Inside Christopher Reeve's Early Days as a Theater Actor in N.Y.C.: He 'Definitely' Had Star Power (Exclusive)

Crystal Field, co-founder of Theater for the New City in Manhattan spoke with PEOPLE about Reeve's star quality in one of his first plays, 'Berchtesgaden'

<p>Images Press/IMAGES/Getty</p>

Images Press/IMAGES/Getty

Christopher Reeve was a memorable presence on the 1970s New York City theater scene before scoring his life-changing role in Superman.

Some of that early footage was featured in Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story, which screened at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary showed the stark contrast of the late icon's life before and after the tragic equestrian accident in 1995 that left him paralyzed.

Remembering Reeve from his early days before superstardom, Crystal Field, co-founder and artistic director of Theater for the New City, the off-off Broadway theater where Reeve played one of his very first roles in Berchtesgaden, spoke with PEOPLE.

"He was a guard. He didn't have a big part," Field recalls of the N.Y.C. native, who was 23 years old and fresh out of Juilliard at the time. "He might have had a monologue, but I don't remember the monologue. I remember him."

"He was very handsome," adds Field, also an actress who appeared in movies like 1985's Silver Bullet. "Tall. Broad shoulders. Beautiful voice. That's what I remember. I remember him standing there."

Related: Why the New Christopher Reeve Doc Moved the Sundance Audience to Tears

When asked if the budding actor had already possessed the star quality he came to be known for, Field says, "Oh yes, he definitely did."

The play's director Barbara Loden, a Tony Award winner for her 1964 role in Arthur Miller's After the Fall, was a "very well-known actress at that time," says Field. "She was my best friend — she cast him in it."

Loden, who died in 1980, performed with legends like Robert Redford. Her 1970 film Wanda was referenced in 2016 by The New Yorker as "one of the best American independent films ever made." The same year Loden's play debuted, Reeve, who came up on the scene with his roommate and best friend Robin Williams, scored his first role on Broadway in A Matter of Gravity with Katherine Hepburn.

Just two years after his gigs both on and off Broadway, Reeve landed his Superman role, which was met with mixed emotions from his theater friends, some accusing him of "selling out," but ironically, he would dedicate his entire life — and legacy — to giving back.

Related: Christopher Reeve and Robin Williams' Friendship: From College Roommates to Becoming 'Brothers from Another Mother'

Steve Sands/AP
Steve Sands/AP

Decades after Field first noticed Reeve at her theater, the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which carries on the philanthropic efforts of Reeve and his late wife, would help Theater for the New City, nicknamed TNC, by awarding a Quality of Life Grant to make the venue's four theaters accessible for people in wheelchairs.

"It was a very, very helpful grant, but it had nothing to with my relationship with Christopher Reeve, it had to do with an elevator that we wanted to put in and they helped us get it," the Obie award-winning actress shares.

Maggie Goldberg, president and CEO of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, gave PEOPLE a statement about the organization's remarkable efforts.

"Providing opportunities for people living with and impacted by paralysis to engage with the community and enjoy experiences that are accessible and inclusive is what the Reeve Foundation strives to do," Goldberg says.

"Christopher and Dana Reeve had a love and passion for the theater and arts. We are proud to carry on their work and legacy through the Quality of Life Grants Program, awarding organizations like Theater for the New City. Our program has awarded over $43 million to more than 3,770 projects across the United States to improve the quality of life through inclusion, access and independence."

"They're actually considering us for another grant because we want to make our doors more wheelchair-accessible," Field continues. "You can get a wheelchair through them — but we want to be able to press a button and the doors open to get a wheelchair in."

Field, who is described by N.Y.C. playwright Claude Solnik as "hard-working" and "dedicated," has made tireless efforts to keep her theater running for over 50 years. "We opened the spring of 1971," she says proudly.

Originally located in the West Village, the theater moved to Manhattan's East Village neighborhood in 1986. The Pulitzer Prize-winning community cultural center, as described on their website, is known for its community service. Every year, TNC produces 30-40 new American plays, like Solnik's Fun and Games, directed by Justin Bennett.

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TNC, whose productions have won over 40 Obie awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was once a stomping ground for artists such as Sam Shepard, Tim Robbins, Adrien Brody and Nobel prize-winner Gao Xingjian.

Taking pride in hosting many free festivals, according to TNC's website, they seek to "inspire future theater artists from the often-overlooked low-income minority communities of New York City by producing minority writers from all over the world."

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