Richard Donner, the legendary director behind an eclectic mix of all-time great movies, has passed away at the age of 91, his family has confirmed. The filmmaker was behind some of the most beloved blockbusters of the ‘70s and ‘80s, hopping between genres to make major Hollywood entertainment with heart, soul, and impeccable craft.
Through the 1960s and early 1970s, Donner cut his teeth on several significant TV series, directing instalments of The Man From UNCLE, Gilligan’s Island, Perry Mason and Get Smart. In 1963 and 1964, he directed six episodes of The Twilight Zone –including the landmark tale ‘Nightmare At 20,000 Feet’, in which a man is convinced he can see a creature destroying the plane he’s flying on.
Donner began his film career in 1961 with aviation film X-15, and several years later made Salt And Pepper with Sammy Davis Jr. and Lola with Charles Bronson – but his career as a major filmmaking force kicked off in earnest in 1976 with iconic antichrist horror (or, ‘mystery thriller’ as the director himself labelled it) The Omen. It was a major box office hit, and was the sixth highest-grossing film of its year – and earned two Oscar nominations for Jerry Goldsmith’s music (winning Best Original Score).
Fresh from the success of The Omen, Donner spring-boarded into game-changing superhero adaptation Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve in the lead role, with Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, Marlon Brando as Jor-El, and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. The film delivered on its tagline (“You’ll believe a man can fly”) and laid the groundwork for Hollywood’s eventual embrace of the superhero and comic book stories that dominate the landscape today – not only deploying major visual effects-driven sequences, but taking its central hero seriously without losing its sense of fun or heart. It flew high at the box office, earned three Oscar nominations, and was given a Special Achievement Academy Award for its visual effects.
Donner’s super-flicks were influential in other ways too – he famously filmed Superman and its sequel, Superman II, back-to-back, but exited the second instalment at around 75% completion after clashing with the films’ producers. Richard Lester was brought in to complete the sequel (and re-shot much of the rest of it too), and Donner refused a credit on it – until eventually, in 2006, a fan campaign led to the release of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, reinstating Donner’s original footage, and finishing it off with bits of Lester’s work and some early screen test footage of Reeve and Kidder.
Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios, paid tribute to Donner and his wife, producer Lauren Shuler Donner, who he described as his ‘mentors and key supporters’. Donner and Shuler Donner went on to become producers on 2000’s X-Men, alongside a young Feige.
Director Patty Jenkins also posted in tribute of the director – whose work on Superman has been noted as a major influence on her Wonder Woman films.
In 1985, Donner released two major movies in the same year. First came medieval fantasy Ladyhawke, starring Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, and Michelle Pfeiffer – and though it underperformed at the box office, he followed it up with huge hit and firm family favourite The Goonies that same summer. As well as directing, Donner co-produced the pirate treasure adventure story, with a story by Steven Spielberg, a screenplay from Chris Columbus, and an iconic group of young stars including Josh Brolin, Corey Feldman, and Sean Astin. “Dick had such a powerful command of his movies, and was so gifted across so many genres,” said Spielberg in a statement. “Being in his circle was akin to hanging out with your favourite coach, smartest professor, fiercest motivator, most endearing friend, staunchest ally, and – of course – the greatest Goonie of all. 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.”
Astin and Brolin both shared tributes to Donner on social media.
Following The Goonies, Donner directed another ‘80s favourite: Lethal Weapon, a buddy-cop action comedy that treated both genres with equal weighting. With a super-sharp script from Shane Black, and crackling razor-wire chemistry between the mismatched duo of Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs and Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh, it’s become a high-water mark in its field – and spawned three sequels, released in 1989, 1992, and 1998 respectively, all directed by Donner himself. Before making Lethal Weapon 2, Donner also squeezed in 1988’s beloved Christmas comedy Scrooged – a take on A Christmas Carol starring Bill Murray (who famously didn’t get on with the director during the shoot).
Beyond the Lethal Weapon sequels, in the ‘90s Donner directed the William Goldman-penned Western Maverick, starring Gibson and Jodie Foster, and the Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas-starring thriller Assassins, with a (reportedly largely rewritten) script from The Wachowskis. In 2003, he directed an ill-fated adaptation of Michael Crichton sci-fi novel Timeline, and his final film was 2006’s 16 Blocks – a crime thriller that plays out in real time, starring Bruce Willis and Mos Def.
From The Omen, to Superman, to The Goonies, to the Lethal Weapon movies and Scrooged, Donner left an indelible mark on Hollywood across a swathe of genres – making major movies that were embraced the world over, and are sure to live on many, many years to come. Our thoughts are with his loved ones, family, and friends. He’ll be sorely missed.