Obituary: Legendary Hollywood Director Richard Donner Dies Aged 91

The great  Richard Donner sadly passed away at the age of 91 on 5 July 2021.

Born Richard Donald Schwartzberg on 24 April 24 1930 in New York, Donner started out as an actor before moving into directing in the 1960s. He went on to become one of the all-time great Hollywood directors, cutting his teeth in advertising and television and working on some of the most iconic shows of the 1960s and 1970s (The Twilight Zone, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Gilligan’s Island).

Donner’s career took a major leap forward with the big screen release of The Omen in 1976, going stratospheric when he directed Superman in 1978. Donner went on to direct a variety of classic movies from the Lethal Weapon franchise to Scrooged and The Goonies. Few directors have been able to have a career with such wonderful variety and he’s a master craftsman, able to turn his hand to any genre from action to drama and comedy. Who else could deliver such a vast collection of titles like Superman: The Movie, The Goonies, Ladyhawke, Lethal Weapon and Scrooged over the course of a 10 year span?

The Omen saw Richard Donner not only break into the directing A-list, but he also delivered one of the all-time great horror movies. After years of working on television, Donner kick-started his career with this classy demonic chiller. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick add authenticity as the middle-aged couple who accidentally adopt the child of Satan. Jerry Goldsmith’s masterful score adds power and Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography gives the film a visual panache which is rarely seen in horror films.

Charlton Heston was originally in the frame for Peck’s role as Robert Thorn, but he ultimately declined the invitation to star – one of the greatest regrets of his career. The film would go on to gross $60 million at the US box office – a 2006 remake (released on 6.6.6) banked $54 million and $119 million globally. 

Richard Donner’s Superman broke new cinematic ground. Visually it’s stunning, and that’s before you take into the account the special effects – most of which still hold up today (impressive when you consider that they were making them up as they went along). The film’s cinematic palette was spot on, with Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography adding a rich texture to Donner’s multi-layered narrative. The crystal gloss of Krypton, the rich, vibrant colours of Smallville and the steeliness of Metropolis give the film visual structure that few films (never mind comic book films) can lay claim to.

Produced by Steven Spielberg, written by Chris Columbus and directed by Richard Donner, it’s no wonder that The Goonies is one of the most beloved films of the 1980s. It’s a movie for kids (albeit adults too), that doesn’t talk down to them. Columbus’ script captures the essence of being young, while Donner’s direction nails the sense of adventure that propels the story.

Everything in Donner’s 1985 film works. The casting is spot-on, the action rocks, the set-design is luscious and Dave Grusin’s score really pops. This is how you make a family movie and it’s a shame that modern Hollywood appears to have lost the knack for delivering something that appeals to all ages.

Some often refer to The Goonies as a children’s Indiana Jones and while it has a lot in common with Spielberg’s fedora-wearing hero, it’s a lazy way of describing a film that’s so rich with it’s own unique moments. Columbus has injected his script with the same wit and energy that his other Amblin adventure, Gremlins, contained and Richard Donner again shows that he’s one of Hollywood’s great directors. 

The Lethal Weapon movies are an example of Hollywood getting franchise filmmaking right.  Lethal Weapon saw Mel Gibson and Danny Glover paired as mismatched cops. Riggs and Murtaugh were able to watch their friendship grow and develop across three sequels. Their chemistry is what makes those films so special and why they stand head and shoulders above all imitators.The first Lethal Weapon was written by Shane Black and was released in 1987 and sequels followed in 1989, 1992 and 1998. The four films have grossed over $955 million globally.

Donner’s Scrooged is a flawless interpretation of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol. The great Bill Murray has never been better as the Christmas-hating TV executive, Frank Cross. However, everyone in the cast of Scrooged impresses: Karen Allen, John Forsythe, Bobcat Goldthwait, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, Michael J. Pollard all do sterling work.

Richard Donner is a director who knows how to master different genres and get gets the tone just right, ensuring the film has the right amount of humour, heart and snark to keep it entertaining. From the dark humour, to the excellent production design and wonderful Danny Elfman score, Scrooged is as perfect as a Christmas movie can get. 

Donner hadn’t directed a film since 2006’s 16 Blocks starring Bruce Willis, but he was planning to make a fifth and final Lethal Weapon movie – sadly that wasn’t to be.

I had the amazing opportunity to interview Donner back in 2018. He was everything I’d have hoped and dreamed for and more – he was warm, enthusiastic and engaging. And a true gentleman. 

Richard Donner – 1930 – 2021

Read the Movies In Focus Richard Donner Interview