Richard Donner – 1930-2021: remembering the baron of the ’80s blockbuster

The easiest reading of Richard Donner’s storied career is that of reliability. If you wanted a hit between the dawn of the 1980s and the end of said decade, few within Hollywood’s studio system delivered more consistently and with as little fuss as the man behind the camera for The Omen, Superman, The Goonies and the Lethal Weapon series.

And yet traits like consistency and trust rarely result in the outpouring of sadness and admiration that has greeted news of the director’s passing at the age of 91. Because there was much more in the filmmaker’s tool kit than mere diligence. Donner made films that people loved. Sometimes scary. Sometimes exciting. Always big and bold and with an eye on the blockbuster. Alongside your Bruckheimer’s and your Landis’s, Donner was a titan of the ’80s VHS store. His were movies that were always made with heart.

You can trace the buddy cop movie back to 1967’s In The Heat Of The Night. 1982’s 48 Hrs. paired up comedian Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte and solidified the template further. But it’s 1987’s Donner-directed Lethal Weapon that remains the genre’s finest hour (and 40 minutes). Made on a budget of $15million, ultimately delivering $120million and spawning a franchise that has, to date, seen three series and a television series, in other hands the movie might have appeared macho and cruel.

Richard Donner
Donner in 1978. CREDIT: Alamy

Donner saw gold in writer Shane Black’s script, but it was lighter tonally than the dark, Dirty Harry-inspired urban Western of the original screenplay. He brought in Jeffrey Boam to give the manuscript a polish – the writer of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Lost Boys knew a thing or two about adding zing, while also not dulling the edges in the process of retooling.

The casting of leads Mel Gibson and Danny Glover eked out warmth even unknown to Donner. “[The casting] took about two hours and by the time we were done, I was in seventh heaven,” he said. “They found innuendoes; they found laughter where I never saw it; they found tears where they didn’t exist before; and, most importantly, they found a relationship – all in just one reading. So if you ask about casting… it was magical, just total dynamite.”

Donner worked with Gibson often. As unlikable as the Australian has often been off-screen, on it he was a star, an avatar for action adventure. Donner knew that people primarily buy a cinema ticket to feel good. To have fun. He felt no shame in his movies reeking of butter and popcorn. “When it’s not [great], I’m splitting,” he said of his work in 2006. “As soon as I realise I’m not having fun, I’m on the beach in Maui, baby.” Donner had an eye for story, for the thrill ride – when he arrived at the film that would be his breakthrough, 1976’s The Omen, he found it in the form of The Anti-Christ, a movie that had been rejected by every studio in town.

The Omen
Donner’s ‘The Omen’ is a touchstone for modern horror. CREDIT: Alamy

“I started to read [the script], and I couldn’t put it down,” he said. “I got all turned on by it. It had covens and devil gods and cloven hoofs and bloodbaths… but I thought if you could get rid of all that, you would end up with a good mystery-suspense thriller.”

And yet Donner’s works rarely travailed the realm of the inane. 1985’s universally beloved The Goonies and 1988’s Scrooged are comedies yes – and one of them features a character called, snigger, ‘One-Eyed Willy’ – but Donner’s productions always knew that the best laughs come when the swell of your heart is resting on your lungs. 1978’s Superman is arguably the origin point for the superhero movie trend that’s dominated modern cinema. It could have been a very silly movie. Again, in the slipstream of departing Bond director Guy Hamilton, he bought in a writer to polish the words.

“I remembered Superman as a kid and I said to myself, ‘This is a piece of American tradition here… it should be treated with respect,” he said of the decision to hire fellow Bond alumni Tom Mankiewicz to rewrite what he felt a frivolous script. Much later, Donner reconnected with former assistant – and now comic book writer – Geoff Johns, to (along with artist Adam Kubert) become the new creative team at Action Comics, the title that birthed The Man Of Steel.

Donner knew that his audience wanted to be thrilled. But Richard Donner also knew that this stuff mattered. Fittingly, in 2000, he became the executive producer for X-Men. Donner’s wife – Lauren Shuler Donner, who he is survived by – would produce all of the films in the X-Men film series under their shared Donners’ Company brand.

“When I work, story is totally important. Anything I’ve been involved with or have been surrounded by, it’s about story,” he once opined of his life in cinema. For many of us who lived through an era where cinema was the biggest show in town, the stories directed by Richard Donner are seared into our hearts and minds.