Richard Donner, Director of ‘Superman’ and ‘Lethal Weapon,’ Dead at 91

The Academy Celebrates Filmmaker Richard Donner - Credit: Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images
The Academy Celebrates Filmmaker Richard Donner - Credit: Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images

Richard Donner, the prolific filmmaker best known for directing blockbusters like Superman, Lethal Weapon, and The Goonies, died on Monday, The New York Times reports. He was 91.

Donner’s wife, film producer Lauren Shuler Donner, confirmed the director’s death. However, she did not reveal a cause of death.

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Several filmmakers memorialized Donner on Twitter, including Edgar Wright, who wrote that the director’s “big heart & effervescent charm shone in his movies through the remarkable performances of his cast, which is no mean feat.”

The Goonies star Sean Astin added: “Richard Donner had the biggest, boomiest voice you could imagine. He commanded attention and he laughed like no man has ever laughed before. Dick was so much fun. What I perceived in him, as a 12-year-old kid, is that he cared. I love how much he cared.”

Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins cited Donner’s Superman as a major inspiration when she signed on to helm the D.C. superhero films. “I had been profoundly touched by Superman when I was a kid; it had this special place in my heart,” Jenkins told Rolling Stone in 2017. “I was fascinated by how… it was really an adult film with actors taking it seriously and also having a good time. It hit these pockets so perfectly of comedy, action, romance. That balance was an inspiration to me. I wanted to do something that felt as good to go and see and have that adult stuff going on simultaneously.”

Donner was born Richard Donald Schwartzberg in the Bronx in 1930. He first fell in love with film while seeing movies at the theater his grandfather owned in Brooklyn, but his career ambitions weren’t immediately clear. Donner’s father wanted him to study business, but he dropped out of night school after two years. Later, he worked as an actor, scoring roles in commercials and an episode of the anthology series, Somerset Maugham TV Theater. The director of that episode of Somerset Maugham TV Theater, Martin Ritt, reportedly told the young Donner, “You can’t take direction. You should be a director.”

Donner soon began to gravitate behind the scenes. He co-founded a commercial production company and directed his first episode of prime-time television in 1960, the Steve McQueen-starring western, Wanted: Dead or Alive. While he directed his first feature film, X-15 in 1961, his earliest success remained in television as he helmed episodes of shows like Zane Grey Theater, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and The Twilight Zone (among his Twilight Zone contributions is the classic episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” starring William Shatner).

In 1976, Donner scored his first major film hit with The Omen, the horror classic starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. After that, he was tapped to helm Superman, which arrived in 1978 and featured an array of new special effects, including those that bolstered the images of Superman in full flight. “If the audience didn’t believe he was flying, I didn’t have a movie,” Donner said in a 1997 interview with Variety.

While filming Superman, Donner was simultaneously directing on the sequel, but he ultimately left the project due to a dispute with the producers, as Variety notes. The rest of Superman II was directed by Richard Lester, though it still featured much of Donner’s work. In 2006, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut was released on DVD.

During the Eighties, Donner continued to show a knack for action and comedy. He helmed the 1982 Richard Pryor flick, The Toy, while in 1985, he directed the medieval adventure film, Ladyhawke. That same year he released the classic children’s adventure film, The Goonies, while two years later he followed that up with the first Lethal Weapon film, starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. In 1988, Donner directed Bill Murray in Scrooged, an updated take on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Donner kept busy over the next decade, directing three more Lethal Weapon movies between 1989 and 1998, as well as films like Maverick, Assassins, and Radio Flyer. His last film was another gritty cop flick, 2006’s 16 Blocks, starring Bruce Willis.

Last year, Donner signed on to direct the long-anticipated Lethal Weapon 5, reuniting with stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. “This is the final one,” Donner told The Telegraph at the time. “It’s both my privilege and duty to put it to bed.”

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