Not one of the great directors but Richard Donner knew how to make a crowd pleaser and many of his films became blockbusters and arguably one of his films made Star Wars possible.
Born on 24th April 1930 Richard Donald Schwartzberg he was raised in the Bronx New York and studied business at the city’s university before switching to study acting where he got bit parts in off Broadway shows. But his decision to become a director was instigated by another director Martin Ritt who was helming a live TV show he was appearing in and having questioned one of Ritt’s instructions the fledgling actor was told, ‘Your problem is that you can’t take direction. You ought to be a director.’ And in fairness Ritt went on to hire him as his own assistant and he eventually began directing TV commercials having started up his own company. Donner befriended documentarian George Blake and having worked as his driver began directing documentaries and industrial films as well as commercials.
1958 saw him still in New York and he was invited to California by a couple of producers where he landed a TV series, Wanted Dead or Alive starring Steve McQueen and old acting colleague from Donner’s New York days. Like many in the industry he got a lucky break whilst shooting the second unit footage on a Charlie Bronson film which had lost its director and Donner stepped in for the final 12 days. But this was a rare film for him as TV series were making up the mainstay of his work which even included The Banana Splits but also episodes of the Twilight Zone. It would be seven years before he directed his second feature film a largely forgettable film starring Sammy Davis Jr which the producers edited and his bad luck would continue with his third film again starring Charles Bronson titled, ‘Twinky’ it bombed and he returned to TV again for many years and he regarded it as a backwards step.
His next film would put Richard Donner on the map. After the success of The Exorcist studios were producing similarly themed films and the script for The Omen had been turned down by all the studios and Donner loved it and persuaded 20th century Fox to let him make it. It was an immense success and it box office takings were enough for the legendary studio head Alan Ladd Jr to finance Star Wars, another film that all the studios had turned their nose up. The rest is history. The huge success saw him headhunted from $1m to make Superman replacing James Bond director Guy Hamilton. Donner accepted and bought in his own screenwriter and crew and overhauling the film in the 11 weeks he had before the shoot began. The film would be shot back to back with its sequel but Donner would find himself at loggerheads with the producers and eventually he himself was replaced by Richard Lester with much reshot leaving the film with only about a third of Donner’s footage but in 2006 the studio released what would have been Donner’s cut of Superman II which was less jokey though as good as Lester’s version.
The turmoil of the shoot and Marlon Brando notorious on set antics left Richard Donner depressed and exhausted and wanting something simpler which he did with more personal films as the dramatic film Inside Moves. This was followed by The Toy one of several attempts by Hollywood to find a vehicle for Richard Pryor outside of his partnership with gene Wilder. After this it was a return to blockbuster fare with LadyHawke starring Michelle Pfeiffer where he also met and married the film’s producer Lauren Shuler. This was followed by more blockbusters with the much loved adolescent adventure The Goonies produced by Spielberg. But it was the Mel Gibson thriller Lethal Weapon that really saw major success from a script by Shane Black which studios had been bidding big to acquire. The sequel two years later saw the darkness replaced with a light buddy chemistry for which the franchise became known.
The films were hugely successful and Donner enjoyed subverting the studios films with messages about apartheid and the environment. He had even been taking about making a fifth Lethal Weapon film as reported HERE. In Mel Gibson he found an actor he enjoyed working with and aside from the 4 Lethal Weapon films he also made Maverick and Conspiracy Theory both decent and highly enjoyable films in their own right.
But the franchise was his last real major success. The films that followed were so –so and by 2006 he directed his last film the Bruce Willis starrer 16 Blocks. He was resolutely old school in his film making preferring to avoid special effects for practical and was heavily invested in employing good scriptwriters rightly regarding the story as everything and he was able to direct successfully across all genres.
Richard Donner died on 5th July 2021 aged 91 years of age.