Long before he became one of the most successful directors in Hollywood history, Richard Schwartzberg was a kid from the Bronx who joined the U.S. Navy in the late 1940s to see the world.
When he got out of the service, he first wanted to be an actor. The young veteran decided that he needed a stage name and awesomely started calling himself Richard Donner, inspired by the notorious 1840s pioneer group known as the Donner Party. You know, the one that spent a winter in the Sierra Nevada pass and had to do unspeakable things to survive.
Over the decades, Donner was involved in some of Hollywood’s biggest successes, including all four “Lethal Weapon” movies, “Superman” with Christopher Reeve and perhaps the most iconic episode of the original series of “The Twilight Zone.”
Young Donner was working on a television show for legendary director and World War II veteran Martin Ritt (later to direct the movies “Hud” and “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold”) when Ritt complained that the kid had too many opinions to be an actor and offered Donner an assistant director’s job on his next production.
That set Donner off on what proved to be a legendary career. Donner’s death was announced on July 5, 2021. He was 91.
In 2018, Donner did an interview for the Directors Guild of America with writer/director Brian Helgeland (Oscar winner for writing “L.A. Confidential” and nominee for writing “Mystic River”). Donner said his Navy service was a huge inspiration for his success. “When I got thrown out of junior-college night school, I enlisted in the Navy and had one of the best experiences of my life. ’Cause I got discipline. I learned that if you screw up, you screwed up a whole ... I forgot what it was called, group, division of kids and they would never let you forget it,” Donner remembered. “So you really had to carry your weight. And I learned it. But while I was in the Navy, I ended up as an aerial photographer on a small aircraft carrier. And I got into photography; I really enjoyed it.”
He began his career in television and directed episodes of dozens of shows, including “Perry Mason,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Rifleman,” “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “The Wild Wild West” before his movie career took off in the 1970s.
He met his wife, Lauren Shuler Donner, when she was producing and he was directing “Ladyhawke” in 1985. The couple went on to produce the “Free Willy” movies, the first “X-Men” film, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and Oliver Stone’s pro football film, “Any Given Sunday,” in addition to the films Donner directed himself.
That’s an impressive resume before we get to the best ones. Here’s a list of amazing movies and shows directed by Navy vet Richard Donner.
The original “Lethal Weapon” movie in 1987 spawned one of the last great R-rated movie series, made Mel Gibson and Danny Glover into big-time movie stars and stands as perhaps the greatest buddy-cop film of all time.
The movie also marked the screenwriting debut of Shane Black, who’s since given us “Last Action Hero,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Iron Man 3” and “The Nice Guys,” a series of action pictures that take place around Christmas.
Donner found the exact right mix of comedy and action with “Lethal Weapon.” Every other movie since has tried to copy the formula, and few have succeeded. Donner also directed the next three movies in the series and had planned to make a fifth movie with Gibson and Glover before his death in 2021.
“Lethal Weapon 2” adds Joe Pesci to the mix and holds up the standard, “Lethal 3” is just marking time, and the less said about “Lethal Weapon 4” (with Chris Rock), the better.
“The Exorcist” became a massive hit in 1973 and changed the way the big studios felt about horror. Yet, no one quite got it right again until Donner delivered “The Omen” in 1976. Critics were freaked out to see Gregory Peck and Lee Remick starring in a pulpy flick about the birth of the Antichrist, but audiences loved the movie and its reputation only has grown in the decades since its release.
“The Omen” inspired three sequels and a 2006 remake of the first movie, but Donner had the good sense to stay away from those disasters.
Donner discovered Reeve, a stage actor, and fought hard to cast him as Superman in this 1978 blockbuster. DC and Warner Bros. have spent decades trying to replicate the magic Donner created in the superhero movie that proved that audiences wanted to see comic-book characters treated with respect in a big-time movie.
There’s now a giant chunk of the movie industry that wouldn’t exist without Donner teaching everyone how to make this kind of film. “Superman” may prove to be his greatest legacy.
Donner managed a miracle here. “Scrooged” was conceived as a bitter and cynical comic take on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” by the National Lampoon and “Saturday Night Live” writer and performer Michael O’Donoghue and co-writer Mitch Glazer.
Bill Murray agreed to play the role of Frank Cross, a dysfunctional television executive who learns the meaning of Christmas. Donner managed to sand off a few of the rough edges and wrap the dark heart of the movie in enough shiny paper that the studio thought it was getting a family holiday comedy.
Critics and audiences were confused at the time, but the movie’s reputation has grown since its 1988 release and now regularly turns up on Best Holiday Movie lists.
‘The Twilight Zone: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’
William Shatner (before “Star Trek”) stars in and Donner directs this 1963 episode from the show’s fifth season. Shatner is an airline passenger who sees a terrifying gremlin out his window on the plane’s wing. No one else can see what he sees.
He’s on his way home from a sanitarium, and eventually he’s removed from the aircraft in a straitjacket once the plane lands. The show’s final shot reveals the truth about his story.
What probably seemed like just another TV gig at the time became one of television’s most famous episodes once the show went into syndicated reruns. If you’re trying to turn a young person on to “The Twilight Zone,” you’re going to show them “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” or “To Serve Man.”
Salt and Pepper
Rat Pack fans know that Peter Lawford was banned permanently from the club after Lawford’s brother-in-law, President John F. Kennedy, canceled a planned stay at Frank Sinatra’s Palm Springs estate in 1962.
That makes this 1968 psychedelic spy caper with Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. somewhat of a surprise. Did Davis get dispensation from the chairman to work with Lawford, or did Sinatra just choose to turn a blind eye?
Donner amps up the chemistry between the two performers and, honestly, “Salt and Pepper” is probably a better movie than anything the full Rat Pack ever made. Davis even puts on paisley and love beads and picks up a Rickenbacker guitar to perform a groovy psychedelic number called “I Like the Way You Dance.”
Steven Spielberg had an idea for a movie about a group of kids who try to locate a pirate treasure to save their families’ homes from foreclosure. He enlisted Chris Columbus (who would soon direct the “Home Alone” movies for John Hughes) to write the script and Donner to direct this 1985 movie.
Donner got strong performances from child actors, including Corey Feldman, Sean Astin and Josh Brolin. You could dismiss the movie as a kid-friendly take on “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but you’d be making a mistake. That’s exactly what it sets out to be, and it succeeds wildly. Speak ill of “The Goonies” to any movie fan born in the 1970s and be prepared to suffer the consequences.
Banana Splits ‘Danger Island’
Of course, Donner already had proved his chops at making adventure flicks for kids with “Danger Island,” a serialized live-action story that ran as part of Hanna Barbera’s “The Banana Splits Adventure Hour” from 1968 to 1970 during NBC’s Saturday morning programming block.
Future “Airwolf” star Jan-Michael Vincent got his first starring role in the adventure series loosely based on the animated series “Jonny Quest.” Each episode was 10 minutes long and there were 36 episodes, which made for an epic serialized tale about a professor, his assistant and the professor’s daughter doing research on an unnamed tropical island.
There are pirates, three different cannibal tribes and a shipwrecked merchant seaman whose factotum Chongo only speaks in bird calls and monkey chatter. There are some serious representation issues here, with native characters who are inspired directly by the action movies of the 1940s. They were borderline then and definitely problematic now.
And yet, Donner brought suspense and adventure to Saturday mornings that were littered with low-rent animation and creaky jokes that dated back decades. Speak ill of “Danger Island” to any Saturday morning TV fan born in the 1960s and be prepared to suffer the consequences.
Donner did action, drama and comedy with equal skill. Most of all, he understood the spectacle that movies can be. Anyone who left the house, paid their money and sat down with a bucket of popcorn to watch his movies during his peak years knew they were going to see a real show.
The man was a director who loved to entertain an audience, and while that didn’t earn him awards or overwhelming critical acclaim, Donner was one of the 20th-century greats. Rest in peace, sailor.
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