Best known for directing the first modern superhero film, Superman (1978), starring Christopher Reeve, Richard Donner went on to direct such films as The Goonies (1985) and Scrooged (1988), while revitalizing the buddy film genre with Lethal Weapon (1987).
Richard Donner was born Richard Donald Schwartzberg on April 24, 1930 in the Bronx, to Jewish parents, Hattie and Fred Schwartzberg. His father owned a small furniture manufacturing business. He has a sister, Joan. Donner started his career with hopes of acting but quickly moved into directing commercials and making business films.
He moved into television in the late 1950s, directing some episodes of the Steve McQueen western serial Wanted: Dead or Alive and the Chuck Connors western The Rifleman. In his early career as a director he worked on TV commercials and over twenty-five TV series including Have Gun Will Travel, The Fugitive, Combat!, Get Smart, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, Gilligan’s Island, Kojak, Tales from the Crypt and The Twilight Zone (most notably the famous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” starring William Shatner and “From Agnes—With Love” starring Wally Cox), as well as the serial Danger Island from the children’s program The Banana Splits.
Donner directed his first feature film in 1961, X-15, which starred Charles Bronson and Mary Tyler Moore. It was not until seven years later, however, that he directed his next film, Salt and Pepper (1968), with Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter Lawford. His break-through film was The Omen (1976). A supernatural thriller made in the wake of the success obtained by The Exorcist, the film stars Gregory Peck, David Warner and Lee Remick. It became the fifth highest grossing movie of 1976.
In 1978, Donner directed Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve. The film became a hit worldwide, projecting both Reeve and Donner to international fame. Co-stars included Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, Marlon Brando as Jor-El and Gene Hackman as archvillain Lex Luthor. It succeeded at the box office, grossing $134 million domestically.
After the first film’s successful release in December 1978, Donner was offered the director’s role a second time, but demanded that producer Pierre Spengler be removed from the project. Rather than give in to this demand, the Salkinds replaced him with director Richard Lester, who had worked with them on The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers and as an uncredited producer on Superman.
Donner has mixed commercial flops (The Toy, Inside Moves, Radio Flyer) and successes (The Goonies, the Lethal Weapon series, Scrooged and Ladyhawke). In the case of Superman, it was Donner who insisted the subject of the comic book superhero should be treated “straight” rather than “camp”, an approach that strongly influenced later genre directors such as Tim Burton (Batman, Batman Returns), Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2, X-Men: Days of Future Past), and Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises), who have made successful superhero films of their own. The influence of Superman can, to this day, be seen in superhero films outside the Superman storyline, and even outside the DC Comics universe. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film is debatably one of the strongest examples of that influence. In the early 1980s, Donner proposed to Warner Bros. a non-camp film version of Batman, to star Mel Gibson.
Donner’s next blockbuster film was Lethal Weapon, written by Shane Black. It starred Mel Gibson as a widowed narcotics detective with a suicidal bent “who breaks every rule for the sheer joy of it.” It co-starred Danny Glover as a calm homicide detective with a loving family and consideration for retirement. The film’s action sequences were considered “truly spectacular” and made the film one of the year’s biggest hits.
Donner directed six films starring Mel Gibson overall, creating a Lethal Weapon franchise with three sequels, the last one being Lethal Weapon 4, (1998). In an interview in 2000, Gibson described his impressions of Donner:
“Uncle Dick. He’s a great guy, just terrific. Extremely professional. He’s an old veteran and has an understanding of film that is the culmination of years of experience. He’s got his technical stuff down, his vision down. No matter what you say about Dick, it underrates him. He really loves what he’s doing, loves working with actors, and he allows you freedom to explore all kinds of areas. ‘All right, kid,’ he’ll say, and slap you on the back and let you try something, because even he doesn’t know sometimes. He’s just an extremely charming, talented, great f…in’ guy. I love him.”
Richard Donner’s cousin is actor Steve Kahan, who played a policeman tracking Otis in Superman: The Movie, and played Captain Ed Murphy in the Lethal Weapon movie franchise. Donner has also cast Kahan in some of his other films.
Richard Donner’s directing credits include…
|1968||Salt and Pepper|
|1969||Twinky (released as Lola in U.S.)|
|1980||Superman II (uncredited)|
|1989||Lethal Weapon 2|
|1992||Two-Fisted Tales (Segment: “Showdown”)|
|1992||Lethal Weapon 3|
|1998||Lethal Weapon 4|
|2006||Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut|
[Acknowledging Geoffrey Unsworth for developing the photography process that made the flying scenes in Superman (1978) possible] “If it hadn’t been for Geoffrey Unsworth, we wouldn’t have had a movie.”
[on Mel Gibson] “Mel Gibson is God’s gift to a director, but he tells the worst jokes in the world.”
[on Mel Gibson] “The most exciting thing that’s come into my life as an actor and a friend. He’s a very special human being.”
[on László Kovács, cinematographer] “He is and was such a genius. He loved light so much. He and Vilmos [cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond]. It was like you’d toss a coin. “Who are we going to get? Who’s available? Get me one of them Hungarians!””
[on Christopher Reeve] “He’s the real-life Superman. I know I will see him walk again.”
[on casting Marlon Brando in Superman (1978)] “Marlon’s the kind of man that if he can collect his money and not do the deed, he’d be only too happy to do so.”
He often makes uncredited appearances in his own films.
He was actively pursued by Michael Crichton to direct Jurassic Park (1993).
He was asked to direct the fourth Superman film (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)), and considered it alongside Tom Mankiewicz, who had been the writer of the first two Superman films, but ultimately both Donner and Mankiewicz declined, as they had other projects to deal with at the time.
He turned down the offer to direct Alien 3 (1992).
Was considered to direct the first Batman film (Batman (1989)), and had actor Mel Gibson in mind for the role of Batman.
He directed one Oscar nominated performance: Diana Scarwid in Inside Moves (1980).