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Richard Donner

Richard Donner, July 2006
Born Richard Donald Schwartzberg
April 24, 1930 (1930-04-24) (age 79)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Occupation Director and producer
Spouse(s) Lauren Shuler Donner

Richard Donner (born 24 April 1930) is an American film director, film producer, and comic book writer. The production company The Donners' Company is owned by Donner and his wife, producer Lauren Shuler Donner. After directing the horror film The Omen Donner became famous for the hailed creation of the first modern superhero film, Superman, starring Christopher Reeve. The influence of this film eventually helped establish the superhero concept as a respected film genre. Donner later reinvigorated the buddy film genre with Lethal Weapon and its sequels.

In 2000, he received the President's Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. He was also nominated for Best Director in 1978 for Superman. Film historian Michael Barson writes that Donner had "emerged as one of Hollywood's most reliable makers of action blockbusters."[1]


Early years

Donner was born Richard Donald Schwartzberg in the Bronx, New York City, the son of Hattie and Fred Schwartzberg; he has a sister, Joan. Donner started his career with hopes of acting but quickly moved into directing commercials and making business films. He moved into television in the late 1950s, directing some episodes of the Steve McQueen western serial Wanted: Dead or Alive and the Chuck Connors western The Rifleman.


In his early career as a director he worked on TV commercials and over twenty-five television series including The Fugitive, Get Smart, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch, The Six Million Dollar Man, Kojak, Tales from the Crypt and The Twilight Zone (most notably the famous "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" starring William Shatner), as well as the serial Danger Island from the children's program The Banana Splits.


Donner directed his first feature film in 1961, X-15, which starred Charles Bronson and Mary Tyler Moore. It wasn't until seven years later, however, that he directed his next film, Salt and Pepper (1968), with Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter Lawford.


The Omen (1976)

His break-through film was in 1976 with The Omen, produced in the 'horror boom' following The Exorcist. The film was a violent and popular supernatural thriller that starred Gregory Peck whose son turns out to be the Antichrist.

Superman (1978)

In 1978, Richard Donner directed the film Superman: The Movie, starring a then unknown Christopher Reeve. The film became a hit worldwide, projecting both Reeve and Donner to international fame. Co-stars included Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, Marlon Brando as Jor-El and Gene Hackman as archvillain Lex Luthor. It succeeded at the box office, grossing $134 million.[1]

Armed with two scripts for Superman and the sequel Superman II, he shot principal photography for both films to save on set dressing and actor/crew overheads. However, the original ending for the first film where Superman flew from accident to disaster was deemed to be missing a certain something by the film's independent financiers Ilya Salkind and his father Alexander Salkind. The scripted time reversal ending of Superman II was taken to pad out and fulfill Superman once the film had been identified as a priority with a view to piece together an alternative end to the second film later.

After the first film's successful release in December 1978, Donner was offered the director's role a second time, but demanded that producer Pierre Spengler be removed from the project. Rather than give in to this demand, the Salkinds replaced him with director Richard Lester, who worked with them on The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers and as an uncredited producer on Superman. The decision to remove him from the film series, made by producers Alexander Salkind and Ilya Salkind, has been widely viewed by many fans as a huge mistake on the Salkinds' part, as the subsequent Superman films helmed by their preferred director Richard Lester, while still breaking the $100 million mark for domestic USA alone were perceived as being of poorer quality and quickly resulted in a downward spiral in popularity for the series.

The demands of Marlon Brando to receive the same percentage of cut for Superman II as he received for Superman regardless of how much previous footage was used exacerbated the Salkinds' position to at least walk away from a, by that time, five-year project with profit as Superman was still un-officially paying back creditors. A no-flexibility attitude from both Brando and Donner saw both removed from the series until 2006 when Donner's definitive (or at least, as close to definitive as possible) version of the movie, simply entitled Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut was released on November 28, 2006 on the same date as to the DVD release of the summer hit, Superman Returns. The footage includes never-before-seen footage of Marlon Brando, a new opening, a new ending and approximately 83% of Donner footage. Some Richard Lester footage was used to fill in the gaps caused by Donner's never completing principal photography for the sequel before his removal. Michael Thau, the editor of the Richard Donner cut also made some minor use of CGI. However, he did not create CGI villains in order to complete the "villains rule the world scene" which was in the original script, but was never shot by Donner.

Post-Superman career

Donner has mixed commercial flops (Inside Moves, Radio Flyer) and successes (The Goonies, the Lethal Weapon series and Ladyhawke (1985) - which has enjoyed a large cult following). Donner has received little critical appreciation, although he has a strong following amongst genre fans. In the case of Superman, it was Donner who insisted the subject of the comic book superhero should be treated "straight" rather than "camp", an approach that strongly influenced later genre directors such as Bryan Singer, Tim Burton, and Christopher Nolan, who have made successful superhero films of their own. The influence of Superman: The Movie can, to this day, be seen in superhero films outside the Superman storyline, and even outside the DC Comics universe. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man film is debatably one of the strongest examples of that influence.[2] In the early 1980s, Donner proposed to Warner Brothers a non-camp film version of Batman, to star Mel Gibson.

Lethal Weapon (1987)

Donner's next blockbuster film was Lethal Weapon, written by Shane Black. It starred Mel Gibson as a widower with a suicidal bent "who breaks every rule for the sheer joy of it." It co-starred Danny Glover as a police detective. The films action sequences were considered "truly spectacular" and made the film one of the year's biggest hits. [1]

Donner directed six films starring Mel Gibson overall, creating a Lethal Weapon franchise with 3 sequels, the last one being Lethal Weapon 4, released in 1998. In an interview in 2000, Gibson described his impressions of Donner:

"Uncle Dick. He’s a great guy, just terrific. Extremely professional. He’s an old veteran and has an understanding of film that is the culmination of years of experience. He’s got his technical stuff down, his vision down. No matter what you say about Dick, it underrates him. He really loves what he’s doing, loves working with actors, and he allows you freedom to explore all kinds of areas. 'All right, kid,' he’ll say, and slap you on the back and let you try something, because even he doesn’t know sometimes. He’s just an extremely charming, talented, great’ guy. I love him."[3]

Richard Donner's cousin is actor Steve Kahan, who played a policeman tracking Otis in Superman: The Movie, and played Captain Ed Murphy in the Lethal Weapon movie franchise. Donner has cast Kahan in some of his other films too.

One of Donner's assistants in the late 1990s was comic book scribe Geoff Johns. In October 2006, Donner, Johns and artist Adam Kubert became the new creative team on Action Comics, the publisher's most time honored publication and one of DC Comics' two main Superman titles. Together, Johns and Donner collaborated on the stories Last Son and Escape from Bizarro World, both of which have been released in collected book form.

He became the executive producer for the 2000 Marvel Comics film X-Men, then also an executive producer for the 2009 X-Men prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Future films

In 2005, the film Sam and George was announced as the seventh collaboration between director Richard Donner and actor Mel Gibson. In February 2009, Donner said that this Paramount project was “dead,” [4] but that he and Gibson were planning another film based on an original script by Brian Helgeland for production in fall 2009.[5] Warner Bros. developed a Lethal Weapon 5 project with screenwriter/director Shane Black and producer Joel Silver that did not include Donner. Gibson refused to participate,[6][7] and Donner still has hopes of reteaming with Gibson on the Lethal Weapon 5 project written by Lethal Weapon 4 writer Channing Gibson. He has also been linked to the biopic of Bill Bixby, star of The Incredible Hulk which will star Hugh Jackman as Bixby and who will also produce under his Seed Productions. [8]




External links

Preceded by
Kurt Busiek
Action Comics writer (along with Geoff Johns)
Succeeded by
Greg Rucka
Preceded by
Lee Sholem
Bryan Singer
Superman film director
Succeeded by
Richard Lester


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