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Richard Donner, director of 'Lethal Weapon' and first 'Superman,' dies at 91

He also helmed "The Goonies" and the Bill Murray vehicle "Scrooged."
Posted at 8:16 AM, Jul 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-06 09:18:19-04

(NBC News) LOS ANGELES - The film director Richard Donner, best known for helming the "Lethal Weapon" film series, "The Goonies" and the original "Superman" film, has died. He was 91.

Donner's production company confirmed news of his death to Variety. The cause was not disclosed.

Although it was not his first big-screen effort, his big feature break came with 1976's "The Omen," starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. Thereafter, he brought his craftsmanship to the first "Superman."

He also branched out into producing ("Free Willy," "The Lost Boys"), usually with his wife, Lauren Shuler Donner. He executive produced the huge 2000 success "X-Men" and later the prequel "X-Men Origins: Wolverine."

But his career was highlighted by the "Lethal Weapon" series, starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, which elevated him to the ranks of directors generating more than a billion dollars at the box office.

Born Richard Donald Schwartzberg in the Bronx, New York, he attended Parker Junior College and then New York University, where he majored in business and theater.

He studied acting with David Alexander and Dort Clark and worked regularly, mostly off-Broadway, in the early 1950s. While he was appearing in Martin Ritt's television production of "Of Human Bondage," Donner took the director's advice to heart.

"Marty told me I'd never make it as an actor because I couldn't take direction," Donner once said, "but he thought I could give it and offered me a job as his assistant."

Donner bonded with the documentarian George Blake, starting as his driver and eventually working his way up to directing documentaries, industrial films and commercials. After Blake's death, Donner moved to Los Angeles, where he broke into directing for television in 1959 with the Steve McQueen Western series "Wanted: Dead or Alive."

He subsequently helmed episodes of "Perry Mason," "Route 66," "The Fugitive," "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," "Get Smart," "The Six Million Dollar Man," "Kojak" and "The Streets of San Francisco." He did some of his most memorable TV work for Rod Serling on "The Twilight Zone," especially the 1963 episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," starring William Shatner.

Donner also worked for the animation company Hanna-Barbera, directing several episodes of "Danger Island," part of children's series "The Banana Splits," in which his handheld camera work stood out.

In 1961, he directed his first film, the low-budget "X-15," starring Charles Bronson. He also directed a couple of British films, "Salt and Pepper" and "Twinky" (aka "Lola") in the 1960s, as well as 1969's "Child Bride." He broke into directing long-form television with such efforts as the 1975 telepics "A Shadow in the Streets" and "Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic."

Making full use of what he had learned on "The Twilight Zone," Donner broke through in the feature film arena with "The Omen," a 1976 hit thriller that led to a plum assignment, bringing Superman to the big screen in 1978.

Donner began to add producing to his credits, many in conjunction with Shuler Donner, his wife, with such films as "Omen III: The Final Conflict" and later "The Lost Boys" and "Delirious," as well as "Demon Knight" (1995) and "Bordello of Blood," features spawned from the HBO series "Tales From the Crypt," which he also produced from 1989 to 1991. In the 1990s, he produced the appealing "Free Willy" trilogy of children's films.

Donner really hit his stride starting with 1982's period romantic adventure "Ladyhawke," followed by "The Goonies" (from Steven Spielberg's Amblin) and especially the "Lethal Weapon" action franchise, the first entry of which appeared in 1987. Three sequels were all successful, and he also paired with Gibson for "Maverick" and "Conspiracy Theory."

He continued in the 1990s as a dependable mainstream director-producer through such films as "Scrooged," starring Bill Murray, and "Assassins," with Sylvester Stallone. He also executive produced Oliver Stone's 1999 NFL drama, "Any Given Sunday."

Donner also directed and produced the time-travel tale "Timeline" in 2003 and the Bruce Willis actioner "16 Blocks" in 2006. He was the executive producer of director Bryan Singer's "X-Men," which grossed $297 million worldwide in 2000, and its successful 2009 prequel, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," which took in $379 million worldwide.

He is survived by Shuler Donner, whom he married in 1986.