Richard Donner, the prolific Hollywood director and producer whose helming credits include some of the most iconic movies of the 1970s and ’80s including the Christopher Reeve-starring Superman, The Goonies and the Mel Gibson-Danny Glover buddy cop series Lethal Weapon, has died. He was 91.
Donner passed away Monday, according to his wife, the producer Lauren Schuler Donner, and his business manager. No cause of death has been revealed.
The Bronx-born Donner, a genial man with a booming voice, started his career directing for television. His TV credits include a laundry list of staple shows from the ’60s including Route 66, The Rifleman, The Twilight Zone, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Gilligan’s Island, Perry Mason and The Wild Wild West. His debut feature X-15 in 1961 with Charles Bronson (and a young Mary Tyler Moore) was followed by the 1968 crime comedy Salt & Pepper starring Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford, and 1969’s Lola with Charles Bronson and Susan George. He segued to films full time with 1976’s spooky The Omen.
That led to 1978’s Superman, the original superhero movie that starred Reeve as the Man of Steel along with Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty. The Warner Bros blockbuster with a budget of about $55 million grossed more than $300 million at the global box office. The first movie tentpole based on a superhero comic character, it scored three Oscar nominations and won a special Academy Award for its visual effects. It also cast the die for the superhero franchise space now dominated by the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Universe of films.
A dispute with the producers famously resulted in Donner taking his name off directing Superman II when Richard Lester was brought in after Donner had shot the majority of the movie; a director’s cut of the film with many of the excised Donner-directed scenes was released in 2006.
By that time however Donner had moved on to other blockbuster successes in just about every genre, directing Jackie Gleason and Richard Pryor in comedy The Toy (1982), and in 1985 helming both the medieval period adventure Ladyhawke and the seminal kids’ adventure pic The Goonies. That pic, about a group of friends hunt for treasure and come of age in in coastal Astoria, OR, had a script penned by Chris Columbus based on a story by Steven Spielberg.
“Dick had such a powerful command of his movies, and was so gifted across so many genres,” Spielberg said in a statement today on hearing of Donner’s death. “Being in his circle was akin to hanging out with your favorite 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.”
Those mid-’80s movies were followed by another franchise-launching blockbuster at Warner Bros, 1987’s Lethal Weapon. The film included a role that turned Mad Max star Gibson into a global superstar. Donner directed all four of the Lethal Weapon movies in an 11-year span. They grossed more than $900 million globally.
Donner and Gibson would reteam as director and star in the movies Maverick (1994) and Conspiracy Theory (1997). His directing credits also include the 1988 Christmas staple Scrooged with Bill Murray; the 1980 drama Inside Moves with John Savage and David Morse co-written by Barry Levinson; and 1992’s coming-of-age drama Radio Flyer.
Donner’s final film as a director was 2006’s actioner 16 Blocks starring Bruce Willis (and a reunion with Morse), the latest in a line of action stars the director worked with that included Sylvester Stallone (Assassins), Gerard Butler and Paul Walker (Timeline) and of course Gibson.
Donner and his producer-wife Lauren Schuler Donner produced dozens of films under their The Donners’ Company production banner including the X-Men franchise (Lauren Schuler Donner produced; Richard Donner was an EP) that has spawned a remarkable 13 films over a two-decade span at 20th Century Fox/20th Century Studios, including introducing the world to Ryan Reynolds’ smart-aleck Deadpool. The latest pic in the X-Men series, The New Mutants, bowed in August 2020. In total, those films grossed nearly $2.5 billion globally. The duo also produced 1993’s Free Willy. That modestly-budgeted feel-good film went on to make $153 million globally.
Click on the photo to launch a photo gallery of Donner’s films.
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