters he took his family skiing in Vermont, and in the summers we all crowded aboard his twenty-two-foot sailboat. Because my father made these activities so enjoyable they became an important part of my life, lasting all the way into adulthood.
But there was one difficult aspect of the time I spent with my father: He was a perfectionist who was often intolerant of even simple mistakes. I put intense pressure on myself to avoid his disapproval. Even though I often failed, I think I learned a valuable lesson, which I have tried to keep in mind in bringing up my own children: challenge them, but never set them up for failure.
The atmosphere in my other family was quite chaotic by comparison. My stepfather had to work long hours, even on weekends, to meet all his financial obligations. But he as tremendously generous. His philosophy seemed to be: Provide children with opportunities and let them learn by trial and error. As long as each child behaved responsibly, he was a cheerleader on the sidelines. When one of his eight young charges ran into difficulty, he stepped in and became a coach.
I was given a tremendous amount of freedom at a young age, a became fascinated with the theater. Soon I was playing leads in plays at school as well as working backstage, and eventually onstage, with the highly regarded McCarter Theatre Repertory Company.
At the McCarter Theatre I had my first formal experience of mentoring. The artistic director was Arthur Lithgow, father of the actor John Lithgow. During one performance, I was horsing around backstage when I found myself face-to-face with Arthur. I remember him chastising me for playing such an immature game instead of preparing for my entrance. But then he said something I will never forget: ÒYou may be the one in a thousand who succeeds in the theater. YouÕd better decide what you want, because youÕll probably get it.Ó In an instant I realized that it is a privilege to appear onstage and that while it may be fun to fool around occasionally, fun is nothing compared to the satisfaction of doing something well. I believe my entire approach to being an actor was formed at that moment.
I also believe that my successes have resulted primarily from this unusual combination of early influences. I had learned independence, but also self-discipline. IÕm not sure that either my father or stepfather realized the profound effect that each had on my development. They were mentors without even knowing it. Later in life I would come in contact with excellent teachers and fellows who inspired me with their talent. It is only because I was given so much freedom and so many privileges as a child that I was able to make the most of the opportunities that were to come my way.
1999 Birch Lane Press
2002 BMC Who Mentored You? The Person Who Changed My Life: Prominent People Recall Their Mentors