Jeff Pearlman

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Will Reeve

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Slower than a speeding bullet. Significantly less powerful than a locomotive. Unable to leap tall buildings at a single bound. Look! On TV! It's the son of the actor who played Superman. And he's not only a rising star at ESPN, but one helluva spokesperson for a cause near to his heart. POSTED June 28, 2018

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I don’t care what any of you say about Wonder Woman or The Avengers or Batman or Spiderman or even Deadpool—the greatest superhero film of all-time is Superman: The Movie.

In case you’re too young or just sorta naive, the 1978 movie starred a young actor named Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel—and it was friggin’ awesome. I remember seeing the flick as a child, and just being blown away, and haunted, and mesmerized. In the decades that followed I probably watched Superman, oh, a dozen more times, and earlier this year took my son to the nearby theater for a 40th anniversary showing.

Do the special effects hold up? Eh, not really.

Is the Superman costume a tad underwhelming? Definitely.

Does Reeve still leap off the screen? One hundred percent yes.

And, technically, that’s why we’re here. Although Reeve died 14 years ago, I left the movie wanting to know more. About his life, sure, but also about his legacy. Who was left behind. What sort of work has the family done in relation to spinal cord research. How have the Reeves moved forward in the aftermath of both Christopher and his wife Dana dying far too young.

Enter: Will Reeve.

The youngest of three siblings, Will, 26, is currently an ESPN reporter/personality, as well as an ambassador and board member for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which benefits those affected by spinal cord injuries. Today, he talks about his relative ambivalence toward superhero movies, the lessons learned from his parents and—most important—how he’d box a one-armed Larry Holmes. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Will Reeve—you are the newest Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Will, I’m gonna start with a TOTALLY random one. As I mentioned to you over DM, I just took my son to a 40th anniversary screening of Superman: The Movie. Which is a great film, and your dad was ridiculously good. That said, my son and I were both struck by the love scene starring your dad and Margot Kidder; the whole, “Can you read my mind.” It seems a little, um, I dunno. Goofy. In an otherwise awesome flick. Tell me what I’m missing/don’t understand. 

WILL REEVE: Full disclosure: I’m not a huge Superman fan, or fan of superhero movies generally (the Deadpool franchise being a hilarious exception), so I don’t totally remember the last time I watched that movie, or that scene specifically. But, to start this Quaz off on the right foot, let me take a stab: as far as I can tell, the thing that makes Dad’s Superman (both the franchise and his character) canon is its irreverence and campiness. Keep in mind, this was the late ’70s, decades before Christopher Nolan came in and darkened the superhero landscape to one shade above pitch black. Dad’s Superman is fun and cheesy and earnest to a fault (not unlike the man playing the character, or his son, for that matter), and that type of scene fits perfectly within those thematic notes. Does it hold up to our evolved standards in 2018? Not really. Should it be enjoyed for what it was then and remains now? In my opinion, absolutely.

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J.P.: You graduated from Middlebury College in 2014, and before too long landed a gig at ESPN. How did that happen? And … why? What I mean is, was your dream sports media? Was it something you aimed for? 

W.R.: I interned at “Good Morning America” for two summers in college—2012 and 2013—and fell in love with TV. Until then, I had no clue what I might want to do with my life (which was a source of great anxiety at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight I of course realize that I was just being dramatic). Being in studio every day with the GMA team opened my eyes to the frenetic intensity, orderly chaos, and, ultimately, great fun of making entertaining live television. I had always been a serviceable writer and loved storytelling, and learned through my time at GMA that TV would be a perfect outlet to pursue those passions.

So, in addition to my typical intern duties like fetching coffee, printing script pages, managing the crowds in Times Square, attending production meetings and whatever else, I spent as much time as I could in studio with the talent and crew, trying to become good at TV through osmosis. I befriended the camera operators early on and used those relationships to my advantage when I would ask them about once a week to stay a few minutes after the end of the show to shoot me for my reel. I would bring a coat and tie on those days, throw on a microphone and jump on the anchor desk and have the camera folks point their instruments in my direction. A producer up in the control room would run prompter for me, and I would read the news of the day for a few minutes and have someone clip that off. After two summers of doing this, I had a serviceable—if not very diverse—reel, which, for people in the television industry, is far more valuable than a resume. Tape don’t lie, as they say (I don’t know if anyone actually says this).

I had never been a deliberate networker, but I’m a friendly guy who loves to meet and talk to people, so over the course of my two summers at GMA I had come to know some important people at ABC News. One of these important people was a woman named Susan Mercandetti, who worked in the talent office (part of her job was to identify people either currently in the industry or coming into it who showed any sort of promise that might be of interest to ABC). I met with her occasionally to talk about my future and how I wanted it to involve me working on air. She also happens to be the mother of a college classmate at mine, which I only learned after I had met her in a professional context.

Fast forward to October of 2013, a month into my senior year at Middlebury. I’m at a Parents Weekend football tailgate, and I run into Susan, who is up to visit her daughter/my friend, Francesca. We’re catching up over some beverages and Susan asks me how my job prospects are looking. I tell her that I’ve taken all those clips of me reading the news at the GMA desk and edited them into a minutes-long reel and am prepared to send them to any TV station in any market in the country; I was prepared to move to any town in America and work my way up from there. She asks me if I had ever considered working at ESPN. Probably emboldened by the aforementioned tailgate beverages, I basically laugh in her face. Of course I’d considered working at ESPN. It had only been my dream to be on SportsCenter since I was about five. She says she’d like to introduce me to some important people there when I was home for Christmas break.

Over Christmas break in 2013, Susan set a meeting for me with John Walsh, the Godfather of SportsCenter and one of the most legendary sports media figures in history, and Laurie Orlando, the unfailingly kind, caring and competent head of talent at ESPN at the time. We had lunch in New York City. I thought this was just the culmination of Susan doing me a favor, that this meeting was perfunctory and in no way a job interview. Turns out that ESPN was looking for young people who could write and talk, and Susan had evidently pitched me as someone who might fit that description. Somehow, I nailed that lunch. I only know I nailed it because I got an email from Laurie later that day telling me that I had nailed it and that she would be in touch to bring me up to Bristol to meet some more decision makers in the coming months. In February of 2014, I went to Bristol for the first time (I have my Visitor badge from that day framed in my bedroom today) and met with about ten people, all of whom I would later learn were outrageously influential and surely had better things to do with their time (I’m glad I didn’t know how big of a deal they were during those meetings because I definitely would have stuttered and sweated my way out of consideration for a job right there), and those talks went well, too. I didn’t hear anything for about another month, until I got a call asking me to come up to Bristol again in late March to meet with some people I hadn’t seen the first time I was there. Those meetings also went well. So well, in fact, that I said to myself as I walked to my car at the end of the day, “I think I might be getting a job here…”

I went back up to Middlebury and finished my senior year in a 21-year-old haze, not thinking that my life was about to change.

I graduated on May 25, 2014, without a job. For most people, and especially Type As like myself, that would be cause for concern. For whatever reason, I felt calm.

On June 5, that calmness was rewarded in the form of a call from the great Al Jaffe in the ESPN Talent Office, offering me a two year contract as an on-air commentator. I managed to stammer out that I was absolutely interested, that I was basically saying yes right now, but could I please call my family to tell them the news and get their blessing and then I would call back to officially accept? He agreed to this, and about ten minutes later I called him back with those blessings having been bestowed. ESPN told me to take the summer off and I would start in the fall. The rest is history that is still being written, very slowly.

To directly answer your question: working at ESPN was always something I dreamed of, and I still feel like I’m dreaming every time my ID card works on the Bristol campus, but I never really planned for it. I realize I skipped a ton of steps getting to that dream state, and I never take that for granted even for a moment. But to say I aimed for it would be disingenuous, because it all happened so fast and so many people are responsible for more of it happening than I am.

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J.P.: I don’t love bringing up tragic moments from one’s life, but yours were both public and world altering. You lost both your father and your mother when you were still quite young. I’m not asking what that was like, or how you coped at the time. What I wonder is, as an adult, how did/does that shape you? Like, what does it do to a person, long-term? How has it formed who you are? How you think? Feel? Etc? 

W.R.: My parents’ legacy shapes me every day, privately and publicly. Privately, I am so fortunate to have been raised by those two people specifically because the values they instilled in me, lessons they taught me, and opportunities they gave me have served and will continue to serve as my guide for the rest of my life. Publicly, I feel a solemn obligation to carry on their mission of helping others. That manifests itself most obviously in my carrying on their work at the Reeve Foundation, but also in smaller ways as I try to live by the words they emphasized to me above all others: you have to give more than you take. Having the parents I did, in the community I grew up in, and all the advantages that gave me has allowed me to start on third base in many phases of my life. Because I was raised correctly, in my opinion, I have the tools to get home. Those tools were given to me methodically by my parents in every moment I had with them; they were preparing me for a life without them. Unfortunately, that phase came far sooner than anyone would want, but one of the tools in my kit is fortitude. My parents gave me strength by showing me what strength is. It’s not obviously heroic and isn’t accompanied by a swelling musical score; it’s in trying to do and be a little bit better each day, treating people kindly, and clinging to hope resolutely and unfailingly not because you’re desperate or naive, but because you know it will sustain you.

J.P.: Stupid question, perhaps, but what is it like having Superman as a father? 

W.R.: Well, I didn’t have Superman as a father. I had my dad, Chris. Superman, he reminded me often, was just a role he played for a little while well before I was born, which happened to have a major impact on his life and the world. To me, Dad was Superman, but not because of that role; he was my hero because he was my dad. My life was as “normal” as it could have been, given the circumstances, and my parents went to great lengths to ensure that my existence was not defined by fame or privilege, so I never really cared much about what they did for a living as a result. I’m exceedingly grateful for that.

J.P.: You’re an ambassador and board member for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. What does that entail for you? And how has the foundation managed to thrive in the years since your parents passed?

W.R.: Board membership entails throwing on a suit and tie once per quarter and sitting at a needlessly long conference table in a sterile room at a midtown New York law firm and pretending to take notes on my laptop while I’m really just refreshing Twitter. Kidding, kind of. The board stuff is an honor; my brother and sister and I all serve on the board, and we each feel a happy responsibility to take it very seriously and contribute tangibly, because we are the most obvious direct connection to my parents (Matthew, Al and I share a dad. My mom was their stepmother, though there was no “step” in the relationship, just like there is no “half” in my relationship with my biologically half-siblings). My role on the board and at the Foundation writ large is as sort of the Young People Ambassador charged with fostering involvement from my generation of peers, who are key to the Foundation’s current and future success; I have the unique perspective of, yes, being a young person, but also, and more importantly, of having grown up in a family affected by paralysis. I know, intimately, what it’s like to have a parent with a spinal cord injury. It’s hard and challenging and scary and very different from not having someone in the house in a wheelchair. But it is also inspiring and instructive and gives those family members a better understanding of the human condition, and with it more empathy.

I try to use that empathy and my experiences to relate to the myriad people I speak to and visit with all over the country who are dealing with the same challenges that I lived through when I was younger. I travel the country on behalf of the Reeve Foundation. Sometimes that means speaking at conferences or to groups interested in what we do or how I’m doing, other times it means visiting hospitals or rehabilitation facilities or families of the recently injured. One of Dad’s great legacies is one often overlooked: after his injury, he spent time nearly every day reaching out to the newly injured across the world to console them and encourage them to keep fighting, to not give up, to do whatever they could to stay mentally and physically ready for the treatments and cures that he was working every single day to bring to fruition. It is a privilege to carry on that tradition, though I recognize getting a call from me is slightly less cool than getting a call from Christopher Reeve, I hope that my family’s and the Reeve Foundation’s reputation and resources bolster the spirits and fortunes of anyone I encounter. I also really enjoy visiting our NeuroRecovery Network sites across the country, where we fund rehab treatments and practices and provide equipment like treadmills and electrical stimulation, to name but a couple. I also am beyond honored to carry on Mom’s legacy in the form of our Quality of Life Grants; each year, the Reeve Foundation awards millions of dollars to individuals and organizations across the country seeking to make daily life just a bit better for people affected by paralysis, whether that’s buying new wheelchairs for a wheelchair basketball league, or paying for a ramp at the entrance to a community center, or funding adaptive art programs or camping trips, among countless other initiatives. Mom created the Quality of Life program in our back yard in 1997 armed with a positive attitude and a loan from Dad; in the two-plus decades since its inception, the grants program has awarded over $20 million nationwide. The Foundation has managed to thrive thanks to strong leadership, aggressive fundraising, and partnerships with the best scientists and doctors in the world. With everyone’s continued support and buy-in, both figurative and literal, we are going to cure paralysis. My association with the Foundation and what (and who) it represents is the most meaningful part of my public life.

J.P.: You played “Young Danny” in the 1997 TV movie, “In the Gloaming.” Your dad was the director. Glenn Close, Bridget Fonda and Whoopi Goldberg were in the cast. What do you remember from the experience? 

W.R.: I remember it being Dad’s return to film after his accident. The movie shot in Pound Ridge, N.Y., about ten minutes from our house. He was so focused and happy, directing his friends doing what he loved so much. As I recall, my scene opens the movie; I played tag with Glenn’s daughter, Annie, on whom I think I had my first crush (I was 4-years old). Because I was so young, Dad thought it would be wise to gently instruct us to just start running around and surreptitiously start filming. He told us to begin, and after a few halfhearted steps I stopped and turned to him impertinently and demanded to know: “Aren’t you going to say action?” After the entire cast and crew’s laughter subsided, Dad did indeed say action and we were off and running, for real this time. I really gave it my all. Mom sang the title song, “In the Gloaming,” and would sing it to me every night before bed for the rest of our time together.

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J.P.: Soooo … your grandfather, F.D. Reeve, apparently accompanied Robert Frost to the Soviet Union as a translator. Um … what? Please explain.

W.R.: Grandpa Franklin set the intellectual and academic precedent on the Reeve side of the family. He was the ultimate scholar, a professor at various points at Wesleyan and Yale, and a moderately-to-very well known poet. I think he taught a lot of things, but his expertise was in English Literature, specifically poetry, and Russian, in which he was fluent. Frost took a trip to the Soviet Union in the early 1960s and needed a translator for his journey. The New England literary scene being as small and intertwined as I understand it to have been, my grandfather, the accomplished poet and Russian speaker, was the obvious choice. He ended up writing a book about the experience, titled, appropriately, “Robert Frost in Russia.” My relationship with Franklin was not particularly close, but there was still mutual love and admiration between us; I won a national award for poetry in seventh grade and invited him as my guest to the ceremony at Carnegie Hall and I would visit him periodically at his home in southern Vermont while I was at Middlebury; I always brought my latest writing samples and papers from school for his edits and improvements. There were many to be made. I owe much of my passion for reading and writing and the general pursuit of knowledge to him.

J.P.: What’s the goal? What do you want to do with your sports career? And how do you see sports media evolving in the coming years?

W.R.: The short term goal is to work more consistently, primarily so that I can improve at the craft, and secondarily to build my profile, which is how you get more and bigger opportunities in this business. Working at ESPN was and is my dream job since I was a little kid. That I would be living my dream so early on my career is something I will never not be grateful for. I’ve been fortunate to check off so many bucket list items at ESPN already: appear on SportsCenter, anchor SportsCenter, write for espn.com, contribute features to E:60, host a show on ESPN Radio, meet Bob Ley. It’s all been awesome. The medium-to-long term goal is to continue to establish myself in the media landscape and do as much live TV (or internet or mobile or wherever the hell the most viewers are going to be) as possible, hopefully landing a prominent role on an existing show or, one day, having a show to call my own. If I knew how sports media were going to evolve in the coming years I would feel far more secure in my future than I do now; as it stands at the moment, I believe in OTT services, the importance of live events, and, above all, having the most compelling content possible. If it’s good and useful, people will see it, wherever it is.

J.P.: A couple of years ago you were named one of the top 50 bachelors by Town and Country Magazine. I’m pretty riveted by this—because I didn’t know Town and Country has a top 50 bachelors. Being serious—how did you find out? And what sort of shit did your friends and siblings give you? 

W.R.: I forget how I found out, but I was rather mortified. I try to keep my “son of famous people” background as quiet as possible, especially if and when it concerns my looks or personal life. I do remember being a bit frustrated, though, that they listed me as “William” rather than “Will,” which is what everyone in my life, personal and professional, calls me. It showed me they hadn’t done their homework too diligently. Having said that, it’s quite flattering to be listed as some sort of handsome bachelor, though it didn’t have any kind of noticeable impact on my dating life. I’m very fortunate that the people I choose to spend my time with, whether romantically or platonically, couldn’t care less about what some could consider my “glamorous” lineage. As a result, thankfully, my friends made merciless fun of me. To be honest, that’s par for the course, though; I am always the butt of the joke among my friends, which I am more grateful for than just about anything.

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J.P.: You look like your dad, who was very handsome. Hence, you’re also very handsome. And I wonder—how aware of this are you? I’m actually being serious, because it’s mentioned a good amount in what’s written about you. So … do you see it? Do you care? Does it matter? 

W.R.: Thanks? Look, I’m aware that my parents were beautiful people. Here is the part where I cheesily remind you that they were more beautiful on the inside. Having gotten that out of the way, to answer your question, I suppose it’s nice to be referred to as handsome or attractive as opposed to some alternative, but my looks are not something I’m particularly preocuppied with. Actually, that’s a bit of a lie: I work out and get my clothes tailored and have yet to meet a mirror I haven’t wanted to stare at. And I’ve chosen to be on television for a living, which comes with a level of vanity that needs to be analyzed by a professional.

But as far as my looks being a driving force in my life, they just aren’t. In fact, I always find it pretty lazy whenever someone writes “Superman’s son is the spitting image of his gorgeous father!!!” or whatever. Look a little closer: Dad had drastically pointed features and piercing blue eyes; I have a much rounder face and dark brown eyes, like Mom. I’m grateful that I look a little like both of them, and, more importantly and, again, much more cheesily, I’m grateful that I carry myself through life like both of them, as best and as often as I can. This entire subject is such a first world problem I am cringing harder with each key stroke. Thank you for further complicating my insecurities in this area.
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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH WILL REEVE:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): almond milk, Wyoming, Roseanne, “Gray Lady Down,” grilled cheese, Maddie Poppe, diaries: 1. grilled cheese 2. Wyoming 3. almond milk 4. diaries 5. Maddie Poppe, “Gray Lady Down” (never seen it! but I do like submarine movies…) Last: Roseanne

• In exactly 18 words, make an argument for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace:The studio allowed Dad to direct a few scenes, an experience which affirmed his desire to pursue directing.

• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and a one-armed Larry Holmes? What’s the outcome?: Larry Holmes today, or in his prime? Probably him either way. I’ve never been in a fight. He’d just need to run around the ring to tire me out, and then land one good punch whenever he felt like it. Let’s split the difference and say I’d go down in a 6th round TKO.

• Three memories from your first date: Seventh grade. Cheaper by the Dozen starring Steve Martin. Shared a large popcorn and soda, held hands, no kiss at the end.

• What is your obscure talent?: I am a sensational whistler

• Three memories from playing “Young David” in “The Brooke Ellison Story.”I got to have my own trailer for the day (and this role got me my SAG card, which I didn’t realize was such a huge deal). I thought I nailed it in one take, but the director insisted on no fewer than seven more. Dad was the director.

• What do we absolutely need to know about your family’s foundation?: The Reeve Foundation is the leading organization dedicated to finding a cure for spinal cord injuries (through funding cutting-edge scientific research and medical efforts) while ensuring the best possible quality of life for individuals and families affected by paralysis. Our dual mission statement of “Today’s Care.Tomorrow’sCure.” reflects that wonderfully. “Hope” is not a buzzword at the Reeve Foundation, it is our currency, and the spinal cord injury community has a surplus of it thanks in no small part to what we do for millions of people every day.

• Five words you overuse: profound, like, whom, wildly, and pick any curse word.

• Four reasons one should make Williamstown, Mass. his/her next vacation destination: In no particular order: the Clark Art Institute, Lickety Split ice cream, skiing at Jiminy Peak in the winter, the Williamstown Theater Festival in the summer

• What’s the worst smell in the world?:hot meal in the back of a crowded airplane.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life