Scotsman Obituaries: Richard Donner, US director who made Superman fly

Richard Donner, film director. Born: 24 April 1930 in New York City, USA. Died: 5 July 2021 in Los Angeles, aged 91

Richard Donner attends an event honouring him in Los Angeles in 2017 (Picture: Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

He never got even a whiff of an Oscar or Bafta nomination, but Richard Donner directed some of the biggest and most influential movie hits of the 1970s and 1980s.

A decade after Batman and Robin went all pow, bam and holy camp dialogue on television, Donner gave costumed superheroes back their respect with his big-screen reboot of Superman.

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Donner had signs made with the word “Verisimilitude” on them, Superman was promoted with the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly” and it was the highest earning film of 1979. Twenty years later his production company made the X-Men movies that, for better or worse, opened the floodgates for superhero worldwide cinema domination.

In between, in the 1980s and 1990s Donner forged a lasting professional relationship with Mel Gibson, revitalising the buddy movie with the Lethal Weapon series.

Donner loved working with Gibson about as much as he hated working with Marlon Brando, who played Superman’s father and who infuriated Donner by doing as little as possible for his pay. Donner had a bust of Abraham Lincoln in his office, not because of Lincoln’s idealism, but as a reminder that he was killed by an actor.

Donner had learned his craft making commercials for Lucille Ball’s company in the 1950s and he worked on just about every classic American TV series of the 1960s, including The Twilight Zone and The Man from UNCLE. “He's an old veteran and has an understanding of film that is the culmination of years of experience,” said Gibson.

A master craftsman rather than an auteur, Donner made films largely to order - though a spectacular falling out with the Superman producers saw him sacked from Superman II. He created a body of films that ranged from the horror classic The Omen to the comedies The Goonies and Scrooged.

He was born Richard Donald Schwartzberg into a Russian-Jewish émigré family in 1930 in the Bronx in New York. His father had a business making furniture, while his maternal grandfather owned a cinema and Donner fell in love with movies as a boy.

He did Business Studies at New York University while also appearing in amateur drama productions and he dropped out of college with the intention of pursuing acting as a career. But he switched direction after being cast in a small role in a 1951 television adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.

Director Martin Ritt told him he was never going to make it as an actor, but that he thought he might be a good director and hired hired him as his assistant.

By the early 1960s Donner was working regularly as a director in television on such western series as Wanted: Dead or Alive, with the young Steve McQueen, Wagon Train and Have Gun – Will Travel.

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Donner actually directed his first feature film way back in 1961. He was hired initially as second unit director on X-15, in which Charles Bronson played a Cold War test pilot, before being elevated to the director’s job.

It would be another seven years before his second feature film, Salt and Pepper, with Rat Packers Sammy Davis Jr and Peter Lawford as the eponymous nightclub owners who stumble on an evil conspiracy. In between there was a lot of television, including several episodes of The Twilight Zone.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is regarded by many as one of the best in the series, with William Shatner playing a man who is recovering from a nervous breakdown and thinks he sees a monstrous creature on the wing of the plane in which he is travelling. It was remade in the early 1980s as part of a big-budget Twilight Zone feature film.

The Omen had already been turned down by other directors and studios, but Donner was fascinated by the notion of the birth of the Antichrist and him growing up as part of a seemingly normal family - although strange things do happen from the outset, including some gruesome fatal “accidents”.

Donner said there were covens and demons in the original version, but he decided to pare back on the more obvious diabolic stuff, leaving an element of ambiguity. “I thought if you could get rid of all that you would end up with a good mystery-suspense thriller,” he said.

It was truly chilling to have the Devil presented in the form of a child, readily accepted by everyone apart from a few seemingly crazy zealots. It was one of the biggest hits of 1976, with Superman arriving three years later and making Donner one of the most bankable directors in Hollywood.

Donner played both films absolutely straight, but fell out with the Superman producers, who seemingly wanted a more light-hearted tone for the sequel. Much of the sequel was shot at the same time as the first film.

But with the complete collapse of the relationship between director and producers, Richard Lester was hired to replace Donner. He reshot much of the material, though Gene Hackman, who played villain Lex Luthor opposite Christopher Reeve’s Superman, refused to reshoot his scenes. A Richard Donner version of Superman II was eventually released on DVD in 2006.

In the meantime Donner had gone on to make The Goonies, based on a delightful story by Steven Spielberg, and began his long association with Mel Gibson on Lethal Weapon 1987.

Again Donner played it absolutely straight, with Gibson as the cop who is suicidal after the death of his wife. Such was the intensity of Gibson’s performance in one scene, where his character toys with the idea of shooting himself, that some of the crew were welling up, Donner himself was worried and he rushed to embrace the tearful Gibson at the end of it.

Sensing the chemistry between Gibson and his co-star Danny Glover, who played his partner, Donner did adopt a slightly less serious tone in the sequels. Donner and Gibson made six films together, including the light-hearted western Maverick.

In 1985 Donner married the producer Lauren Shuler and they set up a production company together. It made the Free Willy and X-Men films, which grossed billions of pounds worldwide.

Donner has directed only a couple of features since Lethal Weapon 4 in 1998, though, working with writer Geoff Johns, he has written several Superman stories for DC Comics.

He is survived by his wife. They did not have children.

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