R.I.P. to Richard Donner

THE TOY, director Richard Donner, 1982, (c) Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection

R.I.P. Richard Donner

Article by Ray Schillaci

The man most noted for the first two Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve, the Lethal Weapon franchise, The Goonies, the man beloved by many in the industry, producer, director and actor, Richard Donner has passed away leaving an amazing legacy of entertainment. Donner could direct action like few others while giving us characters we would long remember. Of course, no man is an island, especially in this industry, and Richard Donner had a great partner with his wife Lauren Shuler Donner and the many other talents he would associate himself with.

Although known for his blockbuster movies, Donner had a softer side that he often had to fight for. Some of his smaller films were personal projects that the studios did not know how to market. They were great films with a strong cast that did not get the audience they deserved – Inside Moves and Radio Flyer. These were personal films that had a far greater message than his much bigger movies, unfortunately they did not do well at the box office due to the studios lack of faith. Inside Moves is both drama and comedy following a man, John Savage (The Deer Hunter, Hair) who has been left handicapped since his attempted suicide, but finds a commonality with other lost souls in a dive bar. Radio Flyer is a drama/fantasy that has a father, Tom Hanks, relating to his boys the harsh times he and his brother shared and how they escaped them with the aid of a Radio Flyer wagon. To this day, both films hold a special place in my heart.

Richard Donner got his start in the early ’60s with popular television shows such as Zane Grey Theatre, The Loretta Young Show and Wanted: Dead or Alive starring a young Steve McQueen (The Great Escape, Bullitt, Papillion). He was able to get his first break in feature film with a historical drama, X-15, starring Charles Bronson. But, that failed to launch a feature film career. He went back to television with some very impressive credits throughout the ’60s that proved he was as adept with action as he was with drama or comedy with such titles as The Twilight Zone, The Rifleman, Perry Mason, Get Smart, The Wild Wild West and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

It would be about seven years later before he was given the chance for another feature film, Salt and Pepper. This time with two named stars from the “rat pack,” Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford. The comedy crime thriller still did not get him the recognition as a feature director and once again he returned to television with a very odd choice, a children’s show The Banana Splits Adventure Hour. He continued to work in the medium throughout the early and mid-’70s with several shows and TV movies, his most notable being Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic starring Linda Blair, best remembered from The Exorcist.

Then in the mid-’70s, 20th Century Fox took a chance with the prolific director and tapped him to helm what they felt would be a decent thriller that could do moderate success, The Omen. Little did they know. Under Donner’s direction, the David Seltzer script about the birth of the anti-christ would be a runaway success and be known as one of the scariest movies since The Exorcist.

From there, the filmmaker would have us believe a man could really fly with Superman. He thrilled us with the outrageous exploits of two cops, Riggs and Murtaugh, an edgy, brash suicidal cop partnered with one close to retiring, in the Lethal Weapon franchise. And, made us giddy with the beloved adventure of The Goonies, a group of kids hunting for treasure to save their home.

Donner would direct many films that would not have the box office impact as those mentioned, but have become fan favorites over the years – the medieval romance Ladyhawke starring Matthew Broderick, Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer, two other Mel Gibson movies, Conspiracy Theory and Maverick, and the Bill Murray comedy, Scrooged.

Richard Donner the filmmaker managed to thrill us, make us laugh and cry yet he always left his ego at the door. Mel Gibson related that Donner referred to himself as “merely traffic cop” as a director. In remembering the filmmaker, Gibson related, “He was magnanimous of heart and soul, which he liberally gave to all who knew him.”

Richard Donner contributed to the thrill of taking us out of our ordinary lives with extraordinary adventures filled with suspense and humor all the while displaying a big heart and much love for those he worked with. Many of us not only mourn his passing, but are also sad that he did not get the chance to start up his last project… a final installment of the Lethal Weapon franchise that he was looking forward to directing with his two stars, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. His amazing legacy will be long remembered even after the curtains close.

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