Richard Donner, the tough, determined but playful director who robbed Christopher Reeve’s Superman, Mel Gibson’s deranged detective and the young stars of “The Goonies” adorable pirates, died on Monday. He was 91 years old.
His production company and his wife and production partner, Lauren Shuler Donner, have confirmed the death with Hollywood trade publications. They did not say where he died or give the cause.
Mr. Donner was in his forties when he made his first blockbuster, “Superman”, reviving a comic book hero who had not been seen onscreen since the 1950s television series “The Adventures of Superman” . The film debuted in 1978, featuring Mr. Reeve, a relative unknown at the time, as the Man of Steel and some cutting edge special effects.
“If the audience didn’t believe he was stealing, I didn’t have a movie,” Donner told Variety in 1997.
This mega-bit was followed by “Inside Moves” (1980), a drama about a man paralyzed during a failed suicide attempt (Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times that Mr. Donner did it “with a gentle touch. surprising ”); “The Toy” (1982), with Richard Pryor, whose character finds himself hired to be the toy of a spoiled rich child; “The Goonies” (1987), about children unsuited to treasure hunting; the first of four “Lethal Weapon” films (also in 1987), starring Mr. Gibson and Danny Glover; and “Scrooged” (1988), an irreverent comedic version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, starring Bill Murray.
Mr. Donner attributed the surprise success of “Lethal Weapon” to its crisp portrayal of violence.
“I like to look away in suspense, not in disgust,” he said in an interview with The Times in 1987. “Of course there were a lot of deaths, but they died like they did. died in westerns. They were shot dead; they were not dismembered.
He even confessed to stealing some combat moves in a western: “Red River” (1948), which starred John Wayne.
Mr. Donner has always said he got hired for “Goonies” because Steven Spielberg, who produced the film, told him, “You’re a bigger kid than me.” But working with real kids (including Sean Astin at 14 and Josh Brolin, barely 17) has been a mixed blessing.
“What’s annoying is the lack of discipline,” Mr. Donner told Yahoo Entertainment in 2015. “And that was also what was great, because it meant they weren’t professionals. What came out of them was instinct.
In a statement Monday, Mr Spielberg said, “Dick had such a powerful mastery of his films and was so good at so many genres. Being in your circle was akin to spending time with your favorite trainer, the smartest teacher, the fiercest motivator, the most endearing friend, the most loyal ally and, of course, the most. great Goonie of all. He was a very child. All heart. All the time.”
Richard Donald Schwartzberg was born April 24, 1930 in the Bronx, the younger of two children to Fred and Hattie (Horowitz) Schwartzberg. His father was a Russian Jewish immigrant who worked in his father’s furniture business; her mother, a daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, worked as a secretary before having children.
Richard became fascinated with cinema when he and his sister went to their grandfather’s cinema in Brooklyn. But he didn’t have specific career ambitions, Mr. Donner said in a 2006 U.S. Television Archives video interview. He grew up in the Bronx and Mount Vernon, NY, and joined the Navy at adolescence.
His first real attraction to show business came with a summer job parking cars and doing errands in a summer theater. Because his father wanted him to study business, he enrolled in night school at New York University but dropped out after two years.
He was lucky to land commercial acting jobs and eventually won a small role in the 1950-1951 anthology series “Somerset Maugham TV Theater”. The director of the episode, Martin Ritt (who has pursued a successful career directing films like “Hud”, “Sounder” and “Norma Rae”), did not appreciate the attitude of the young man and made a suggestion. “You can’t take direction,” he said. “You should be a director.”
Mr. Donner (he took his stage name from the infamous Donner Pass tragedy, celebrating its centenary at the time, and because Donner sounded like his middle name) continued to do commercials and helped found a commercial production company, which he and his partner later sold to Filmways. He had his great fortune to direct a prime-time television series in 1960, with an episode of the western “Wanted: Dead or Alive” starring Steve McQueen.
From the start, he brushes the elbows with stars. Golden Age Hollywood star Claudette Colbert was on one of her first assignments, a 1960 episode of “Zane Gray Theater”. One of six “Twilight Zone” episodes he directed was “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, in which William Shatner played a terrified passenger who saw a gremlin on the wing outside his window.
Neither of Mr. Donner’s first two screen tests made much noise, but he did do some big names: Charles Bronson in “X-15,” a 1961 drama about a test pilot, and Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford in “Salt and Pepper,” a 1968 comedy crime thriller.
Richard Donner’s first headline-grabbing film was “The Omen” (1976), about a cold-eyed little boy who is secretly the Antichrist. Unimpressed Vincent Canby described Mr. Donner in The Times as “a television director who has a superb way of dismissing every little detail that might give the proceedings a semblance of conviction.” But “The Omen” became the fifth highest grossing film of the year; soon his manager was offered “Superman”, which did even better financially. It was only beaten at the box office in 1978 by “Grease”.
Mr. Donner directed Mr. Gibson in two high-profile films in the 1990s: “Maverick” (1994), a comedy western starring Jodie Foster; and “Conspiracy Theory” (1997), an action thriller about a paranoid taxi driver, starring Julia Roberts. In the early 1990s, he produced and directed episodes of HBO’s “Tales From the Crypt”.
The last film “Lethal Weapon” was in 1998. Mr. Donner’s last film, “16 Blocks”, was a 2006 crime drama starring Bruce Willis.
He met Mrs. Shuler when she hired him for the 1985 fantasy film “Ladyhawke”; they married in 1986. The couple ultimately chose not to work together because it affected their relationship, Mr Donner said. “I am a 200 pound gorilla,” he explained. “It’s a 300 pound gorilla.”
But their production company, the Donners’ Company, founded in 1993, is behind lucrative hits like “Deadpool”, “The Wolverine” and the “X-Men” franchise. (Full information on his survivors was not immediately available.)
Like Alfred Hitchcock, Mr. Donner enjoyed making silent appearances in his own projects; he was, among other things, a river map dealer in “Maverick”, a policeman in “The Goonies” and a passer-by in “Superman”.
But asked in the Archive of American Television interview how he wanted to be remembered, he was unassuming. “As a good guy who lived a long life and had a great time and always had this lady behind him to push him,” he said. His only boast: “I’m good enough to stick to a schedule and a budget. “