Richard Donner dies at 91: tributes pour in for 'Lethal Weapon' and 'Superman' director

Peers describe the director, who was also behind 80s cult classic 'The Goonies', as a 'natural born storyteller'

Director Richard Donner  came to fame with his first feature The Omen in 1976, which led to a then-unheard-of offer to direct 1978’s 'Superman' for $1 million. AFP
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Filmmaker Richard Donner, who helped create the modern superhero blockbuster with 1978’s Superman and mastered the buddy comedy with the Lethal Weapon franchise, has died aged 91.

Donner died on Monday in Los Angeles, his family announced via a spokesperson.

Donner gained fame with his first feature, 1976’s The Omen, which led to a then-unheard-of offer to direct 1978’s Superman for $1 million. Donner channelled his love of the character into making the film, repeatedly facing off with producers over the need for special effects that would convince the audience that a superhero could really fly.

In the title role, Donner cast Christopher Reeve, who was associated with Superman for the rest of his life.

By the 21st century, the genre was dominating the box office in the US and thriving overseas. The heads of Marvel Studios and DC Entertainment – producers of most of today’s superhero fare – both worked for Donner when they were starting out in Hollywood.

Donner also directed 1980s cult classic, The Goonies.

Steven Spielberg, who produced The Goonies, paid tribute to Donner saying: “Dick had such a powerful command of his movies and was so gifted across so many genres. Being in his circle was akin to hanging out with your favourite 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.”

Tributes also poured in on Twitter on Monday, including from The Goonies star Sean Astin.

“Richard Donner had the biggest, boomiest voice you could imagine,” Astin wrote. “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.”

Director Kevin Smith also tweeted. “Richard Donner made the devil a child in The Omen, invented the modern-day comic-book movie with Superman, and reinvented the buddy cop movie with Lethal Weapon. I got to meet with him last year about a project. Guy was a natural born storyteller. Thanks for all the flicks, Dick!”

Filmmaker Edgar Wright said: “Richard Donner’s big heart and effervescent charm shone in his movies through the remarkable performances of his cast, which is no mean feat. You remember all the characters in Superman, Lethal Weapon, The Goonies and more, because Donner knew how to capture that magic onscreen.”

Wright said he only met Donner once, but “he was funny, charming and so full of stories (and happy to indulge my geeky questions)".

Donner followed Superman with an indie, Inside Moves, in 1980, and The Toy with Richard Pryor in 1982. As well as The Goonies in 1985, he made the Ladyhawke, which would introduce him to his future wife, Lauren Shuler Donner.

The two married the following year. In 1993, they founded The Donners Company, which has produced hits such as Deadpool, The Wolverine and the X-Men franchise. Adjusted for inflation, his films have generated more than $1 billion in box-office receipts, reported the Associated Press.

“If you look at Dick’s movies, Dick is fun, larger than life, loud, strong, with a big mushy heart,” Lauren said at a tribute by the Academy Awards to the director in 2017. “His confidence, his fearlessness, his humour are what make people adore him and has wrapped around me like a protective cloak.

“The combination of learning moviemaking from Richard Donner and falling in love with him has made me personally and professionally a better producer and a happier, loving person,” she said, calling Ladyhawke their “personal love story”.

“I’m the hawk and he’s the wolf,” Lauren said.

In 1987, Donner cast Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as a mismatched police pair in the buddy-cop action film Lethal Weapon. The film was a smash hit, spawning several sequels and a TV show.

“He was a master storyteller,” Gibson said in 2017. “He was humble. He had this sign over this door that said ‘Leave your ego at the door’, and there was no ego around him. It was hard for me to walk into the room, actually.”

Donner followed up with the Bill Murray hit Scrooged in 1988 and Lethal Weapon 2 the next year. His other credits include Maverick, Conspiracy Theory and Radio Flyer.

Born Richard Donald Schwartzberg on April 24, 1930, in New York City, Donner changed his name when he set out to become an actor.

“I would have been an out-of-work actor now if it wouldn’t have been for the great director Marty Ritt,” Donner said.

He recalled Ritt telling him, “your problem is you can’t take direction”, suggesting he pursue directing instead.

“And because I’d been hanging with him a little bit, he said, ‘You’re my assistant on the next show’, and that turned my life around,” Donner said. “I never went back to acting.”

Away from the camera, Donner was known for his extraordinary kindness and generosity, covering college tuition for one The Goonies star (Jeff Cohen, now an entertainment attorney) and paying for life-saving rehab for actor Corey Feldman.

Donner told The Associated Press in a 1985 interview that the young cast helped him through the production.

“I never had kids of my own, and they became like my family,” he said.

Cohen, Feldman and Lethal Weapon star Rene Russo were among those lauding Donner for his kindness at the 2017 film academy tribute.

“You were charming and funny and witty and all these amazing [things], but the thing that killed me is you were kind,” Russo said. “You were so kind, and that’s what makes you the sexiest man in the world.”

Along with his wife, Donner was also a passionate animal advocate, rescuing dozens of dogs over the years and fighting against the captivity of killer whales.

Though a few of Donner’s films generated Oscar nominations, he was never nominated. But he got his chance to thank the academy – and his many friends and colleagues – at that tribute.

“This industry is my friend, and it’s been the greatest gift in the world to me,” Donner said. “You guys are all my Oscar.”

Additional reporting by AP

Updated: July 06, 2021, 6:31 AM