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Vet helmer’s long and boffo road

An authentic strait-jacket, mounted on canvas and framed in a glass box, hangs on the wall at the entrance to Richard Donner’s offices on the Warner Bros. lot. A small red hammer is in a corner of the frame along with an inscription: “In case of emergency, break glass.” A gift from Mike Ovitz, who always understood his clients, it’s a startling but apt icon for the turbulent milieu in which Donner reigns. But for whom was this restraint intended — the colorful A list producer-director, or those around him?

Explosive, single-minded, passionate and committed are adjectives typically used about the director of such monster macho hits as “Superman” and the “Lethal Weapon” series. Also funny — and the films reveal that element, too. Two decades earlier, Donner jumpstarted his feature career with the hugely successful, groundbreaking horror film “The Omen.” Since then he has become one of just a handful of directors whose films have grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide.

Despite his rarefied position, Donner is not well known to the general public. That’s just how he likes it, deflecting media attention to the films rather than himself, and giving generic answers when he finally submits to an interview. Within the industry however, he’s a titan — film director as commander of the troops. Gene Hackman, who gave one of his more intriguing midcareer performances in “Superman,” reportedly based his no-bullshit helmer in “Postcards From the Edge” on Donner.

But, as Hackman clearly indicates, there’s yet another Dick Donner — one with a heart so big and vulnerable he has to protect himself with a blustery moat to keep from being walked all over. Dick No. 2 is an activist for animal rights, with an island home where he watches whales and dolphins frolic; a man with a wife he adores and respects — so much that he made her a partner; and an interesting short list of movies that’s quite different from the thrillers and actioners he so masterfully pulls off.

This version of Donner made an uncommonly affecting story of brotherly love and child abuse (“Radio Flyer”), a character study of male camaraderie under adverse conditions (“Inside Moves”), and a hugely successful kids adventure pic (“The Goonies”). He rescued a whale named Keiko, then made him a star in “Free Willy,” on which he was executive producer.

Dick No. 2, moreover, is a romantic, and fiercely loyal. He credits his wife, the former Lauren Shuler, with “changing my life totally, giving me a home I desperately love, insulating me from much of the unpleasant side of moviemaking.” Gratitude is due Joel Silver, too, for keeping the sharks at bay.

Actor Mel Gibson, whom Donner has directed in five features, “is like a son or best buddy, bright and funny, incredibly decent, and the most versatile actor I’ve ever worked with.” And as far as formative influences are concerned, Donner cites one obscure figure, George Blake — not a politically correct list of auteurs.

How, one wonders, does Donner reconcile these different facets of himself? He is tough; he has to be to have sustained such a long career in mainstream studio filmmaking. Without doubt he can wheel and deal with the industry’s top players — yet he takes time to rescue a stray puppy or kitten. At his home in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington, he relishes working on his tractor from morning to dusk, taking apart the transmission of an old Ford and getting grease under his nails, and mingling with residents of the mostly blue-collar community. “It’s like Norman Rockwell come to life,” he enthuses.

Donner insists he’s all of a piece, not juggling disparate sensibilities, and says he never constructed any kind of master career plan. “I read or develop something I want to see on the screen — and go for it. My choices are as simple as that. Sometimes I stay with a project too long and then I have to walk away from it. The style of the movie comes out of the emotions of the moment, while it’s being made. It’s all instinct.”

Instinct honed by decades of experience.

The formative years

Richard Donner is a born-and-bred New Yorker whose grandfather owned a movie theater in Brooklyn where Donner was plopped as a baby while Mom visited her parents. His father, Fred Schwartzberg, who ran a small furniture manufacturing business, satisfied his artistic yearnings with wood carving. His mother, Hattie, did what all moms of that generation did, which is a little bit of everything. Bright and funny, she lived to age 92, appearing in many of Donner’s films much as the late Catherine Scorsese took part in those by her son. Donner’s only sibling is a sister, Joan, now a retired psychologist.

It isn’t quite clear when show business appeared on Donner’s horizon. He took a business curriculum at New York University but changed to acting soon thereafter, studying with David Alexander and Dort Clark. He never had difficulty getting work but one assignment completely changed his focus. After appearing in Martin Ritt’s TV production “Of Human Bondage,” the director proffered some advice. “Marty told me I’d never make it as an actor because I couldn’t take direction,” Donner recalls, “but he thought I could give it and offered me a job as his assistant.”

This was the ’50s, the era of live television. The big directorial names were John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn. Donner got jobs of various kinds and along the way met George Blake, a seminal figure in his life.

The precocious Blake, still in his early 30s, already had received an Academy Award nomination for “A Voice Is Born,” a documentary about Nicholas Gaffney, who learned to sing in a concentration camp. But Blake also had suffered a heart attack and needed somebody to drive him around. Donner was hired. They hit it off spectacularly and subsequently traveled all over the country together, making documentaries and commercials; Donner eventually directed some of those himself.

Because Donner cites Blake as the one person to whom he feels deeply indebted, it’s appropriate to inquire why. Did he impart technique about lenses or script development? “No, no, that wasn’t it,” Donner says. “The technical side of moviemaking is the easiest side, and getting more so all the time. The geniuses who create illusion can provide whatever your heart desires. When I made ‘Superman,’ I didn’t accept a flying shot for six months. We had to use harnesses and rigs — it was tough. However, I felt that if the audience didn’t believe he was flying, I didn’t have a movie. Today, if you want a man to fly, you tell the wizards who punch it into a computer.”

The segue into “Superman” lore is a typical Donneresque digression — interesting, for sure, but his way of avoiding deeply personal subjects. Still, one is curious what he learned from Blake, and after a long, deep breath, Donner says, “Humanity. He was wonderful with people and he thought it was relationships that ultimately counted (even in the work). He believed a director should approach actors as if he too were an actor, and then work with them. Somehow, he always got inside a character. He felt film people were fortunate to be doing what we were doing and that sets should be happy places. He had a brilliant sense of humor. Also, he gave me an insight to where I wanted to go in life.”

It was the late 1950s when Donner worked with Blake, yet he speaks of his untimely death at age 38 as if it were really quite recent. Blake’s son, an infant at the time, is a friend to this day.

Donner equates the filmmaking process to romance, marriage and birth. “In pre-production you’re getting acquainted; filming is like a marriage; and when the movie comes out of the lab, it’s the ‘baby’ you hope everyone loves as much as you do.”

These remarks and some later ones about Gibson surely reflect Donner’s creative and ethical ethos. “Mel and I have learned to trust each other. There needs to be trust between an actor and a director but it has become increasingly difficult to achieve. Humor is so important. Everything’s so explosive on a movie set. When you lose your sense of humor about what you’re doing, you become very linear and defensive.”

And that’s about as far as Donner cares to go in publicly analyzing himself or his films, a very different stance from certain others of the profession who start building their legends after a single work. It makes a reporter’s job more challenging but it’s as refreshing as a birthday surprise — even endearing.

After relocating to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, Donner received significant television assignments and then, in 1975, he directed “The Omen,” starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. The elegant, supernatural thriller was not only an international box office smash, it humanized and elevated the genre. Donner showed that if you added compelling, well-rounded characters to the classic mix of thrills and chills, a larger audience would develop.

“Superman” famously followed. Though it was an enormous success with critics and public alike, its creation was no picnic. Donner had major conflicts with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, which led to a parting of the ways at sequel time. Though Richard Lester is the accredited director of the sequel, in fact Donner directed at least 40% of the film, including all of the sequences with Hackman and Marlon Brando. (According to an associate, Donner long ago patched up his differences with the Salkinds.)

Donner clearly is proud of his achievement with “Superman,” but followed it with a naturalistic film of modest size about male friendships, “Inside Moves,” starring John Savage and David Morse. A complex, affecting film (written by Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin), it weaves anti-war sentiment into a plea for universal brotherhood and contains a remarkable performance by Savage.

Donner’s subsequent pictures alternated with the three “Lethal Weapon” films, each more successful than the one before. They include “The Toy,” “Ladyhawke” and “Scrooged,” along with the previously mentioned “The Goonies,” “Radio Flyer” and “Maverick.” He also made a kind of revisionist Western, “Assassins,” starring Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas. These are one-of-a-kind movies, not notably linked by subject matter, theme or style. Of course, three star Gibson, who later brought “Maverick” to Donner. Their fifth collaboration, Warner Bros.’ “Conspiracy Theory,” opens in August.

Filmmaking remains important to Donner but the unmistakable center of his life is his wife of 11 years. Their marriage seems to incorporate some fairly traditional elements in addition to a professional association and considerable philanthropic activity.

“I was a bachelor. My holdings on life were few and far between. Now I have a home I love and someone I trust to help me make certain decisions.

“Lauren has enlightened me in so many ways. For example, she has taught me to enjoy travel. She researches and plans everything, and I end up learning about places I’d already been but hadn’t really seen. She has opened my eyes.”

At their company, Donner/Shuler Donner, they work separately (she also develops and produces her own projects) and together. “She works from love and passion, and makes these films come to life. She’s strong. She has taken some directors down a path they’ve never been before. Sometimes we lock horns. She may want to do something that doesn’t interest me. I move on and she may be angry with me. It can be hard on both of us but we come home in two different cars and we don’t remember where we just were.”

Stray pups and kittens are constantly being dropped off at their offices, for the couple’s passion for animals is well known. He once threatened to lead a boycott of the Olympics because of whaling practices. “I do not understand someone who puts on a costume, picks up a sophisticated weapon and kills a living thing — just for sport. I think it’s about the same as the killings on the streets of Los Angeles. Man is inhumane, even to himself. When we learn to live with animal life, maybe we can live with ourselves.”

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