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Richard Donner, Legendary Director Who Made Us Believe A Man Can Fly, Dies At 91

By Brian Richards | Obituaries | July 6, 2021 |

By Brian Richards | Obituaries | July 6, 2021 |


richard donner.jpg

Richard Donner, who directed episodes for over 50 television shows as well as 23 feature films, but whose most beloved work remains Superman: The Movie, died on Tuesday at the age of 91. At the time of publication, the cause of his death remains unknown.

As a director, Donner never achieved the kind of name-brand recognition as others like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Michael Bay, Spike Lee, or Christopher Nolan, nor was he ever seen as an auteur with an unmistakable vision or style that would always be present in his films. But throughout his career, he could always be counted on to do the job, to not act like an abusive or insufferable prick towards cast or crew, and have the audience feeling entertained by what they’ve just seen. Not many directors have those skills (especially not when it comes to treating their colleagues with kindness and respect), but Richard Donner was seen and known as a journeyman director who was comfortable in nearly all genres, and who proved himself to be a reliable talent in the director’s chair for both television and film for almost five decades.

Born in 1930 in The Bronx, New York, Donner had originally wanted to become an actor, but was encouraged to go into directing instead. After directing commercials for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s production company, Desilu, he would go on to directing Westerns for television, such as Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Rifleman, Wagon Train, The Wild Wild West, and Have Gun - Will Travel. He would later go on to direct for shows such as The Fugitive, Cannon, Ironside, The F.B.I., Kojak, Perry Mason, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and The Streets Of San Francisco, but some of his most memorable directing for television was when he worked on The Twilight Zone, and one of the episodes he directed was the classic “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” starring William Shatner. (It would go on to be remade as one of the four segments for Twilight Zone: The Movie, directed by George Miller with John Lithgow in Shatner’s role, and be parodied numerous times on many other shows, including The Simpsons and 3rd Rock From The Sun)

After directing the made-for-TV movies The Shadow In The Streets and Sarah T. - Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic in 1975, he followed that up in 1976 with the film that would not only grab Hollywood’s attention, but would scare the absolute crap out of millions of people when it came to children, especially those named Damien. The Omen starred Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as a married couple who soon discover that their five-year-old son is actually the son of Satan.

Thanks to the success of The Omen, Donner was chosen by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind to direct a live-action adaptation of Superman. It didn’t take long for Donner to say ‘yes’ and despite the difficulties of finding the right actor to play the Man Of Steel, as well as Donner frequently butting heads with the Salkinds, Superman: The Movie opened in theaters in 1978, and as the posters and trailers promised, it made audiences believe that a man can fly.

I wrote about Superman: The Movie back in 2018 for its fortieth anniversary, about why it’s still considered a classic after all these years, and how its monumental impact can still be felt worldwide when it comes to how comic-book movies are made by Hollywood and perceived by audiences.

One of the best things about Superman that helped it to achieve its status as a classic is that it takes its time in telling the story of how Clark Kent becomes Superman. Donner and company knew that it was just as important to learn as much as we can about who Clark is, where he comes from, and how he becomes the man and hero that he is meant to be. And even though Superman: The Movie is being adapted from the world of comic books and is based on the most famous comic-book character of all time, the film never scoffs or laughs at what we’re seeing, nor does it act as if the source material is undeserving of respect. Everything we see onscreen from Jor-El’s parting words to Kal-El, to Clark bidding farewell to his mother as he takes his first steps into adulthood, is meant to be taken seriously, while also making sure that the audience is enjoying themselves and having a good time. Hence why there are no scenes of Superman breaking into dance or running frantically while holding an explosive device over his head as he tries to figure out what to do with it. (And no, that’s not an insult towards the Sixties version of Batman with Adam West and Burt Ward, but simply pointing out how different the approaches are to both characters and their worlds). The film’s posters contained the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly” and with every scene, and the fantastic special-effects work contained in the majority of those scenes, Richard Donner and the film’s writers (including Mario Puzo, Robert Benton, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Tom Mankiewicz) made it possible for us to really believe that a man could fly, and believe in a world where such a thing would be possible.

Forty years after its theatrical release, Superman: The Movie continues to have its influence felt far and wide throughout the film industry, clearly evidenced by comic-book films that are released in theaters every year with much anticipation, excitement, and discussion. Because of Superman, both audiences and filmmakers were shown what a comic-book film could truly be when its subject matter is taken seriously and not just treated like a low-budget exploitation film for everyone to quickly cash in on. Without the quality and success of Superman, there would be no Batman with Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton, no X-Men (which also made Hollywood sit up and take notice thanks to its success), no Spider-Man films with Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield or Tom Holland, no The Dark Knight trilogy by Christopher Nolan, no Hellboy (whether it stars Ron Perlman or David K. Harbour), and no Aquaman. Even Wonder Woman was largely influenced by Superman: The Movie and made possible by its existence, as Patty Jenkins stated in many an interview…

Of course, it’s impossible to think about Superman: The Movie without the majestic and unforgettable theme music by John Williams.

And without the performance of the late, great Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman.

Much like how the late Heath Ledger forever changed the way that the world viewed The Joker after his groundbreaking performance in The Dark Knight, Christopher Reeve did the same and pulled off the impossible feat of forever changing how the world viewed both Clark Kent and Superman, and has been considered the gold standard ever since. As the shy and nerdy Clark Kent, and as the confident and powerful Superman, Reeve is amazing and fully convincing in both roles. From the playful smile that appears on Clark’s face when pretending to faint while catching the bullet fired at Lois during the attempted robbery in an alleyway, to how easily he changes from Clark to Superman simply by removing his glasses and straightening his posture, to the terrifying and heartbreaking anger he expresses upon finding Lois’s corpse and realizing that he was too late to save her, to even his stern-and-disapproving-parent demeanor when apprehending criminals in Metropolis (and much like the comic-book version of The Flash, you get the sense that criminals don’t mind so much being apprehended by Superman as opposed to Batman, because unlike Batman, he’s not an overly aggressive and self-righteous dick when he does it), to how he gains Lois’s trust after saving her life by simply smiling and identifying himself as “a friend,” the film gives us plenty of reasons to like and appreciate Superman and all that he does, and to like and appreciate everything that Reeve does that makes the role fit him like a glove. Even after all these years and after many different actors have worn the cape onscreen, when most people think of Superman, the good-natured and kind-hearted Blue Boy Scout who will use his power and strength to stop any and all threats to the planet Earth, they think of Christopher Reeve.

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Despite the critical acclaim and box-office success that Superman: The Movie received, Donner was fired from completing production for Superman II by the Salkinds, and was replaced by A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester, who also directed Superman III. It wasn’t until 2006 that Donner’s actual version of Superman II — with its completion overseen by Donner, Superman: The Movie co-writer/creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz, and editor Michael Thau — was seen by audiences when it was released on DVD and Blu-ray.

After the Superman II fiasco, Donner directed the drama Inside Moves, starring John Savage, David Morse, and Diana Scarwid. Which was then followed by The Toy starring Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason.

In 1985, Donner was recruited by Steven Spielberg to direct The Goonies, about a group of kids who discover an old pirate map and use it to hopefully find a buried treasure that will keep their homes from being bought and demolished by property developers.

That same year, Donner directed the medieval fantasy film Ladyhawke, starring Matthew Broderick, Michelle Pfeiffer, and the late Rutger Hauer.

Remember the days when Mel Gibson actually made it easy to enjoy his work? You know, before he turned out to be an anti-Semitic racist with a tendency to yell hateful things at his exes? Well, before he gave us all reasons to angry-sigh at the very mention of his name, he starred with Danny Glover in Donner’s next film, which went on to not only become one of the biggest and most influential action movies of all time, but also inspired countless imitators in the buddy-cop genre.

That film was Lethal Weapon.

And in a decision by Warner Bros. that surprised absolutely no one, Lethal Weapon was followed by numerous sequels: Lethal Weapon 2 in 1989, Lethal Weapon 3 in 1992, and Lethal Weapon 4 in 1998, all of which were directed by Donner.

In between all of those sequels, Donner made several other films, including Scrooged, starring Bill Murray, Karen Allen, Alfre Woodard, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Carol Kane…

Radio Flyer, starring Elijah Wood, Joseph Mazzello, and Lorraine Bracco…

Maverick, a film adaptation of the Western television series, starring Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, and James Garner (who originally starred in the series)…

Assassins, starring Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas, and Julianne Moore…

Conspiracy Theory, which starred Gibson, Julia Roberts, and Patrick Stewart (and also featured Lauryn Hill’s acclaimed cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” during the closing credits)…

Timeline, adapted from the late Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name, starring the late Paul Walker, Gerard Butler, Anna Friel, David Thewlis, and Frances O’Connor…

And 16 Blocks, which was Donner’s last film, and starred Bruce Willis and Mos Def…

Donner also directed episodes of Tales From The Crypt, where he was also an executive producer, and he held that same position on many other films, including Omen III: The Final Conflict, The Lost Boys, all three films in the Free Willy series, Tales From The Crypt Presents: Demon Knight, Tales From The Crypt Presents: Bordello Of Blood, Any Given Sunday, X-Men, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Donner was only executive producer on those two X-Men films, but his wife, Lauren Shuler Donner, produced all of the X-Men films under their production company, The Donners’ Company.

When news broke of Richard Donner’s death yesterday afternoon, it didn’t take long for both his former collaborators and fans of his work to pay tribute to him on social media, and share how much he and his work meant to them.

Gibson, Glover, and Stallone all shared their thoughts on Richard Donner, and what it was like working with him.

Mel Gibson: “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.”

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.”

Sylvester Stallone: “I enjoyed working with Dick Donner on ‘Assassins.’ He was a man’s man, extremely talented! Great sense of humor, his big laughter was like rolling thunder.”

And Zack Snyder, the most recent director to adapt Superman for film, and who also had to deal with his superhero film being taken away from him and given to another director before he was finally allowed to complete his original vision and have it seen the way it was meant to be, paid tribute to Donner as well.

Richard Donner was known by both his colleagues and his fans as someone who could be counted on to do his job and do it well. That job was making movies that leave you feeling like you’ve been entertained from beginning to end, and from looking at his resume, it’s safe to say that he did exactly that.

For everything that he accomplished throughout his long and successful career, whether it’s showing people why flying by airplane can sometimes be utterly terrifying, giving the buddy-cop genre a shot of adrenaline to the heart, or bringing the greatest superhero of all time to life and treating him with the respect that he deserves, all we can do is say thank you, Richard Donner. Thank you.

May you rest in peace.

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Brian Richards is a Staff Contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.



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