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Richard Donner, Director Of ‘Superman,’ ‘The Goonies’ & ‘Lethal Weapon’ Dies Aged 91

Steve Palace
Photo Credit: Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images

Richard Donner, who directed and produced some of Hollywood’s biggest franchises, has passed away aged 91.

He was best known for directing The Omen (1976), Superman (1978), which introduced Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel, The Goonies (1985), and the Lethal Weapon series (1987–98).

Richard Donner directed an all-time classic Twilight Zone episode

William Shatner in an episode of The Twilight Zone
Photo Credit: CBS Productions / MovieStillsDB

Donner’s directorial career scaled the heights on the small screen. Literally, as the helmer of “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” (1963). This classic installment of The Twilight Zone saw William Shatner terrorized by gremlins on a plane.

Originally, Donner set his sights on acting. Then someone informed him that directing was a better move for the opinionated upstart.

Donner was born in the Bronx, as Richard Donald Schwartzberg in 1930. His parents were furniture manufacturer Fred and stay-at-home mother Hattie Schwartzberg respectively.

The young man’s interest in movies began with his grandfather, who had a cinema in Brooklyn. He went on to work alongside documentary maker George Blake, another formative influence.

A hell of a start — directing The Omen

Damien from 1976's The Omen
Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox / MovieStillsDB

The evil exploits of Satanic offspring Damien Thorn were brought to life by Donner in The Omen. Initially suggested for the larger-than-life talents of actor Oliver Reed, Donner switched directions.

In an interview quoted by The Guardian, he referred to the unnecessarily overt imagery: “I thought if you could get rid of all that you would end up with a good mystery-suspense thriller.”

Strait-laced Gregory Peck took the lead, emphasizing a sense that the whole “devil child” thing could be one terrible misunderstanding.

Donner believed a man could fly…and proved it

Replacing director Guy Hamilton on Superman, Donner brought a whole new level of commitment to the project.

Superman flying
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. / MovieStillsDB

One detail he wanted to get right were the flying sequences. “A number of options had already been explored by other filmmakers,” writes VFX Voice, “including having the actor skydive from a plane with a parachute under his cape.”

Eventually, Christopher Reeve took to the air through a combination of wires, mechanical arms, and blue screen work. The results were award-winning.

Donner was already directing Superman II (the first two movies were shot back to back) when disagreements led to him exiting the sequel. Richard Lester took over, but an edit known as the “The Richard Donner Cut” was finally released in 2016.

If it wasn’t for Richard Donner, we wouldn’t have The Goonies

still from the Goonies
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. / MovieStillsDB

His sense of adventure continued when he signed on to direct the iconic ’80s flick The Goonies.

The story was by Steven Spielberg, who also executive-produced. Playing The Goonies were faces who are still part of the movie firmament today, such as Sean Astin (The Lord Of The Rings), Corey Feldman (Stand By Me), and Josh Brolin (Avengers, Deadpool).

Enter Riggs and Murtaugh

Danny Glover and Mel Gibson in publicity shot for Lethal Weapon.
Photo Credit: Aaron Rapoport/Corbis via Getty Images

Two years later, Donner took charge of Lethal Weapon, where he mixed intense action with powerful character study. Written by Shane Black, the screenplay attracted Donner due to its redemptive portrayal of damaged law enforcer Martin Riggs.

Mel Gibson was cast as Riggs, with Danny Glover as veteran partner Roger Murtaugh. Donner accentuated the “buddy” aspect in response to the stars’ natural rapport. Joe Pesci joined the fun in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) and Rene Russo teamed up with Gibson and Glover in the third installment (1992).

Four movies were made, with a fifth often being mooted. Variety notes that the franchise, co-produced with Joel Silver, “elevated him to the ranks of directors generating more than a billion dollars in box office.”

Other notable Donner pictures and later work

Donner directed the intimate drama Inside Moves (1980), fantasy adventure Ladyhawke (1985), and big-screen adaptation Maverick (1995), which reunited him with Mel Gibson.

Director Richard Donner and wife producer Lauren Shuler Donner (R) attend the "Baby It's You" Opening Night at the Pasadena Playhouse on November 13, 2009 in Pasadena, California.
Richard Donner and Lauren Shuler Donner. (Photo Credit: Barry King/WireImage)

Ladyhawke starred Rutger Hauer. Hauer went on to make a modern-day movie version of the Western series Wanted: Dead Or Alive, playing a descendant of the character originally played by Steve McQueen. How does that apply to Donner? He got his first TV directing job on the show!

Donner’s last movie as a director was the action thriller 16 Blocks, starring Bruce Willis and Mos Def, in 2006.

He leaves behind wife Lauren Shuler Donner, with whom he produced many box office hits, such as the 2000 X-Men movie. He also had a sister, Joan.

His passion for storytelling over spectacle made him a popular choice throughout a long career. Tributes for Donner have been pouring in.

Gregg Donovan, who goes by The Ambassador, places flowers on the Hollywood Walk of Fame star of director Richard Donner, who died Monday at age 91.
Photo Credit: Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG

The cause of death is unknown at the time of writing, though wife Lauren Shuler Donner mentioned an illness to Deadline. “He was a great man,” she told the outlet. “I was a very very lucky woman.”

Mel Gibson commented: “He was magnanimous of heart and soul, which he liberally gave to all who knew him.” Gibson also described his friend Donner as a mentor.

Steven Spielberg compared Donner to “your favorite coach, smartest professor, fiercest motivator, most endearing friend, staunchest ally,” as well as “the greatest Goonie of all.”

Fellow director Edgar Wright remarks: “You remember all the characters in SupermanLethal WeaponThe Goonies and more, because Donner knew how to capture that magic onscreen.”

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Corey Feldman tweeted that Donner’s “greatest achievement in my mind was his ability to be a real life superman” through his humanitarian spirit and work on animal rights.

Richard Donner, 1930–2021. RIP.