The man behind the modern superhero movie, Richard Donner (1930-2021)…

Making Us Believe A Man Could Fly.

I still remember going to see “Superman: The Movie” back in the winter of 1978. I wasn’t a big superhero fan in those days, to be honest. Yes, I read some random Marvel comics (“Hulk,” “SpiderMan,” “Fantastic Four”), and I watched the occasional episode of “Wonder Woman” (primarily because I was 11, and Lynda Carter had a powerful effect on my young hormones). My sisters and I used to watch TV’s “Batman” reruns primarily for laughs, but I never watched George Reeves’ “Superman” TV series in reruns; to me, I saw it as a show for ‘little kids’ (a different species, as far my precocious childhood self was concerned). TV’s “Superman” was just a middle-aged guy in tights. There was just too much suspension of disbelief required to make it work. So, it was in this young but cynical mindset that I first saw 1978’s “Superman: The Movie.”

Richard Donner (right) and star Christopher Reeve are swamped by paparazzi during the hectic shooting of “Superman: The Movie.”

The film I saw that evening blew every expectation of mine out of the water. It would become clear in the decades that followed that 1978’s “Superman” was another one of those game changer movies that forever alters the movie landscape. In my lifetime, I’ve seen a few of them; “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park”… an innovative crowd pleaser that subtly (or not so subtly) redefines what movies are capable of being. In this case, director Richard Donner’s “Superman” kicked the door down for today’s prolific superhero genre. That happened largely because Donner knew well enough not to make a campy spoof, like TV’s “Batman.” Donner’s approach to the material, with a few minor exceptions, was to play everything as straight as possible. As the tagline for the movie promised, “You will believe a man can fly.” When I walked out of the theater that night, I most certainly did.

Donner directed several episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” but perhaps his best remembered is the iconic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” starring William Shatner as a nervous flyer who really shouldn’t have a window seat…

Richard Donner was a longtime TV director, working his way up through the ranks. His very first directorial credit was a 1960 episode of “Zane Grey Theatre” (“So Savage the Young Land”). Donner would also direct the “Top Gun” of its day, “X-15”; a 1961 film heralding the heroes who flew experimental aircraft. After steady gigs in western TV shows like “Have Gun, Will Travel,” and “The Rifleman,” Donner directed perhaps his most iconic piece of TV work with Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” Donner had already directed several episodes of the classic show, but it was his fifth season story “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” that is so often associated with the best of the series. “Nightmare…” was an adaptation of writer Richard Matheson’s short story about a nervous airplane passenger who sees a gremlin saboteur outside his window. Despite the ridiculousness of the shag-carpeted monster seen in the final episode, the mood created by Donner, as well as the palpable neurosis created by star William Shatner, more than sell the subpar costume. Even with very little, Donner’s knack for creating suspense went a long way. This episode was one of several from the series that were remade for 1983’s troubled production of “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” and it’s one of those stories that instantly comes to mind whenever people think of “The Twilight Zone.”

Gregory Peck and Lee Remick adopt the son of Ol’ Scratch himself (Harvey Stephens) in 1976’s horror classic “The Omen.”

In 1976, Donner would helm “The Omen,” an occult thriller that has since become a horror classic, along with another demonic 1970s sibling, “The Exorcist” (1973). “The Omen” sees Gregory Peck as US ambassador to Great Britain, Robert Thorn, with Lee Remick as his wife Katherine. The two adopt a pale, cherubic-cheeked six year old named Damien (Harvey Stephens) who might just be the much-dreaded Antichrist. Photographed by Gil Taylor (“Star Wars”) with haunting music by Jerry Goldsmith (“ALIEN”), the movie was a sensation. For full disclosure, I didn’t see the film in original theatrical release, but would later watch it on TV and enjoyed it very much (former “Doctor Who” star Patrick Troughton’s demise was memorably gruesome). While not as sensory-assaulting as William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” (to which it’s often unfairly compared), “The Omen” is more Hitchcockian in its approach—the horror is more implicit, not explicit. Little Harvey Stephens, under Donner’s subtle direction, does a hell of a lot (forgive the pun) with just a wide-eyed stare or an evil grin. It’s no wonder that the film would spawn several sequels and a 2006 remake, none of which quite lived up to the original. Although “The Exorcist” remains my personal high bar for horror films, the effectiveness of “The Omen” should not be underestimated.

As (expensive) costar Marlon Brando says in the film’s opening dialogue, “This is no fantasy, no careless product of wild imagination…”

Which brings me back to 1978’s “Superman.” As I wrote earlier, I went to see this film largely because it had such great buzz, not because I was a particular fan of live-action superhero TV shows—one has to remember that the current superhero movie genre didn’t exist in those days. The trailers for the film teased by showing a camera hurtling through clouds, while carefully choosing not to show a guy in tights on a wire rig. With no expectations, I sat down and was immediately pulled in. The opening featured a kid’s voice narrating a 1938 Action Comics aloud, describing the character as he was then. Suddenly a whoosh of stars appeared on-screen, and the rumbling buildup of John Williams’ brilliant score finally burst onscreen with the title card, “Superman: The Movie.” Williams’ music was glorious; easily on a par with his work from 1977’s “Star Wars” or 1975’s “JAWS”. The credits finish, and we see the grand, icy landscape of the advanced-but-dying planet Krypton, where we then hear the voice of Jor-El (Marlon Brando) telling us that “This is no fantasy, no careless product of wild imagination…” Truer words were never said so early in a movie. Yes, this was based on a comic book, but it was being played completely straight and with absolute sincerity. While the villainy of the movie is somewhat broad, all the movie’s other elements are played with the devotion of a latter-day Christ or Moses story, which the story is at its core—a near-mythical being from another world sends his only son to Earth to save the human race from itself. Sound familiar?

The brother-sisterly chemistry between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder translated well to romance on-screen.

Donner’s “Superman” is broken into three acts. The first act is on Krypton, where Jor-El and his wife Lara (Susannah York) make the fateful decision to send ‘only begotten son’ Kal-El to the backwards planet Earth, where it’s hoped that system’s yellow sun would make their child an invulnerable demigod. The second act of the movie shows Kal-El’s early life as teenager Clark Kent (Jeff East, dubbed in by Christopher Reeve) in the small rural Midwest town of “Smallville.” The movie’s final and longest act sees a fully grown Clark (Christopher Reeve) moving to the big city of Metropolis (New York City in everything but name), where he works for the Daily Planet newspaper and meets the love of his life, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). The first two acts of the movie are presented with grim seriousness, particularly the destruction of Krypton and the death of Clark’s human father, Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford). Once the action shifts to Metropolis, the tone of the movie is a little more malleable, particularly when we meet real-estate obsessed villain Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and his his barely-competent gang, Otis (the late Ned Beatty) and Eve Tessmacher (Valerie Perrine). So yes, there is some camp here and there, but by that point in the movie, it’s earned the right to relax a bit.

Yes, by the end of “Superman: The Movie” both Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve convinced me that a man could fly…

The climax of the film sees Superman turning back time itself to undo all of the damage caused by Luthor’s deadly plan to use nuclear weapons to lop California in half. This ending was originally scheduled to be the climax of the sequel, “Superman II,” which was being shot concurrently with the first movie (an unheard of practice in those days). Sadly, Donner wouldn’t be allowed to complete the sequel, which was approximately 70% completed before the director was unceremoniously sacked by father/son producers Alexander & Ilya Salkind, who wanted to take the story in a sillier direction. Donner’s firing made absolutely no sense at the time, especially considering his sincere approach to the material made “Superman” the highest grossing movie that season. Nevertheless, the Salkinds decided it to move the successful movie’s sequel closer in tone to TV’s “Batman.” Using a large chunk of Donner’s finished material (including all the Gene Hackman footage), the unscrupulous producers hired British director Richard Lester (“A Hard Day’s Night”) to finish the movie and reshoot just enough material to offer Lester’s name as the sole directing credit. Costar Gene Hackman allegedly refused to shoot any new material for Lester, and a few of his scenes had to be completed with a body double. Ditto for Marlon Brando, whose living instructional hologram of Jor-El would be replaced with Superman’s less expensive mother Lara. Yes, the sequel did very well at the box office, but the remaining “Superman” movies would forever lack the majesty of the first film.

Second Chance.

Lois figures out Clark’s secret in an exclusive scene only seen in Donner’s cut of Superman II.

I’d recently written an in-depth column on 2006’s “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut,” which the director was finally allowed to complete, using deleted scenes from his original 1980 version as well as audition scenes (filmed on a no-frills set), all augmented with newly created visual effects. Edited by Michael Thau, and based on Donner’s original notes and storyboards, the movie offered a rare chance for the unfairly fired director to finish what he began 25 years earlier. The final result is more of a polished rough cut than a completed film, but it works well enough for an audience appreciative of its difficult gestation. While the Donner cut arguably wreaks havoc with the continuity of the first film (such as reusing its time travel ending), it is nevertheless an astonishing achievement.

In another scene unique to the Donner cut of the film, Superman destroys the Fortress of Solitude forever…

Many of the restored scenes, such Lois guessing Clark Kent’s true identity much earlier in the film, are a revelation. Other moments, such as Clark’s big reveal to Lois, in their Niagara Falls ‘honeymoon suite,’ also unfold very differently than they did in the Lester’s “Superman II”, with Lois pretending to shoot Clark with a pistol (filled with blanks) to make him come clean (this was a scene completed using audition footage only). Donner’s Lois Lane is nobody’s fool, and she figures Clark’s secret . It’s no wonder that Margot Kidder’s role was reduced to a cameo for Richard Lester’s “Superman III”, which saw many of the bad ideas that Donner so carefully avoided finally come to pass. Despite Donner’s magnificent opus, the Superman movies of the 1980s would be a case of rapidly diminishing returns (with 1987’s “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace” being virtually unwatchable). Director Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects”) would admirably attempt to bring some of that Donner magic and dignity back to the franchise with 2006’s “Superman Returns” (which was co-produced by Donner’s wife, Lauren Shuler Donner), but the subpar story didn’t quite match the lavish accoutrements.

Perhaps if the shortsighted Salkinds had followed Donner’s advice and kept the quality of the Superman franchise at a higher bar? The current ‘golden age of superhero movies’ might’ve arrived decades earlier.

Other Landmark Donner Films.

1985’s “Goonies” saw the rise of Corey Feldman (“Stand By Me”), Jonathan Ke Quan (“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”), Josh Brolin (“Avengers: Endgame”), and Sean Astin (“Rudy”).

Despite Donner’s bitter experience with the Salkinds during the production of “Superman II,” Richard Donner was still a much sought-after filmmaker in Hollywood, with many recognizing his contributions towards that first film’s success. The next big film for the director was his teaming up with producer Steven Spielberg for 1985’s “Goonies,” a modestly successful movie in its initial release ($63 million against a budget of $19 million) that later went on to become a generation-defining classic thanks to repeated Blockbuster rentals by young millennials in the late 1980s and 1990s. The movie featured a cadre of future who’s-whos, including Sean Astin (“Rudy,” “Lord of the Rings”), Corey Feldman (“Stand By Me”, “Lost Boys”) and Josh Brolin (“W”, “Avengers: Endgame”). The story involves a group of kids searching for a lost treasure on a pirate’s map. Sort of a millennials’ answer to “Peter Pan”, (with a full-scale pirate ship), the movie is one of those generational films many filmgoers of a certain age seem to have in common. Once again, for full disclosure, I didn’t see “Goonies” in its original release, but I would watch it later on video. While “Goonies” isn’t exactly my cup of Ovaltine, I can definitely see its appeal for a younger generation, especially with its celebration of childhood bonding; something affirmed a year later with Rob Reiner’s “Stand By Me” (a film I very much enjoyed). Donner’s “Goonies” wasn’t a huge hit in those days, but it’s certainly a beloved classic today.

Danny Glover (“Murtaugh”) and Mel Gibson (“Riggs”) in the first “Lethal Weapon” (1978). Note the conspicuous promotion of another popular Warners’ movie nearby…

Next up was “Lethal Weapon,” a 1987 buddy-cop movie starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. “Lethal Weapon” was the apex of the buddy-cop genre. One has to understand that the buddy-cop genre was huge in those days (“Red Heat,” “48 HRS,” “Beverly Hills Cop”); almost as big as the superhero genre is today (another genre which Donner had a huge hand in popularizing). Most of the successful buddy cop movies emphasized humor over action, with a mismatched team who wind up becoming best friends after solving a case together. Despite the film series’ later propensity for broad comedy, the first “Lethal Weapon” is grimly serious. Suicidal detective Martin Riggs (Gibson) is grieving the recent death of his wife, and his self-destructive recklessness is taking its toll on his work. Riggs is teamed with family man detective Roger Murtaugh (Glover), who is the picture of ’80s upper-middle class suburban bliss (a possible nod to the success of TV’s then-hit,”The Cosby Show”). Having just turned 50, the domesticated Murtaugh is “too old for this shit,” and resents being teamed up with loose cannon Riggs. The two cops team up to bring down a group of drug-dealing high-end mercenaries, who’ve also kidnapped Murtaugh’s teenage daughter (Traci Wolfe). Gary Busey (shortly before he went permanently insane) would effectively play the film’s ‘albino jackrabbit’ henchman, “Mr. Joshua.” Like Donner’s “Superman” did with superheroes, “Lethal Weapon” took the familiar “cop on the edge” trope and upgraded it considerably.

Note: I’m going to avoid any prolonged discussion of the controversial Mel Gibson’s personal views in this column. Gibson is infamous today for his anti-Semitic and racist rantings, and I will not, in any way, support or defend such ugliness here, or anywhere else. As for my comparison of Roger Murtaugh’s family life to “The Cosby Show”? I am not in any way comparing Glover’s Roger Murtaugh to the real-life Bill Cosby (a convicted serial rapist); I am only comparing the depictions of upper-middle class African-American success. I just wanted to make both of those points clear before I go on, especially the first one, since Gibson would re-team with Donner for many other films, including the “Lethal Weapon” sequels, 1994’s “Maverick” and 1997’s “Conspiracy Theory” (which I’ve never seen).

Bill Murray is a miserly TV executive who gets “Scrooged” (1988).

In 1988, Richard Donner would try his hand at making an all-out comedy, which he achieved with “Scrooged,” a retelling of the classic (if overdone) Yuletide tale, “A Christmas Carol”. Bill Murray stars as a cynical network TV executive Frank Cross, who is currently involved in overseeing a soulless, live-musical retelling of Charles Dickens’ story when he is taken on his own journey of past, present and future in an effort to rekindle his cold heart. Featuring an all-star cast which included many then-popular TV faces such as Jamie Farr (“MASH”), John Forsyth (“Dynasty”) and Carol Kane (“Taxi”), the movie successfully reinterpreted this well-trodden story. The success of “Scrooged” would lead to another time-traveling comedy for Bill Murray with 1993’s “Groundhog Day” (another holiday-themed film as well) which was directed by Murray’s fellow “Ghostbuster”, the late Harold Ramis (1944-2014). Richard Donner took the tired “Scrooge” chestnut and revitalized it for another generation, just as he did with Superman.

“Lethal Weapon 2” (1989) proved the success of the first film could make for a franchise, with two more successful films and a recent TV series as well.

In 1989, “Lethal Weapon 2” would unveil the first of three sequels to the 1987 crime-drama hit, this time taking a hard left turn into comedy with the introduction of sidekick character Leo Getz, played by Martin Scorsese favorite, Joe Pesci. The sequel cracks down on a gang of South African drug-dealers who use their diplomatic immunity against the LAPD. It’s revealed that this was the same gang responsible for the death of Riggs’ wife. The Afrikaners soon wage an all-out war on the police, assassinating them one-by-one in their homes. While the story of “Lethal Weapon 2” went into arguably darker places than the first film, Joe Pesci was now on deck to act as comic relief when things got too heavy. This revised formula would be a winning one, and “Lethal Weapon” would spawn two more Richard Donner-directed sequels in 1992 and 1998, as well as a three-season TV series/remake (2016-2019), which recast the roles and reset much of the movies’ continuity. Donner was not involved with the “Lethal Weapon” TV series.

Mel Gibson, a charmingly against-type Jodie Foster and James Garner made 1994’s “Maverick” far more than the sum of its parts.

My final favorite movie of Donner’s was 1994’s “Maverick.” I only vaguely remember the James Garner 1960s TV series in reruns (not a big western fan), so I went to see the movie with no expectations. I wound up enjoying it very much. Mel Gibson would inherit the role of “Brett Maverick”, the smooth-talking card shark/lovable rogue whose adventures in the Old West tend to involve high-stakes gambling. Original series’ star James Garner would costar as Marshal Zane Cooper, who has a secret interest in the titular character. Jodie Foster is effectively cast against-type as hustler Annabelle Bransford, who uses her feminine wiles to woo her opponents while quietly picking their pockets clean. Graham Greene (“Dances With Wolves”) also makes an appearance as Joseph, a Native American ally of Maverick who plays the stereotypical “noble savage” for gullible, paying foreign tourists. Richard Donner would also work in a hilarious cameo for “Lethal Weapon” costar Danny Glover as a bank robber who’s getting “too old for this shit.” Worth watching for Foster, as well as the great chemistry between the entire cast. Richard Donner could orchestrate an action-comedy ensemble like few directors working today, with the fun and funny always in perfect balance.

San Diego Comic Con 2006.

Editor Michael Thau listens to Richard Donner at a panel celebrating the release of “Superman II: The Donner Cut” at San Diego Comic Con 2006. The panel also celebrated the release of “Superman Returns”, which mimicked both the style and feel of the Donner movies.

It’s unheard of for a fired Hollywood filmmaker to have the opportunity to complete the very film from which they were fired. The sheer ambition and achievement of Richard Donner’s “Superman II: The Donner Cut” is a testament to Richard Donner’s popularity and success in the industry, since his name carried enough clout for Warner Bros to reconsider their earlier mistake in trusting the Salkinds’ judgment. I first became aware of the Donner Cut’s existence nearly 15 years ago at San Diego Comic Con. I was attending a panel for the announcement of Richard Donner’s new cut of “Superman II”, which apparently had been a long-simmering dream project of Donner’s for some time.

Richard Donner was finally able to complete his cut of the movie from which he was unceremoniously fired.

Panelist Donner had much to say, including a few unkind, but justifiably angry words about Alexander and Ilya Salkind, the father-son producers who unceremoniously fired him because they wanted something closer to TV’s campier “Batman.” Re-teaming with director Richard Lester on “Superman III” (1983) the Salkinds seemed determined to put Superman’s dignity and integrity through the meat grinder. Donner held out for his nobler vision and lost— until now. Other guest speakers on that panel included new editor Michael Thau, actors Jack O’Halloran (“Non”), Marc McClure (“Jimmy Olsen”) as well as other actors from the long-running Superman franchise, including Sam Huntington (“Jimmy Olsen” from 2006’s “Superman Returns”) and the late Noel Neill, who played “Lois Lane” for several seasons of the 1950s TV series.

Once again, Richard Donner was proud to don the cap of “Superman”…

The most exciting moment of the panel was when the lights dimmed and the attendees were treated to the opening 15 minutes of “Superman II: The Donner Cut.” It began with the flashbacks from the first film, and then the new material began, starting with the revised version of the supervillains’ release from the Phantom Zone, and moving on to the entire sequence of Lois discovering Clark’s secret identity at the Daily Planet. At that time, no one had yet seen this footage, which had been buried in the Warner Bros vaults for the past 25 years at that point. It was like seeing a piece of art you thought you knew very well, only to discover you’d been seeing it from only one oblique angle. Needless to say, I grabbed the DVD as soon as it became available.

Watching the Donner Cut at home for a recent review, I digitally projected the movie onto a 7 ft. screen to give it something approximating the theatrical presentation it deserved.

Both at the time and in hindsight, I realize what a rare treat it was to have seen the late Richard Donner in person at the unveiling of his dream project, and I cherish the memory. With such a long and exemplary career, Richard Donner was a solid, straight-shooting filmmaker of multiple genres who will be sorely missed.

Richard Donner, 1930-2021.

Viewing Options.

“Superman: The Movie” and “Goonies” are currently available to stream (with subscription) on HBOMax. “Superman II: The Donner Cut,” “The Omen,” and “Maverick” are available for streaming rental/purchase from Amazon Prime , YouTube and GooglePlay. “The Twilight Zone” (classic) is available for streaming on ParamountPlus, Hulu, Amazon Prime and Netflix. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 603,000 as of this writing.  Meanwhile, several vaccines are available and inoculations are widespread (whew!), which is greatly slowing the US mortality rate (though the new Delta variant is cause for concern). Given a certain level of vaccine hesitancy, it may take a while longer for eventual herd immunity. Even vaccinated, it may still be possible to catch the coronavirus, though your chances of getting ill from it are slim-to-none.  So, if you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible and let us immunize our way out of the COVID pandemic.

Images: CBS, Warner Bros., IMDb, Author

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