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Richard Donner
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Donner in 1979
Richard Donald Schwartzberg

(1930-04-24)April 24, 1930
New York City, U.S.
Died July 5, 2021(2021-07-05) (aged 91)
  • Film director
  • television director
  • film producer
  • comic book writer
Years active 1957–2012
Notable work
Lauren Shuler
(m. 1985)

Richard Donner (born Richard Donald Schwartzberg; April 24, 1930 – July 5, 2021) was an American filmmaker whose notable works included some of the most financially-successful films during the New Hollywood era. According to film historian Michael Barson, Donner was "one of Hollywood's most reliable makers of action blockbusters". His career spanned over 50 years, crossing multiple genres and filmmaking trends.

Donner began his career in 1957 as a television director. In the 1960s, Donner directed episodes of the series The Rifleman, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Fugitive, The Twilight Zone, The Banana Splits, and many others. He made his film debut with the low-budget aviation drama X-15 in 1961, but had his critical and commercial breakthrough with the horror film The Omen in 1976. He directed the landmark superhero film Superman in 1978, which provided an inspiration for the fantasy film genre to eventually gain artistic respectability and commercial dominance. Donner later went on to direct films in the 1980s such as The Goonies and Scrooged, while reinvigorating the buddy cop film genre with the Lethal Weapon series.

Donner and his wife Lauren owned their production company The Donners' Company (formerly Donner/Shuler Donner Productions), best known for co- executive producing the Free Willy and X-Men franchises. Donner also produced the Tales from the Crypt television series and co-wrote several comic books for Superman publisher DC Comics. In 2000, Donner received the President's Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.

Early years

Richard Donald Schwartzberg was born in the Bronx, New York City, to Russian Jewish parents, Hattie (Horowitz) and Fred Schwartzberg. His father owned a small furniture-manufacturing business and his mother was a stay at home mother. He had a sister, Joan. His grandfather owned a movie theatre in Brooklyn, which had an early influence on his perception of film.

After graduating from high school, Donner served in the U.S. Navy, becoming an aerial photographer. He briefly attended New York University but left to pursue a career in acting, relocating to Los Angeles and adopting the stage name "Richard Donner".


Initially, Donner wanted to develop a career as an actor. He gained a bit part in a television program directed by Martin Ritt, who encouraged Donner to become a director instead. Ritt hired Donner as his assistant. Later, Donner was on the staff of Desilu, where he directed commercials. He made the transition into television dramas in the late 1950s, directing some episodes of the Steve McQueen western serial Wanted Dead or Alive and the Chuck Connors western The Rifleman.

During his early career as a director he worked on over twenty-five television series, including Have Gun – Will Travel, The Fugitive, Combat!, Get Smart, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, Gilligan's Island, Kojak, and The Twilight Zone (such as the episodes "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" starring William Shatner and "From Agnes—With Love" starring Wally Cox), as well as the serial Danger Island from the children's program The Banana Splits.

In the 1990s, Donner served as executive producer of the HBO anthology horror series Tales from the Crypt, based on the EC Comics series of the same name. He directed three episodes during its run ("Dig That Cat... He's Real Gone", "The Ventriloquist's Dummy", "Showdown"), and also produced three feature film spinoffs.


Donner's first feature film was X-15 (1961), which starred David McLean, Charles Bronson, and Mary Tyler Moore. Seven years passed before he directed his next, Salt and Pepper (1968), with Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter Lawford. His breakthrough film was The Omen (1976). A supernatural horror made in the wake of the success of The Exorcist, the film stars Gregory Peck, David Warner, and Lee Remick. It was the fifth-highest-grossing film of 1976.

Superman (1978)

In 1978, Donner directed Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve in the title role. Donner approached the film with the concept of creating verisimilitude, an intuitive feeling in the audience evoked that makes the fantasy story feel real within the story's context. It was a hit worldwide, projecting Reeve to international fame. The film co-starred Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, Marlon Brando as Jor-El, and Gene Hackman as archvillain Lex Luthor. At the box office, it grossed $134 million domestically.

Principal photography of Superman included filming of its first sequel, Superman II. Donner filmed most of Superman II with the expectation he would complete the sequel after the release of Superman. Despite the first film's success, Donner was fired from Superman II. Throughout the filming of both Superman films, Donner had a difficult relationship with executive producers Alexander Salkind and Ilya Salkind and producer Pierre Spengler. The Salkinds refused Donner's demand that Spengler be fired; instead, the Salkinds replaced Donner as director of Superman II with Richard Lester, who had worked with the Salkinds on The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers and as an uncredited producer on Superman. Following Donner's dismissal, Marlon Brando's scenes were removed from Superman II and much of the film was re-shot under Lester's direction. Gene Hackman refused to return for re-shoots; consequently, all the Lex Luthor scenes that appear in Superman II were filmed by Donner, although Donner refused to be credited.

Rotten Tomatoes' summary states that "Superman II meets, if not exceeds, the standard set by its predecessor." Donner continued to promote the view that his contribution was superior to the rest of the series. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut was released on November 28, 2006, the same date as the DVD release of the summer film Superman Returns. This version of the film features the re-insertion of Marlon Brando's scenes as Jor-El and relies on a minimum of footage shot by Richard Lester.

Post-Superman career

Donner at the 2006 San Diego Comic-Con

Donner directed mixed commercial flops (Inside Moves, Radio Flyer) and successes (The Goonies, the Lethal Weapon series, Scrooged, and Conspiracy Theory). In the case of Superman, it was Donner who insisted the subject of the comic book superhero should be treated "straight", that is, portrayed with respect to the fantasy genre's particular conventions and tone, rather than "camp"; this approach strongly influenced later genre directors such as Tim Burton (Batman, Batman Returns), Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2, X-Men: Days of Future Past), Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises), Kevin Feige (Marvel Cinematic Universe), and Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder's Justice League), who have made successful superhero films of their own.

Lethal Weapon (1987–1998)

Donner's next blockbuster film was the action comedy Lethal Weapon, written by Shane Black. It starred Mel Gibson and co-starred Danny Glover. The film's action sequences were considered "truly spectacular" and made the film one of the year's biggest hits.

Donner directed six films starring Mel Gibson in total, creating a Lethal Weapon franchise with three sequels; the last of these was Lethal Weapon 4, released in 1998.


Donner became the executive producer for the 2000 Marvel Comics film X-Men, then also an executive producer for the 2009 X-Men prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. In addition, Donner's wife has produced all of the films in the X-Men film series under their Donners' Company brand.

On October 16, 2008, Donner and Lauren Shuler Donner received stars in a double ceremony on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for their achievements in motion pictures, located at 6712 Hollywood Boulevard.

Unrealized projects

Donner was the first choice to direct the "unofficial" James Bond film Never Say Never Again, but turned it down after he decided he disliked Lorenzo Semple Jr's script. He would have served as director of Jurassic Park had Columbia/TriStar won the bidding war for the screen rights against other studios. Donner was also considered as director for The Lost Boys, The Last Boy Scout, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Dave, Forever Young, and The Sandlot. In 2001, Donner claimed he planned to direct a sequel to The Goonies after Timeline, and he planned to direct the fifth and final Lethal Weapon film before his death in 2021.


  • Action Comics (co-writer with Geoff Johns)
  • Last Son and Escape from Bizarro World (2009)
  • You're the Director... You Figure It Out: The Life and Films of Richard Donner (2010)

Comic books

One of Donner's assistants in the late 1990s was comic book writer Geoff Johns. In October 2006, Donner, Johns, and artist Adam Kubert became the new creative team on Action Comics, the publisher's most time honored publication and one of DC Comics' two main Superman titles. Together, Johns and Donner collaborated on the stories Last Son and Escape from Bizarro World, both of which have been released in collected book form. Donner and Johns also co-wrote a story for Action Comics #1000, released in April 2018.


In 2010, Donner's authorized biography titled You're the Director... You Figure It Out: The Life and Films of Richard Donner by James Christie was published by BearManor Media. The book features a foreword by Mel Gibson.

Personal life and death

Donner married film producer Lauren Shuler on November 27, 1985. The two merged their respective production companies to create Shuler-Donner Productions (now The Donners' Company) the same year. Donner and Shuler remained together until the former's death.

Donner was a cousin of actor Steve Kahan, who played a policeman tracking Otis in Superman: The Movie, and played Captain Ed Murphy in the Lethal Weapon film franchise. Donner also cast Kahan in some of his other films.

Donner died on July 5, 2021, at his West Hollywood, California home, at the age of 91. The cause of death was heart failure with atherosclerosis as an underlying cause.



Year Title Director Producer Notes
1961 X-15 Yes No
1968 Salt and Pepper Yes No
1969 Lola Yes No
1976 The Omen Yes No
1978 Superman Yes No
1980 Superman II Uncredited No Replaced as director by Richard Lester during principal photography
Lester received sole directorial credit
Inside Moves Yes No
1982 The Toy Yes No
1985 The Goonies Yes Yes
Ladyhawke Yes Yes
1987 Lethal Weapon Yes Yes
1988 Scrooged Yes Yes
1989 Lethal Weapon 2 Yes Yes
1992 Radio Flyer Yes No Replaced David Mickey Evans
Lethal Weapon 3 Yes Yes
1994 Maverick Yes Yes
1995 Assassins Yes Yes
1997 Conspiracy Theory Yes Yes
1998 Lethal Weapon 4 Yes Yes
2002 Tales from the Crypt: Ritual No Yes Directed by Avi Nesher
2003 Timeline Yes Yes
2006 16 Blocks Yes No
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut Yes No Director's cut of Superman II

Executive producer


Year Title Notes
1957 Men of Annapolis Wrote 4 episodes (only screenwriting credit in career)
1960 Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre 1 episode
The DuPont Show with June Allyson
1960–1961 Wanted Dead or Alive 6 episodes
1961 Letter to Loretta 5 episodes
Route 66 1 episode
The Tall Man 2 episodes
Wagon Train 1 episode
1961–1962 Have Gun – Will Travel 5 episodes
1962 The Detectives 1 episode
The Rifleman 7 episodes
1962–63 Sam Benedict 6 episodes
1963 The Eleventh Hour 2 episodes
Combat! 1 episode
The Nurses
1963–1964 The Lieutenant 2 episodes
The Twilight Zone 6 episodes
Mr. Novak 7 episodes
1964 The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters 1 episode
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. 4 episodes
1964–1965 Gilligan's Island 3 episodes
Perry Mason
1965 Twelve O'Clock High 4 episodes
Get Smart 2 episodes
1966 The F.B.I. 1 episode
The Fugitive 2 episodes
It's About Time 1 episode
The Wild Wild West 3 episodes
The Felony Squad
1968–1969 The Banana Splits Adventure Hour 6 episodes
1971 The Interns 1 episode
Bearcats! 2 episodes
1971–1972 Cade's County 3 episodes
1971–1973 Cannon 4 episodes
1972 The Sixth Sense 1 episode
Ghost Story
The Bold Ones: The New Doctors 3 episodes
1973–1974 Kojak
1974 The Streets of San Francisco 2 episodes
Sons and Daughters 3 episodes
Lucas Tanner 1 episode
1975 Bronk 2 episodes
1989–1992 Tales from the Crypt 3 episodes
Also executive producer

Nominated – CableACE Award for Best Dramatic Series

1992 Two-Fisted Tales Television film
Segment: "Showdown"
1993–1994 Tales from the Cryptkeeper Executive producer
1996–1997 Secrets of the Cryptkeeper's Haunted House
1997 Perversions of Science
1999 Made Men Producer
Television film

Awards and nominations

Year Association Category Work Result
1979 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films Best Director Superman Nominated
World Science Fiction Society Best Dramatic Presentation Won
1986 Ladyhawke Nominated
1993 National Cable Television Association Best Dramatic Series Tales from the Crypt Nominated
1994 Nominated
1995 Nominated
1997 National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Outstanding Game Show Secrets of the Cryptkeeper's Haunted House Nominated
2000 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films President's Award N/A Won
Hollywood Film Awards Outstanding Achievement in Directing N/A Won
2002 Director's View Film Festival Joseph L. Mankiewicz Excellence in Filmmaking Award N/A Won
2006 International Press Academy Nikola Tesla Satellite Award N/A Won
2007 Casting Society of America Career Achievement Award N/A Won
2008 Ojai Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award N/A Won
2009 American Cinema Editors Golden Eddie Filmmaker of the Year Award N/A Won

See also

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