An unforeseen accident tragically altered the trajectory of Christopher Reeve’s life forever.

Renowned for his portrayal of Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent, Reeve brought the iconic superhero to the silver screen for the first time. Beyond the glitz of Hollywood, Reeve was an avid horse rider, frequently participating in dressage events.

Christopher Reeve was welcomed with a standing ovation. (Photo by Timothy A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

However, one event in Virginia on May 27th, 1995, would change everything. Reeve was thrown from his horse, landing headfirst. The impact shattered the first and second vertebrae in his spine, rendering him instantly paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe. Despite later regaining limited ability to breathe without his ventilator for short periods, thanks to his remarkable determination and mental strength, he would never regain movement in his body.

When news of his accident spread, many assumed it would mark the end of Reeve’s public appearances, presuming he would keep his battle private. However, Reeve defied expectations, emerging as a real-life superhero when he unexpectedly appeared at the 1996 Academy Awards, moving the audience and millions watching at home to tears with his bravery.

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Reeve’s entrance onto the stage at the Oscars was met with a prolonged standing ovation, his wheelchair and assistive equipment presenting his new reality to the world. This moment wasn’t just significant for the resilient Reeve; it marked a breakthrough for disabled individuals, seeing themselves represented prominently in the spotlight.

Behind the scenes, as Reeve grappled with accepting his new life, it was Quincy Jones who offered a pivotal moment in his journey with paralysis.

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As the producer of the Oscars that year, Quincy reached out to Christopher, inviting him to make a special appearance—an invitation he expected Reeve might decline.

However, Reeve surprised many by accepting, determined to demonstrate to the world that he was no longer the airborne superhero in a red cape battling supervillains, but someone entrenched in a different kind of struggle.

Christopher Reeve's son recalls father's powerful Oscars appearance

Reflecting on this gesture in his memoir, “Still Me,” Reeve expressed gratitude: “I was extremely grateful for this invitation because it was a gesture of inclusion by the film industry—a gesture I took to mean that I had not been forgotten by my peers after nearly 20 years in the business.”

In discussions with Quincy, Reeve outlined his intention: “I would speak briefly about socially relevant films and urge the Hollywood community to remember how influential and necessary such work can be.”

He recounted, “I told Quincy I was flattered and would certainly think about it. Then, on a wild impulse, I accepted on the spot.”

Reeve with his wife Dana and Robin Williams after the Academy Award ceremony. (Photo credit: Vince Bucci/AFP via Getty Images)

“After hanging up the phone, the reality sank in: I had just committed to appearing live in front of two billion viewers, confined to a wheelchair, reliant on a ventilator, with no certainty whether my body would remain steady during my five to seven minutes onstage,” Reeve recounted.

“I realized that if I hit a bump while wheeling onto the stage, I might spasm, leaving me slouched in an awkward position, with potentially no time to rectify it before the curtain rose.”

Keeping his appearance completely under wraps required considerable effort, including a private rehearsal held behind closed doors on the morning of the ceremony.

During the awards event, Reeve made a poignant decision: he opted to enter the stage without any accompanying music, despite suggestions to use John Williams’ iconic Superman theme.

The concern was that such an entrance might overshadow his newfound role as a different kind of hero—one he came to recognize in the aftermath of his appearance.

During his time on stage, Reeve seized the opportunity to emphasize the power of film and cinema in effecting social change, particularly for those who often feel marginalized or underrepresented on screen.

Introducing a film montage projected behind him, he articulated, “As a child, my friends and I would attend movies for sheer entertainment. However, films like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove prompted deeper reflection on the perils of nuclear destruction.”

“Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones enlightened us on matters of race relations, instigating our understanding of cinema’s capacity to address pressing social issues,” he eloquently expressed in his speech.

Reeve’s appearance and impassioned words left an indelible mark on people, as he later discovered following the awards ceremony.

In his memoir, he reflected on an unforeseen outcome of his Oscar experience: “Another completely unexpected benefit emerged from the Oscar adventure. During my time in Hollywood, I entered hotels and buildings through garages, kitchens, and service elevators, encountering cooks, waiters, chambermaids, and maintenance crews. Many expressed their prayers for my recovery.”

“Others met my gaze with heartfelt words: ‘We love you, Superman. You’re our hero.’ Initially, I struggled to believe their sincerity. Yet, I soon realized they looked beyond my wheelchair, honoring me for a role that held profound significance for them. I never felt patronized.”

“It was evident that a character I portrayed twenty years prior still held immense value. Despite my physical limitations, I remained, and would always be, their Superman.”

Christopher Reeve and his son Matthew in 2002. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

The impact of Reeve’s courageous appearance extended beyond himself to his friends, family, and countless fans worldwide, particularly those grappling with their own health challenges.

Despite reigniting his zest for life and determination to persevere, Christopher Reeve passed away on October 10, 2004, leaving a profound void.

This moment remains cherished by his eldest son, Matthew, as he shared during the premiere of the documentary Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story.

“I recall being in London, on a school night, staying up until three or four in the morning to watch it. It was incredible.”

“What lingers most in my memory is the immense warmth of the reception and the enduring ovation he received.”