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Richard Donner pioneered superhero genre

'Superman' paved way for today's blockbusters

Hollywood had put men in tights long before 1978’s “Superman,” but Richard Donner was the first to do so convincingly, effectively setting the model for the modern-day superhero movie.

The director, who later gave the genre a second boost by producing the “X-Men” franchise with wife Lauren Shuler Donner, attributes “Superman’s” success to his belief in audiences’ ability to take the material as seriously as he did, even if it originated on the larger-than-life pulp pages of a comicbook.

“I have my own sense of verisimilitude when it comes to each and every project,” Donner says. “It’s a reformation, to a degree, of Method acting principles transformed for directing: Find the reality. I look for the reality in the situation, rather than the farce.”

Before tackling “Superman,” Donner applied his grounded approach to genre television, such as his classic “Twilight Zone” episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” starring William Shatner, and the 1976 horror hit “The Omen” (it was that pic’s success that earned Donner his first $1 million payday, on “Superman”).

Earlier comicbook adaptations had always been over-the-top and borderline-silly in tone, and Donner knew he wanted to avoid that with the Man of Steel. After signing on to direct “Superman” for Warners, the first thing he did was scuttle much of the existing scripted material the studio had deemed ready to shoot.

Donner points to one misguided scene in particular, in which Superman flies around Metropolis searching for Lex Luthor. When he spots a similar-looking bald man on the street, Superman swoops down and spins the man around for a shocking reveal. “The man was Telly Savalas!” Donner says laughing. “And he had a lollipop and said, ‘Who loves ya baby?’ — his line from ‘Kojak.‘ This was defamation of character! This was frozen apple pie! I thought, ‘They couldn’t do that to Superman! I know Superman, I was brought up on him.’ ”

Next Donner called screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz to collaborate with him. Donner convinced him to take on the project after greeting him at a meeting wearing a Superman costume the studio had given him. Although Mankiewicz did not receive screenwriting credit, Donner cites his contributions to the project as invaluable. Donner recalls telling the writer, “If we can make a man fly and make it believable, it will work — that’ll be my job. And it’s got to have a wonderful love story — and that’s your job.”

With both parties carrying through on their sides of the deal, Donner brought comicbook mythology to the bigscreen in a vital new way, mixing John Ford’s ever-realistic sense of adventure with David Lean’s epic flair. The film was an enormous success, coming in second only to “Grease” that year at the box office and inspiring a new generation of helmers, many of whom responded to Donner’s impulse to take the material seriously.

“When Glenn Ford dies and young Clark is there, that carries all the weight of ‘East of Eden’ or any of those pictures,” says longtime admirer Bryan Singer, whom the Donners selected to adapt the “X-Men” comic nearly two decades later. Singer was delighted to be working with one of his heroes as producer, even turning to the veteran director for practical advice during the shoot.

One particularly tricky day in Toronto, when costumes and props were failing and one of the actors went into meltdown mode, Singer was relieved to have Donner on hand. “(Richard) leaned over to me and said, ‘This is one of the greatest things you get to do as a movie director,” Singer recalls. “And he said, ‘Walk over and hug one of your actors!’ And I did it, and it actually made a difference.”

On the “X-Men” sequel, Donner was caught by surprise after walking into Singer’s trailer, only to find the director watching a bootleg four-hour cut of Donner’s “Superman” with writers Mike Dougherty and Dan Harris. “I thought it was a setup,” Donner says, but it turned out the screening was part of a weekly ritual for the trio.

A few years later, Singer sought Donner’s blessing before undertaking “Superman Returns,” which he approached as a faithful sequel — less reinvention than homage — to Donner’s vision of the hero.

Singer says it’s his wildest dream to have a career as vibrant as his idol’s. Donner, who even co-wrote a few Superman Action Comics in 2006 with former assistant Geoff Johns, has five projects across various genres in active development, including at least one film he intends to direct. Next up is horse opera “Pony Express,” starring Robert Duvall, with Donner set to helm the pilot for AMC.

For the director, the lesson remains to always put the emotional truths of his characters first and then let action follow — a tactic he found crucial for his “Lethal Weapon” series.

“The action came out of a good story, good character relationships and having the audience care about those characters,” he says. “Up until (“Lethal Weapon”), everything I read was just action for the sake of action. It was gratuitous, and a lot of it still is. And good luck to them — but I don’t want to be involved in that.”