Richard Donner made us believe a man can fly.
Millions of people, over several decades, grew up on the films and shows directed or produced by Donner, who passed away on July 5 at the age of 91. He directed episodes of The Twilight Zone (including the iconic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” with William Shatner as the man freaked out by a gremlin on the wing of an airplane), The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Gilligan’s Island, The Banana Splits, and Kojak, before making his mark in features with The Omen, Superman, the egregiously overlooked Inside Moves and Radio Flyer, Ladyhawke, The Goonies, four Lethal Weapon films, Scrooged, Maverick, Conspiracy Theory, and Timeline. As a producer, he – often in collaboration with his wife, Lauren Shuler-Donner – helped realize the Free Willy movies, Tales from the Crypt, X-Men and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, etc. And he was an avid supporter of animal rights causes and organizations, including PETA.
Donner was, by all accounts, a gregarious man whose actors and crews loved him and, as a result, worked repeatedly with the filmmaker. He could adeptly direct any genre, from action to sci-fi, comedy to drama, and horror to thriller to fantasy. And the industry’s brightest stars lined up to work with him: Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, Michelle Pfeiffer, Bruce Willis, etc. Though few moviegoers saw his final two films, 2003’s Timeline (starring the late Paul Walker) and 2006’s 16 Blocks (starring Bruce Willis), they were typical Donner: entertaining, well-acted, gorgeous to look at, and as different from each other as possible. 16 Blocks is the superior of the two, a taut thriller bolstered by a top-notch Willis, and with Donner — who turned 75 during the shoot — still on his game.
For all that, Donner’s greatest legacy is his contribution to pop culture. Specifically, and in many ways, he is the father – grandfather? – of today’s superhero films and shows. Superman remains his finest film, a winsome mix of fantasy, comedy, romance, Americana, adventure, big-name stunt casting, awe-inspiring visual effects, and more. Donner fought to cast Christopher Reeve, arguing that audiences wouldn’t buy a “star” in the role, and would relate far better to an unknown. A brilliant decision. Reeve was perfect: charming, handsome but dorky, and the actor played Clark Kent/Superman with both gravitas and a wink of the eye. Donner shrewdly built the rest of the movie around Reeve, playing to his lead’s strengths. Together, Donner and Reeve made the character accessible and real for generations and generations of kids and parents… and kids who are now parents.
Donner also directed much of the equally entertaining Superman II, but did not receive credit for his work. The sad saga is a tale oft-told, but here are the salient points: Donner shot Superman and most of Superman II simultaneously and was focused on finishing Superman when the producers fired him from Superman II and recruited Richard Lester. Donner had completed roughly 75 percent of Superman II when the ax fell. In order to secure sole directing credit, Lester not only filmed new scenes but re-shot several already completed by Donner. Gene Hackman, notably, refused to return for any new scenes or reshoots. Rather than pay Brando a percentage of Superman II’s profits if he appeared in the sequel, the producers simply scrapped his already-filmed scenes. In fairness to Lester, the finished product was fantastic fun. About the only criticism one could make of it, aside from some continuity issues involving the reshoots, is that it felt too broadly comedic. Years later, in 2006, Warner Home Video released Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, which restored much of Donner’s footage and excised most of the Lester-directed scenes. (It’s great; grab it on Blu-ray if you can!)
Despite the Superman II drama, Donner had helped launch Hollywood’s superhero era. And though he never again directed a superhero film, Donner served as an active participant in the rise and ultimate dominance of modern-day DC and Marvel fare. Back in the late 80’s, Donner and Shuler Donner founded Donner/Shuler-Donner Productions, later renamed The Donners Company, which has produced such hits as X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins, X-Men: First Class, The Wolverine, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Deadpool, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Logan, as well as the television shows Legion and The Gifted.
In 2006, while promoting 16 Blocks, Donner was asked to name his personal favorite of his films. He didn’t select Superman or any of his larger-scale productions. Instead, he cited three deeply personal projects. “I love Inside Moves tremendously, but I also love Radio Flyer,” he said. “And I think my favorite is probably Ladyhawke because my wife hired me and I married her. I fell in love with the producer. What a trip this has been.”
Superman (1978) is streaming on HBO Max.