It’s common for kids to idolize their fathers growing up, but imagine spending your formative years knowing that your dad was Superman. That’s what happened to William “Will” Reeve, son of Christopher Reeve – the man who brought the famous superhero to life on the big screen. Sadly, though, Will also had a childhood full of the kind of heartache that most of us can’t even imagine.
William Elliot Reeve was born on June 7, 1992, in the small city of North Adams in Massachusetts. His mother was actress and singer Dana Morosini Reeve, and he had two half-siblings, Matthew and Alexandra, from his dad’s previous partnership with Gae Exton. They were a close-knit family, fond of sports and outdoor activities. But when Will was still just two years old, a tragedy struck which changed them all forever.
On May 27, 1995, Christopher Reeve suffered a terrible horse-riding accident which broke his back, almost killing him. Although he survived, the one-time Superman was now powerless; in fact, he was totally paralyzed from the neck and below. And needless to say, Reeve’s life subsequently went through a massive readjustment period. Thankfully, though, the love of his family kept him going through this dark time.
And Reeve continued to be an active father to his kids, even though he couldn’t move his body. “He taught me how to ride a bike, just by telling me,” Will told Closer magazine in 2017. “He couldn’t physically help me ride a bike, because he was in a wheelchair. But that didn’t stop him and me from having one of the quintessential father-son experiences.”
Meanwhile, over the next few years Christopher Reeve became a major activist for disability support and medical progress. He founded the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation in 1998 and began advocating for federal funding of research into stem cells in relation to injuries of the spinal cord. He even testified in front of a Senate subcommittee in favor of it. In addition, Reeve promoted changes to U.S. laws regarding the ethics of such research.
Plus, Reeve continued to work in the film industry. In fact, as well as acting in films, including an update of the classic Rear Window, he began to direct movies. For instance, he was behind the camera for 1997 TV movie In the Gloaming, putting Will in a minor role. Reeve Sr. cast his son again in 2004’s The Brooke Ellison Story – but sadly this passion project, about the first quadriplegic to gain a degree from Harvard, was Christopher’s last film.
On October 10, 2004 – one day after dutifully cheering Will on in a hockey game – Christopher Reeve passed away, aged 52. An infected ulcer had led to blood poisoning, and complications with the antibiotic prescribed caused cardiac arrest. He fell into a coma from which he never recovered and eventually died at home, surrounded by his family.
Naturally, the whole world was shocked at the news. And though many of the obituaries focused on Reeve’s career-defining acting role as Superman, many others detailed the sheer amount of work he’d done subsequently as a disability rights advocate. His friends also paid their respects in the media. “The world has lost a tremendous activist and artist and an inspiration for people worldwide,” Reeve’s former college roommate Robin Williams said. “I have lost a great friend.”
Will was a mere 12 years of age when he lost his dad. It was a hard time for him, understandably, and not helped by the tragic events that followed. Just four months after the death of his father, William’s maternal grandmother died after complications during surgery to deal with her ovarian cancer. Then came another horrific blow. Dana – the Reeve family’s rock even since Christopher’s accident – was told she had lung cancer.
In November 2005, moreover, Dana appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America and spoke about how Will had dealt with the news of her diagnosis. “Just following so quickly on the heels of his father’s death, and my mother’s death… it just has been a very rough year on our family,” she said. However, she reassured the audience that she was “responding really well” to the cancer treatment and that the tumor was beginning to decrease in size.
Unfortunately, despite the glimmers of hope and the best efforts of doctors, it turned out that Dana’s cancer was just too aggressive. She died on March 6, 2006, aged just 44. Although the rest of his family were all there for him, Will was now an orphan at the tender age of 13.
Thankfully, Dana had made arrangements for Will before she passed away. He would live with the family of one of his friends in Bedford, New York, who would act as his guardians. He would continue to attend the same school. Plus, he also had the support of his siblings, Matthew and Alexandra. “Will will be very well looked after,” Dana’s father, Charles Morisini, told British newspaper The Mirror back in 2006. “Dana picked friends to look after him, everybody was very happy with that.”
And while Will was kept out of the spotlight as the Reeve-Morisini family publicly grieved for a second time, the media still asked how he was doing. Luckily, it seemed like he had good people around him to help deal with his losses. “[Will is] one of the most resilient, cheery, sunny, fabulous creatures you’ve ever met,” a family friend told The Mirror. “He’s an amazing child.” Another friend said to the newspaper, “There’s an embrace of family around Will.”
Meanwhile, Michael Manganiello, the vice president of the Christopher Reeve Foundation, also had something to say. “I think Dana’s only wish for Will… I think it was the things she taught and Chris taught Will all along. That he be a responsible human being who realized that with privilege and with the things that he had in this world, that you had to give back,” he told ABC News in 2006.
“He’s already doing that. He’s already giving back. He will continue, and I think we’re going to look back and see great things.” Manganiello continued. And he was right. Despite his painful childhood, Will did an exemplary job carrying on the legacy of his famous parents. The teenager, who looked more and more like his father every day, often spoke about them at events to which he was invited.
“To me, Mom and Dad were the people who forced me to eat broccoli and to turn the TV off to do my homework,” the 17-year-old Will told audiences at a gala for his father’s charitable organization, now renamed the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, in 2009. “I never consciously viewed them as inspirations then, but their heroic efforts shaped who I am today and who I hope to become tomorrow.”
Will’s half-siblings felt similarly, and in June 2013 his half-sister Alexandra gave birth to Christopher Russel Reeve Givens, named after her father. Will posted pictures on social media with his new nephew. “When he’s old enough, I’ll teach him how to fish like his uncle,” he wrote on Instagram. Christopher Reeve had also been a keen fisherman.
In 2014, meanwhile, Will graduated from Vermont’s Middlebury College, presenting the Dana Morosini Reeve ’84 Memorial Public Service Award to another student at the ceremony. He went on to begin writing for sports broadcaster ESPN. And in 2014 his paternal grandmother spoke proudly about him to The National Enquirer. In particular, she noted that Will not only looked like his dad, but that he also had the same “delightful personality.”
And by the beginning of 2015 Will had become part of the team at ESPN program SportsCenter, along with funnyman Reese Waters and social media expert Sarina Morales. It was an exciting new step for him. “Hopefully [my parents] would get a kick out of it,” Will told entertainment news website The Wrap that year. “The things I am interested in and passionate about are similar to what they were. My parents definitely define who I am. My dad and I had a huge bond and shared a love of sports.”
So while Will Reeve may share his father’s looks, he hopes to remind everyone about his father’s works, too. “My parents’ legacy is hugely important to me, because they meant so much to the world on the whole, but they also meant so much to me personally and to my family,” he told E! News in November 2016. “We don’t want anything they did or what they stood for to fade off, because their work was important.” Spoken like a true Superman.