US filmmaker Richard Donner, who helped create the modern superhero blockbuster with 1978’s Superman and mastered the buddy comedy with the Lethal Weapon franchise, has died. He was 91.
Donner died Monday in Los Angeles, his family said through a spokesperson.
Donner gained fame with his first feature, 1976’s The Omen. A then unheard-of offer followed: $1 million to direct 1978’s Superman. Donner channelled his love of the character into making the film, repeatedly facing off with producers over the need for special effects that would convince the audience that a superhero could really fly. In the title role, Donner cast Christopher Reeve, who was associated with Superman for the rest of his life.
By the 21st century, the genre was dominating the box office in the US and thriving overseas. The heads of Marvel Studios and DC Entertainment – producers of most of today’s superhero fare – both worked for Donner when they were starting out in Hollywood. Donner’s own career spanned five decades.
Steven Spielberg produced The Goonies, a 1985 film about a group of misfit children who search for pirate treasure, that Donner directed.
In a statement he called Donner “gifted across so many genres. Being in his circle was akin to hanging out with your favorite coach, smartest professor, fiercest motivator, most endearing friend, staunchest ally, and – of course – the greatest Goonie of all,” he wrote in a statement.
“He was all kid. All heart. All the time. I can’t believe he’s gone, but his husky, hearty laugh will stay with me always.”
Director Kevin Smith tweeted that, “Richard Donner made the devil a child in The Omen, invented the modern day comic book movie with Superman, and reinvented the buddy cop movie with Lethal Weapon. I got to meet with him last year about a project. Guy was a natural born storyteller. Thanks for all the flicks, Dick!”
Donner also slipped his political beliefs into his films, inserting “Free South Africa” posters into scenes in many of his works during the time of apartheid, and a “Stamp Out the NRA” (National Rifle Association) poster in a police station in Lethal Weapon.
“I’m making commentary, if you see it, you see it, if you don’t you don’t,” Donner said in a 2006 interview with the Television Academy.
Donner followed Superman with an indie, Inside Moves, in 1980 and The Toy with Richard Pryor in 1982. In 1985, he made the kids’ adventure classic The Goonies and Ladyhawke, which would introduce him to his future wife, Lauren Shuler Donner.
The two married the following year. In 1993, they founded The Donners Company, which has produced such hits as Deadpool, The Wolverine and the X-Men franchise. Adjusted for inflation, his films have generated more than $1bn in box office receipts.
In 1987, Donner cast Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as a mismatched police pair in the buddy-cop action film Lethal Weapon. The film was a smash, spawning several sequels and a TV show.
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. 2/3 pic.twitter.com/WqFK8LKwP5
— Mel Gibson (@MelGibsonFilms) July 5, 2021
“He was a master storyteller,” Gibson said in 2017. “He was humble. He had this sign over this door that said ‘Leave your ego at the door,’ and there was no ego around him. It was hard for me to walk into the room, actually.”
Donner followed up with the Bill Murray hit Scrooged in 1988 and Lethal Weapon 2 the next year.
His other credits include Maverick, Conspiracy Theory and Radio Flyer.
Born Richard Donald Schwartzberg on April 24, 1930, in New York City, Donner changed his name when he set out to become an actor.
“I would have been an out-of-work actor now if it wouldn’t have been for the great director Marty Ritt,” Donner said.
He recalled Ritt telling him, “Your problem is you can’t take direction,” and suggesting he pursue directing instead.
“And because I’d been hanging with him a little bit, he said, ‘You’re my assistant on the next show,’ and that turned my life around,” Donner said. “I never went back to acting.”
He started working in television, directing episodes of Gilligan’s Island, Perry Mason and The Twilight Zone, including a 1963 episode called Nightmare at 2,000 Feet featuring William Shatner.
I am sorry to learn of his passing. He was a wonderful director. I don’t really have many memories of the shoot. It was chaotic; it was supposed to be a 4 day shoot & they cut it in half. They kept us there all night on the 2nd day to finish it. We were all sleep deprived.🥱😴 https://t.co/sk4QLxZEWu
— William Shatner (@WilliamShatner) July 6, 2021
Away from the camera, Donner was known for his extraordinary kindness and generosity, covering college tuition for one Goonies star (Jeff Cohen, now an entertainment lawyer) and paying for life-saving rehabilitation for another (actor Corey Feldman).
Donner told The Associated Press in a 1985 interview that the young cast helped him through the production.
“I never had kids of my own, and they became like my family,” he said.
Along with his wife, Donner was also a passionate animal advocate, rescuing dozens of dogs over the years and fighting against the captivity of killer whales.
Though a few of Donner’s films generated Oscar nominations, he was never nominated. But he got his chance to thank the academy – and his many friends and colleagues – at that tribute.
“This industry is my friend, and it’s been the greatest gift in the world to me,” Donner said. “You guys are all my Oscar.”