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Richard Donner (born April 24, 1930) is an American film director, and also a film producer through the production company, The Donners' Company, which he and his wife, producer Lauren Shuler Donner, own. Although known for The Omen and the Lethal Weapon films, he is most famous for the hailed creation of the first modern superhero film, Superman, starring Christopher Reeve. The influence of this film eventually helped establish the fantasy genre as a respected film genre.
Donner was born Richard Donald Schwartzberg in the Bronx, New York City, the son of Hattie and Fred Schwartzberg; he has a sister, Joan. Donner started his career with hopes of acting but quickly moved into directing commercials and making business films. He moved into television in the late 1950s, directing some episodes of the Steve McQueen western serial Wanted: Dead or Alive and the Chuck Connors western The Rifleman.
He has worked on over twenty-five other television series including The Fugitive, Get Smart, The Man from Uncle, The Wild Wild West, Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch, The Six Million Dollar Man, Kojak, Tales from the Crypt and The Twilight Zone (most notably the famous "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"), as well as the serial Danger Island from the children's program The Banana Splits. His first film, the low-budget military drama X-15 (1961) starring Charles Bronson, was not a great success, and he returned to television work.
His break-through film was in 1976 with The Omen, produced in the 'horror boom' following The Exorcist.
He followed it with the hit Superman: The Movie in 1978. Armed with two scripts for Superman and Superman II he shot principal photography for both films to save on set dressing and actor/crew overheads. However, the original ending for the first film where Superman flew from accident to disaster was deemed to be missing a certain something by the film's independent financiers Ilya Salkind and his father Alexander Salkind. The scripted time reversal ending of Superman II was taken to pad out and fulfill Superman once the film had been identified as a priority with a view to piece together an alternative end to the second film later.
After the first film's successful release in December 1978, Donner was offered the director's role a second time, but demanded that producer Pierre Spengler be removed from the project. Rather than give in to this demand, the Salkinds replaced him with director Richard Lester, who worked with them on The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers and as an uncredited producer on Superman. The decision to remove him from the film series, made by producers Alexander Salkind and Ilya Salkind, has been widely viewed by many fans[who?] as a huge mistake on the Salkinds' part, as the subsequent Superman films helmed by their preferred director Richard Lester, while still breaking the $100 million mark for domestic USA alone were perceived as being of poorer quality and quickly resulted in a downward spiral in popularity for the series.
The demands of Marlon Brando to receive the same percentage of cut for film two as he received for film one regardless of how much previous footage was used exacerbated the Salkinds' position to at least walk away from a, by that time, five-year project with profit as Superman was still un-officially paying back creditors. A no-flexibility attitude from both Brando and Donner saw both removed from the series until 2006 when Donner's definitive (or at least, as close to definitive as possible) version of the movie, simply entitled Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut was released on November 28, 2006 on the same date as to the DVD release of the summer hit, Superman Returns. The footage includes never-before-seen footage of Marlon Brando, a new opening, a new ending and approximately 83% of Donner footage. Some Richard Lester footage was used to tie in loose ends. Michael Thau, the editor of the Richard Donner cut also made some minor use of CGI. However, he did not create CGI villains in order to complete the "villains rule the world scene" which was in the original script, but was never shot by Donner.
Donner has mixed commercial flops (Inside Moves, Radio Flyer) and successes (The Goonies, the Lethal Weapon series and Ladyhawke (1985) which has enjoyed a large cult following. Donner has received little critical appreciation, although he has a strong following amongst genre fans. In the case of Superman, it was Donner who insisted the subject of the comic book superhero should be treated "straight" rather than "camp", an approach that strongly influenced later genre directors such as Bryan Singer, Tim Burton, and Christopher Nolan, who have made successful superhero films of their own. The influence of Superman: The Movie can, to this day, be seen in superhero films outside the Superman storyline, and even outside the DC Comics universe. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man film is debatably one of the strongest examples of that influence. In the early 1980s, Donner proposed to Warner Brothers a non-camp film version of Batman, to star Mel Gibson.
Donner has directed six films starring Mel Gibson. In 2000, Gibson described the director as
"Uncle Dick. He’s a great guy, just terrific. Extremely professional. He’s an old veteran and has an understanding of film that is the culmination of years of experience. He’s got his technical stuff down, his vision down. No matter what you say about Dick, it underrates him. He really loves what he’s doing, loves working with actors, and he allows you freedom to explore all kinds of areas. 'All right, kid,' he’ll say, and slap you on the back and let you try something, because even he doesn’t know sometimes. He’s just an extremely charming, talented, great fuckin’ guy. I love him."
Richard Donner's cousin is actor Steve Kahan, who played the policeman tracking Otis in Superman: The Movie, and played Captain Ed Murphy in the Lethal Weapon movie franchise. Donner has cast Kahan in some of his other films too.
One of Donner's assistants in the late 1990s was comic book scribe Geoff Johns. In October 2006, Donner, Johns and artist Adam Kubert became the new creative team on Action Comics, the publisher's most time honored publication and one of DC Comics' two main Superman titles.