Richard Donner

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Richard Donner
Richard Donner, July 2006.
Born Richard Donald Schwartzberg
(1930-04-24) April 24, 1930 (age 84)
The Bronx, New York City U.S.
Occupation Director and producer
Spouse(s) Lauren Shuler Donner (1985–present)

Richard Donner (born April 24, 1930) is an American film director, comic book writer and film producer.

After directing the horror film The Omen (1976), Donner became famous for the hailed creation of the first modern superhero film, Superman (1978), starring Christopher Reeve. The influence of this film eventually helped establish the superhero concept as a respected film genre.

Donner later went on to direct such films as The Goonies (1985) and Scrooged (1988), while reinvigorating the buddy film genre with Lethal Weapon (1987) and its sequels. He and his wife, producer Lauren Shuler Donner, own the production company The Donners' Company, which is most well known for producing the X-Men film series.

In 2000, he received the President's Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. He was also nominated for Best Director in 1978 for Superman. Film historian Michael Barson writes that Donner had "emerged as one of Hollywood's most reliable makers of action blockbusters".[1]

Early years[edit]

Donner was born Richard Donald Schwartzberg in the Bronx, New York City, the son of Hattie and Fred Schwartzberg; he has a sister, Joan. He was raised in the Jewish faith.[2] 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 television 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, The Brady Bunch, The Six Million Dollar Man, 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.

The Omen (1976)[edit]

His break-through film was in 1976 with The Omen, produced in the 'horror boom' following The Exorcist. The film was a violent and popular supernatural thriller that starred Gregory Peck as a wealthy American ambassador to England whose adopted son, born with the blood of a jackal, turns out to be the Antichrist.

Superman (1978)[edit]

In 1978, Richard Donner directed the film Superman: The Movie, starring a then-unknown Christopher Reeve. The film became a hit worldwide, projecting both Reeve and Donner to international fame.[3] 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.[1]

Superman and the sequel Superman II had been originally planned as two parts of the same film, to be released in close proximity with each other (a trailblazing idea at the time, now common). Both were originally based on an epic singular screenplay by Mario Puzo, that was later split into two parts by the Newmans. In anticipation of releasing them as two-parts of the one epic-length film, Donner shot principal photography for both films at the same time. This decision was also made in order to save on set dressing and actor/crew overheads. Furthermore, Donner approached the story material with the explicit philosophical goal of verisimilitude, a believable ambiance to the fantasy of a powerful superhero appearing in the contemporary world. However, the original ending for the first part where Superman flies from accident to disaster was deemed to be missing a certain something by the film's independent financiers Ilya Salkind and his father Alexander Salkind. The scripted time reversal ending of Superman II was taken to pad out and fulfill Superman once the film had been identified as a priority with a view to piece together an alternative end to the second film later. The idea of releasing Superman II in close proximity to Superman was then scrapped, and further, the 'to be continued' ending of Superman, in which General Zod is released from the Phantom Zone by one of the nuclear missiles, was also discarded (later resurfacing in Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut decades later).

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 worked with them on The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers and as an uncredited producer on Superman. The decision to remove him from the film series, made by producers Alexander Salkind and Ilya Salkind, has been widely viewed as a huge mistake on the Salkinds' part, as the subsequent Superman films helmed by their preferred director Richard Lester, though still breaking the $100 million mark for domestic USA alone, were perceived as being of poorer quality and quickly resulted in a downward spiral in popularity for the series.

The demands of Marlon Brando to receive the same percentage of cut for Superman II as he received for Superman regardless of how much previous footage was used exacerbated the Salkinds' position to at least walk away from a, by that time, five-year project with profit as Superman was still unofficially paying back creditors. A no-flexibility attitude from both Brando and Donner saw both removed from the series until 2006 when Donner's definitive (or at least, as close to definitive as possible) version of the movie, simply titled Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut was released on November 28, 2006 on the same date as the DVD release of the summer hit, Superman Returns. The footage includes never-before-seen footage of Marlon Brando, a new opening, a new ending and approximately 83% of Donner footage. Some Richard Lester footage was used to fill in the gaps caused by Donner's never completing principal photography for the sequel before his removal. Some entirely new pickup shots, involving lookalikes/Standins, and also general crowd shots of "Metropolis"(New York City), were filmed to fill gaps, particularly in the time reversal sequence towards the end. These important shots are often filmed in most Hollywood productions by a second unit, or after the main production is over and the actors are no longer required, but this had naturally not originally occurred for this film as Donner needed it to. Michael Thau, the editor of the Richard Donner cut also made some minor use of CGI. However, he did not create CGI villains in order to complete the "villains rule the world scene" which was in the original script, but was never shot by Donner.

Post-Superman career[edit]

Donner has mixed commercial flops (The Toy, Inside Moves, Radio Flyer) and successes (The Goonies, the Lethal Weapon series, Scrooged (1988) and Ladyhawke (1985)). 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.[dead link][4] In the early 1980s, Donner proposed to Warner Bros. a non-camp film version of Batman, to star Mel Gibson.

Lethal Weapon (1987–1998)[edit]

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.[1]

Donner directed six films starring Mel Gibson overall, creating a Lethal Weapon franchise with 3 sequels, the last one being Lethal Weapon 4, released in 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’ guy. I love him."[5]

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 cast Kahan in some of his other films too.


He became the executive producer for the 2000 Marvel Comics film X-Men, then also an executive producer for the 2009 X-Men prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and producer on X-Men: Days of Future Past. In addition, Donner's wife has produced all of the films in the X-Men film series under their Donners' Company brand.

Comic books[edit]

One of Donner's assistants in the late 1990s was comic book scribe Geoff Johns. In October 2006, Donner, Johns and artist Adam Kubert became the new creative team on Action Comics, the publisher's most time honored publication and one of DC Comics' two main Superman titles. Together, Johns and Donner collaborated on the stories Last Son and Escape from Bizarro World, both of which have been released in collected book form.

Book release[edit]

On November 10, 2010, Donner's authorized biography You're the Director... You Figure It Out: The Life and Films of Richard Donner by James Christie was published by BearManor Media.[6] The book features a foreword by actor Mel Gibson.

Script Magazine described the book as an "engaging portrait of a warm-hearted (if occasionally gruff) man who can justly be considered the modern equivalent of Victor Fleming and Michael Curtiz – a highly talented, professional director of motion pictures who has thrived in the studio system and made some pretty good pictures to boot."[7]

The Directors Guild of America called the book "a compelling study of an ebullient, ballsy risk-taker who was a director even before he was aware of it" that "ably captures Donner's joy in doing a job he loves."[8]



  • Action Comics (co-writer with Geoff Johns)
    • Last Son and Escape from Bizarro World (2009)
  • You're the Director... You Figure It Out: The Life and Films of Richard Donner (2010)


  1. ^ a b c Barson, Michael. Who's Who of Hollywood Directors, Noonday Press (1995)
  2. ^ The Rude Warrior (2011).
  3. ^ "From The Archive: The Making Of Superman". Empire Magazine. January 2013. Retrieved January 31, 2013. 
  4. ^ Spiderman, Superman—What’s the difference? by Anton Karl Kozlovic, Kritikos V.3 July 2006[dead link]
  5. ^ Simon, Alex (December 2000). "The Tao of Mel". Venice Magazine. 
  6. ^ "You're the Director... – Amazon". Retrieved June 4, 2013. 
  7. ^ Morton, Ray (October 7, 2011). "Meet the Reader: Bookshelf". Script Magazine. Retrieved June 4, 2013. 
  8. ^ Christie, James (2012). "You're the Director...You Figure It Out: The Life and Films of Richard Donner – Review". Directors Guild of America. Retrieved June 4, 2013. 

External links[edit]