When he was younger, my older brother Robert, was really into comic books in a big way. I remember he used to go into town to a big comic book store called Nostalgia & Comics in the early eighties. It’s still around today too, only now called Worlds Apart. Anyway, my brother would come back home with bags full of comics, usually DC Comics too. Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Batman and of course, Superman.
I think that was when I was first introduced to Superman, as I would flick through my brother’s comics and just marvel at the art inside. Robert was also a bit of an artist when he was younger, a really good artist too, a talent he (sadly) never followed through on as he grew older. He drew and painted a huge and really impressive Superman mural on his bedroom wall when he was a teenager. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of that anymore but believe me, it was amazing. Highly detailed, full of colour and it looked like something right out of a comic book. I think it would be safe to say that my brother was a bit of a Superman fan. One Christmas, the 1978 film Superman: The Movie was being shown on TV. Me and my brother sat down to watch it and we both became instant fans of the flick. That, that whole memory was the first thing that came to mind when I looked at my news feed this morning and read that film director Richard ‘Dick’ Donner had died aged 91. Of course, Donner was the man who put his heart and soul into making us ‘believe a man can fly’ as the tagline of the film boasted. We did too.
As a very young kid back then, I never understood filmmaking, I didn’t know what a director did or even what one was. I just knew I loved the Superman film. I also didn’t know that watching Superman with my brother over that Christmas period would be the start of my becoming a fan of Dick Donner as a filmmaker. There was another Donner film I watched when I was younger that had a huge impact on me as I grew up…
The Omen. Yeah, I used to watch horror films as a kid and I loved them. That clip there of little Damien Thorn looking at the camera and smiling at the end of the movie came about thanks to some clever direction from Donner. Harvey Spencer Stephens who played Damien was told not to smile by Donner, Dick Donner even told the young Stephens that if he smiled, he would not be his friend anymore. Of course, a child being told not to smile did the exact opposite and we got one of the most chilling final shots to a horror film ever. If you look through Dick Donner’s history of filmmaking, you’ll find several stories where he would trick his actors into doing things he wanted them to do. For instance, just going back to Superman for a second Gene Hackman was hired to play main bad guy, Lex Luthor. At the time, Hackman was sporting a moustache and refused to shave it for the film. In fact, early promotional photos for the picture showed Hackman with his very seventies ‘tache.
Still, Donner was adamant and wanted the lip-warmer gone for the flick. When talking over the phone and before they ever met, Dick Donner promised Gene Hackman that he would have his moustache shaved off if Hackman also did it, so an agreement was made between the two. When they met on the set of the film for the first time, Donner kept his promise, he and Hackman both went to the make-up department to get shaved. Gene Hackman went first and got his soup-strainer whipped off, after which, he then turned to Donner and said it was his turn. That was when Donner refused and said he can’t have his moustache shaved, before pulling off the fake ‘tache that the make-up department had only just applied before Gene Hackman turned up.
Before I move on, I just want to cover why I’m referring to Richard Donner as Dick. Obviously, Dick is a well-known shortening of Richard anyway, but I always feel strange about using that, especially in regards to someone I never even knew. Still, during the making of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (a history I’m not going to get into here, maybe later?), Dick Donner specifically thanked the fans for their support in finally getting the film made. He also said he likes his friends to call him Dick and that he considers any fan a friend. So there you go, as a fan and friend, I have permission for the man himself to call him Dick. I find it kind of warming that he enjoyed being called Dick.
When you look back on Dick Donner’s career, he was behind some of the greatest films ever. But before he was a film director, he made a name for himself in TV. Directing episodes for Wagon Train, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Perry Mason, The Fugitive, Kojak and even The Banana Splits Adventure Hour to name just a few. I used to love watching The Banana Splits as a kid. Donner also directed a few episodes of the classic The Twilight Zone TV show and perhaps the most famous episode too, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. You know, the William Shatner starring one where he is on a plane and sees a monster/gremlin on the wing.
Dick Donner’s first proper feature film was the already mentioned, The Omen from 1976 and it was that film’s success that landed him the job of directing the also already mentioned Superman: The Movie a couple of years later. By the time the eighties rolled around, Donner was very much a big name in Hollywood and made some of his finest pictures through that decade. Not all of his flicks were universally loved though, he did make The Toy in 1982 a film panned by critics at the time. It’s also a film that when you watch it from a more modern sensibility… It does come across as a bit racist. I mean, it does feature a plot about a rich white man buying a poor black man to basically be his son’s plaything. Now, I’m not one of those ‘snowflakes’ we have today that gets offended by stuff from decades ago. I quite liked The Toy truth be told and never once saw it as being ‘racist’. It’s just a silly film showing the difference between the rich and the poor and no so much black vs white as many others like to make out. Anyway, Donner was also behind the cult classic Ladyhawke and the massively popular The Goonies.
Then in 1987, he made the film that would pretty much define his career from that point on. Easily the greatest buddy-cop film ever and a movie any fan just has to watch over Christmas, Lethal Weapon. Bringing together the then fairly unknown Mel Gibson and equally unknown Danny Glover to play Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh respectively. A brilliant action romp with a wonderful slice of humour. Lethal Weapon would go on to become a huge and successful franchise with four films in the series made up to 1998, all four directed by Dick Donner too.
There was even talk of a fifth film that was going to be made. Even as recently as December last year, Donner said that Lethal Weapon 5 was happening and that it would be his last film before retiring. Apparently, work on the movie was moving ahead quite fast too. A script existed, both Mel Gibson and Danny Glover were confirmed as to coming back and it was set to begin shooting sometime soon. I always had mixed feeling over this one. I am a big fan of the Lethal Weapon fraise… But I can’t say that I was honestly looking forward to a new one. If anything, I was more interested in seeing a new Dick Donner film over a Lethal Weapon one. I just love when old directors are still going even into their nineties. I mean, if Clint Eastwood can still direct films at his age, why not Dick Donner? Of course, now that Donner has sadly died, Lethal Weapon 5 really is a project that I feel shouldn’t go ahead. It was his baby and no one else should be taking up the role of director.
Anyway, I can’t yak on about Dick Donner and not give mention to one of the greatest Christmas films ever (not Lethal Weapon). I’ve always been a fan of the Charles Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol, I honestly think it’s the greatest story ever written. In 1988, Donner made his own version of that classic tale with the Bill Murray starring Scrooged. I absolutely love this film. Obviously, The Muppets version is the best ever take on Dickens’ tale, but Scrooged is certainly up there too. There are a lot of behind the scenes stories about how Murray and Donner just did not get on and there were many arguments on set about the direction the film was going. Still, when you watch Scrooged, you really don’t see any of that on-screen and whatever disagreements Bill Murray and Dick Donner had never seemed to harm the film at all.
Donner returned to his TV roots in the late eighties and nineties when he became an executive producer on the TV show Tales from the Crypt. Not only was he a producer on the show, he also directed a few episodes. I actually have quite a lot to say about Tales from the Crypt, but just not here. It was an amazing show that really deserves its very own article. Maybe for one of my Halloween specials one year (not this year as I already have something else planned)? In 1994, Dick Donner teamed up with Mel Gibson again for a flick that was not a Lethal Weapon one. Maverick was based on the classic TV show of the same name. Oh, how I adore this film. It’s funny, has a great plot and is brilliantly directed too with a great stinger of an ending. Plus it has that amazing Lethal Weapon in-joke/reference. Maverick really is a cracking flick and one that seems to be overlooked these days.
Speaking of overlooked films, Donner also directed Assassins from 1995. Written by the Wachowski’s before the whole The Matrix phenomenon. Assassins stars Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas as rival assassins who end up in a deadly game of cat and mouse. Now, Assassins was not a critical or commercial success, it was heavily panned when it was released and reviewers were not kind at all. But I really do enjoy the film. It has this nice, slow-burning quality to it and I find it a very easy watch. It’s not an action-packed flick (though there are action scenes in it) and relies a lot more on character. It is a slow film and I can see why some folk didn’t enjoy it. But for me, I feel that Assassins is a very watchable film.
Dick Donner’s career began to dry up in the late nineties and his best years were most definitely behind him. He teamed up with Mel Gibson again for Conspiracy Theory (I’ve never seen it) and there was the fourth Lethal Weapon flick too, which was decidedly okay-ish. As much as I loved Donner as a filmmaker, he most definitely wasn’t the great director he was in the seventies and eighties. He had a couple of films with Timeline from 2003 and his final flick as a director was the Bruce Willis action-thriller 16 Blocks from 2006. His directing may have dried up later in his career, but Dick was still an active producer. In fact, he was the executive producer on X-Men from 2000 and he really helped to kickstart the modern superhero movie genre, just like when he revolutionised it back in 1978 with Superman: The Movie.
Richard Donner died on the 5th of July 2021 aged 91. The cause of death has not yet been revealed. Still, the man was a legend and helmed some of the greatest films made. He pioneered superhero movies… Twice, made us believe a man could fly, turned Mel Gibson a household name and entertained me and millions of others around the world for decades.
“I have a bust of Abraham Lincoln in my office, and it’s not because of the greatness he did for our country, but it’s because that whenever I look at it I have to remember an actor killed him.”
– Richard Donner