Reeve's film is a tribute from one hero to another

Friday, October 22, 2004

NEW YORK -- What Christopher Reeve created as a mission statement now commemorates him.

In "The Brooke Ellison Story," Reeve set out to dramatize the real-life triumph over adversity of its subject who, at age 11, was struck by a car and paralyzed from the neck down, yet a few years later graduated with honors from Harvard University.

Meanwhile, Reeve, himself a quadriplegic, clearly amplified the film's message -- that anything is possible -- just by making it. In the film, Brooke is portrayed as a girl by Vanessa Marano, then as a young woman by Lacey Chabert. But always evident just off-screen are two extraordinary heroes: the real Brooke Ellison and Reeve, the film's director.

"After my injury and when I made the switch from acting into directing," said Reeve in an interview included with the film's production notes, "I thought it would be a good thing for me to tell one really good story about a family -- an ordinary, American family dealing with a devastating event, such as the spinal cord injury of a young child."

Then, laughing, he added: "The next thing I should do should be a comedy."

That was his plan. But with cruel suddenness, Reeve died Oct. 10 at 52. Now "The Brooke Ellison Story" -- which airs 7 p.m. Monday on A&E -- becomes a fitting final declaration of what Reeve represented.

"He possessed more strength than any man I've ever met," says Chabert. "I've never seen someone with such passion for what he was doing, and as driven as he was -- but who at the same time had a sense of humor about everything, which is priceless."

Chabert says Ellison, who's now working on her Ph.D. in political psychology, visited the set and deeply impressed her.

"I noticed this about both Brooke and Chris: Their presence as people and their personalities are so whole that their (wheel)chair just disappeared for me. I just didn't see it anymore. They're defined by their minds and personalities."

The role, she adds, "was a little daunting for me at first. As an actress, you use body language as a form of expression. When that was taken away, I felt very exposed. But it was a great exercise for me, to get down to the basics and realize that, when you do something, the audience should read it your eyes. That's what my performance became about."

After his horseback riding accident in 1995, Reeve starred in TV remake of the Hitchcock thriller "Rear Window," directed the HBO film "In the Gloaming," wrote two autobiographies, and, of course, lobbied extensively for stem-cell research while establishing the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.

"He created this incredible life for himself with all his accomplishments," says Chabert, sharing one key bit of direction he gave her: "Either you give up, or you make the most of what you have. You have the choice to go on, and with more strength than you had before."

She found out he had died while she was watching TV: an item on a news crawl. "I just fell to my knees. I was heartbroken."

For her and for its audience, then, "The Brooke Ellison Story" comes with an unbidden postscript.

"But Chris wanted the film to end with hope," Chabert says. "I hope the film can be a part of paying tribute to his life and to his memory."

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EDITOR'S NOTE -- Frazier Moore can be reached at fmoore(at)

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