Richard Donner – the legendary director and producer of Superman and Lethal Weapon passes away at the age of 91.
The legendary producer and director, Richard Donner, a longtime favorite of mine has sadly passed away at the age of 91. No cause of death has been given as yet. Although he was mainly known as a big-budget blockbuster director, Richard Donner was also an occasional comic book writer in his own right. He was known as one of the most reliable directors of action blockbusters. Alongside his producer wife, Lauren Schuler-Donner, he owned the production company ‘The Donner’s Company.’ (formerly Donner/ Schuler Productions).
RICHARD DONNER-AN OBITUARY
Richard Donner was born Richard Donald Schwartzberg in The Bronx, New York on April 24th, 1930. His Jewish parents, Hattie and Fred Schwartzberg were the owners of a small furniture manufacturing business. Donner also had a sister named Joan. Originally hoping to become an actor and after earning a bit part in a TV show, Donner was encouraged to take up directing instead. He was hired by director Martin Ritt of ‘Hombre’, and ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ fame as his assistant. He later got a job working for Desilu where he was a director of commercials.
TV SHOWS APLENTY
Donner managed to score directing gigs on some episodes of the Steve McQueen western show ‘Wanted: Dead Or Alive‘. And the Chuck Conners show ‘The Rifleman’. Among other shows, he directed episodes for included ‘The Fugitive’, ‘Have Gun, Will Travel’, ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E’, and ‘Kojak’. But perhaps his crowning glory in his TV days came when he directed an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone.’ The episode, ‘Nightmare At 20,000 Feet’ featured William Shatner and is considered to be one of the best episodes of the series ever made. It was even remade for the ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ feature film. But the original episode still stands as a monument to the directing ability Donner possessed.
THE MOVE INTO MOVIES
Richard Donner directed his first feature film in 1961. The film, ‘X-15‘ was an American aviation drama that starred David McLean and Charles Bronson. It was even narrated by the legendary James Stewart. The film soon faded from movie screens and was largely ignored around the world. It took the young director another seven years to directed another film. This time, he delivered a British comedy film ‘Salt And Pepper’. The film starred Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford, and Michael Bates. The film depicted the owners of a London nightclub who find themselves in the middle of a plot to overthrow the British Government. Donner chose not to return for the 1970 sequel ‘One More Time’ and was replaced by comedian Jerry Lewis.
Donner’s breakthrough as a movie director occurred in 1976. He directed a $2.8million budgeted horror movie in England. The film received mixed reviews from critics but was a huge commercial success. That film was ‘The Omen.’ Today, the film is looked at as a genuine all-time classic horror movie. And with respect, it fully deserves it. Starring Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, and Billie Whitelaw, the film tells of the adoption of the newly born Anti-Christ by the future United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. The diplomat Robert Thorn (Peck) and his wife Katherine (Remick) are unaware of the child’s true nature or parentage. Thorn has kept the secret from his wife that their real child died at birth, causing him to secretly adopt the other baby whose mother died in childbirth.
Donner’s direction was exemplary. Not only did he have a flair for the horrifying visuals seen throughout the film, but his direction of the quieter moments was also inspired. Donner knew how to build up the tension until it reached a crescendo that scared the pants off the audience when the inevitable happens. The sequence where Catholic priest Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) runs away from a storm to take sanctuary in a church; only to be impaled by a falling church spire is terrific. But it is the decapitation scene involving David Warner’s journalist Keith Jennings that remains the biggest shock of the film. Donner’s direction ensured the film remains one of the best horror films of all time.
1978 saw Richard Donner direct the big-screen adaptation of the DC comic book character ‘Superman.’ Donner didn’t just bring to the world one of the best superhero films of all time. He brought to the world THE best superhero film of all time. To this day, the film has never been surpassed and it probably never will be. Donner suffered big time with the film. Fights between himself and the producer, Pierre Spengler. Between himself, Spengler, Alexander Salkind, and his son, Ilya who had bought the rights to the property and were behind the project. And the troubles Donner had actually casting the film.
Donner brought his friend Tom Mankiewicz onboard to completely rewrite the script that was written by Mario Puzo. Out went Puzo’s 550-page script that was ‘too campy’. In came Mankiewicz’s straight-up take on the material. The Writers Guild Of America refused to give Mankiewicz credit for his rewrites. So Donner gave his friend a creative consultant credit, which annoyed the guild.
Donner was shooting the first film and its sequel, ‘Superman II’ back to back before it was decided after 75% of the second film was shot; to stop filming and complete the first film. Donner delivered a film that blew the world away. His take on the material, his directorial flair. His expertly directed scenes came together into something that still stands as a beacon today. And helped influence the decisions of other directors that followed him with comic book movies. Look at the work of Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ films. Bryan Singer’s ‘X-Men’ movies as well as Singer’s homage to Donner with ‘Superman Returns.’ Christopher Nolan with his ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy. And even Zack Snyder with his trio of DC movies. All owe a great debt to Richard Donner.
The story of Donner’s firing from completing ‘Superman II’ is well documented. But thankfully, in 2006 we saw the release of ‘Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut’ which showed the world what Donner was going to present back in 1981. His cut was widely praised and stands as a testament to his unique vision.
Following ‘Superman‘, Donner had some box office flops (Inside Moves, The Toy, Ladyhawke, Radio Flyer, and Timeline) on his resume. Although these films didn’t take the box office by storm, Donner’s style shone through. Among Donner’s successes were films such as ‘Scrooged!’, ‘Maverick’, ‘Asssassins’, ‘Conspiracy Theory’, and a middling hit with his final film ’16 Blocks’. He also executive produced ‘Omen III: The Final Conflict.’, ‘The Lost Boys’, ‘Delirious’, ‘Free Willy’. ‘Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home’, ‘Free Willy 3: The Rescue’, ‘Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight’. ‘Tales From The Crypt: Bordello Of Blood’, ‘Any Given Sunday’, ‘X-Men’, and ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’.
One of Donner’s biggest and most loved films he directed was released in 1985. With a screenplay by Chris Columbus from a story by Steven Spielberg, ‘The Goonies’ was a runaway success. Made for $19million. the film went on to gross $124million and became one of the most loved family films of all time. Alongside his producing partner, Harvey Bernhard, Donner crafted a kid’s adventure that thrilled, amused, and had the whole family entertained. The film was like a remake of ‘Indiana Jones‘ but with teenagers doing the treasure hunting and getting into all kinds of scrapes.
THE SEARCH FOR ONE-EYED WILLIE
By now, everyone knows the plotline. But what the film did was continue to amaze the audience with its themes of togetherness, friendship, and triumph against the odds in the face of adversity. And it didn’t go unnoticed that the adults in the film were pretty useless. Leaving it to the kids to show true guts and ingenuity instead. Donner had the audience in the palm of his hand, demonstrating yet again that his style was a perfect fit for the material. His knack for comedy was in evidence here as almost every joke hit its mark. Of course, his directorial style was never more in evidence during the action sequences. But what he created on the screen will never be forgotten. Sadly, the film never got the sequel it deserved.
LETHAL WEAPON SAGA
The film series that Richard Donner will always be remembered for will be ‘Lethal Weapon’. Starting with the original film in 1987 and spawning three sequels, the films are possibly one of the most enjoyable series of action films ever made. It is also the film that relaunched Mel Gibson’s career. And reinvigorated the ‘Buddy-Cop’ genre for years to come. Warner Bros purchased Shane Black’s script for $250,000 and after considering Leonard Nimoy as director (which he turned down anyway), they went for Donner. Donner loved the script, personally invited Gibson to audition for the part of Riggs after casting agent Marion Dougherty suggested teaming him up with Danny Glover. The pair flew in from their respective homes and the die was set.
RIGGS AND MURTAUGH
Richard Donner delivered an all-action adventure with a heart. And plenty of humor. Black’s original script was almost devoid of comedy, prompting Jeffrey Boam to do some uncredited re-writes to lighten the mood. But Donner knew what he was doing, what he wanted, and how he wanted the film to look. The film smashed into the box office, grossing $120.2million against a budget of $15million. A sequel wasn’t considered at the time shooting ended but went into production as soon as the first film became a success. Shane Black wrote a script for the sequel, ‘Lethal Weapon 2’ which was rejected for being too violent and for killing Gibson’s character off at the films’ climax.
Donner also improvised different scenes on the set on an almost daily basis. This led to some friction between himself and Boam. But ultimately led to the sequel being yet another runaway smash. The film grossed $227.9million against a budget of $30million. Donner brought a lot more comedy to the second film alongside some genuinely extremely violent scenes, some of which the B.B.F.C in Britain wouldn’t allow being seen until the saga’s Blu-Ray release. One reviewer said of the film:
“Donner must have not said action on set. He must have screamed ‘Ready, Steady, Go’ as Lethal Weapon 2 is simply released energy.”
1992 saw Donner once again take the director’s chair for ‘Lethal Weapon 3’. This time, however, Donner demanded big changes to the script. He toned down the action and violence. Changed the eventual character of Lorna from a man to a woman, and had her be Riggs’ love interest. He also demanded the script focus more on the relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh. Not focus so much on the villains, and brought back Joe Pesci’s character of Leo Getz, who was absent from the first scripts. Jeffrey Boam had some disagreements with Donner over the changes but wasn’t against them. The film is the highest-grossing film of the series, taking $321.7million against a budget of $35million.
LETHAL WEAPON 4
Plans were put in place for a fourth film after an uncredited cameo from Danny Glover midway through Donner and Gibson’s ‘Maverick’ in 1994. ‘Lethal Weapon 4’ started filming in January of 1998 ahead of a July release. And it showed. Donner still gave the film his best but the rush to get the film shot and into theatres dampened down the director’s usual flair. The film felt like it was simply going through the motions. And although it was a box office hit, the film didn’t hit the heights of the third film. A fifth and final film has been in the works for years now. And as late as last December, Donner said the film, ‘Lethal Finale’ would be his final film. The prospect of the film ever being made now is finally over.
TRIBUTES POUR IN
The film world has begun to pay tribute to the legendary Richard Donner. Mel Gibson had this to say:
“Donner! My friend, my mentor. Oh, the things I learned from him! He undercut his own talent and greatness with a huge chunk of humility referring to himself as ‘merely a traffic cop.’ He left his ego at the door and required that of others. He was magnanimous of heart and soul, which he liberally gave to all who knew him. If we piled up all the good deeds he did, it would stretch to some uncharted place in the firmament. I will sorely miss him, with all his mischievous wit and wisdom.”
Gibson’s words were echoed by Danny Glover:
“My heart is broken. Working with Dick Donner, Mel Gibson, and the Lethal Weapon Team was one of the proudest moments of my career. I will forever be grateful to him for that Dick genuinely cared about me, my life, and my family. We were friends and loved each other far beyond collaborating for the screen and the success that the Lethal Weapon franchise brought us. I will so greatly miss him.”
Kevin Feige released this statement:
Sean Astin, the star of ‘The Goonies‘ tweeted:
“Richard Donner had the biggest, boomiest voice you could imagine. He commanded attention and he laughed like no man has ever laughed before. Dick was so much fun. What I perceived in him, as a 12-year-old kid, is that he cared. I love how much he cared. – Goonies Never Say Die”
A LEGACY THAT WILL LIVE ON
All of us here at The Future Of The Force wish to express our heartfelt condolences to Richard Donner’s family and friends at this sad time. The director leaves behind a body of work that will forever be his legacy to us. From those early days directing TV shows through to scaring us all with ‘The Omen’. From handing us a family film like ‘The Goonies’ right through the mayhem of the ‘Lethal Weapon’ films. Richard Donner was truly a master of cinema and one whose passing makes the world that little bit less enjoyable.
But for me, I wish to thank Richard Donner for helping me gain an interest in all things to do with the film world. For making me laugh, cry and cheer into my popcorn and soda inside the movie theatre. For giving me joy and fulfillment while watching his movies. But mainly, for bringing one of my favorite comic book characters to the screen, and for holding my attention with his brilliant directorial magic. For astounding a youngster with what he accomplished back in 1978 inside a cinema in England.
For making me believe a man could fly.
Richard Donner, I salute you. I thank you. And I will greatly miss you.
Carl Roberts is the News Editor of The Future of the Force. Aside from being our horror genre aficionado, he is also passionate about Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and the Indiana Jones movies. Follow him on Twitter where he uses the force frequently!