There’s no denying that Richard Donner, who died Monday at 91, was one of the most influential architects of the blockbuster era. He directed “Superman,” the 1978 man-of-steel epic that invented the comic-book movie as we know it. He directed all four films in the “Lethal Weapon” series, which may be the quintessential incarnation of the joshingly abrasive, throwaway buddy-cop movie. He directed “The Omen,” the 1976 Satan-is-alive-and-he’s-a-scowling-schoolboy horror film that ruled the box office and spooked a generation of moviegoers’ imaginations.
Yet unlike those other formative directors of the blockbuster era, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (or, for that matter, William Friedkin, whose 1973 landmark “The Exorcist” was arguably just about as influential on the culture as “Jaws” and “Star Wars”), Donner was a crowd-pleasing showman who never pretended to be a deep cinematic artist. At his best, he worked with a straight-down-the-middle craft and vitality, and with a human touch that made his movies play like escapist fairy tales.
A telling thing about him is that he didn’t just start off in television, the way directors like Sidney Lumet, Sam Peckinpah, or Robert Altman did. For the first 16 years of his career, Donner was submerged in television, directing episodes of “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” “Route 66,” “The Detectives,” “The Rifleman,” “Have Gun — Will Travel,” “Combat!,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Perry Mason,” “12 O’Clock High,” “Get Smart,” “The F.B.I.,” “The Fugitive,” “It’s About Time,” “Jericho,” “The Wild Wild West,” “Sarge,” “Banyon,” “Ironside,” “The Bold Ones,” “Cannon,” “The Streets of San Francisco,” and “Kojak.” He also directed six episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” notably “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the famous scary one with William Shatner as an airliner passenger who keeps spotting a gremlin on the wing of the plane (it was remade by George Miller in the Spielberg-produced 1983 big-screen “Twilight Zone”). Donner made three trifling feature films along the way (“X-15,” “Lola,” “Salt and Pepper”), but by the time he landed the plum assignment of directing “The Omen,” at the age of 45, he was more than a TV veteran. Series television was in his blood.
I think that’s important to consider, because unlike so many filmmakers of that period who crossed over from one medium to the next, Donner stuck to the essential elements of his TV roots. He kept his films friendly and digestible. He thought in neatly delineated episodes even when he was making an oversize superhero saga. And his most successful movies lent themselves to sequelization with an uncanny facility because Donner had a sixth sense, bred from his work on the small screen, for creating characters who were broadly outlined enough that they could just keep going.
The relationship between TV and movies is an ever-evolving story, dotted with ironic surprises — like the fact that the actor who played Vinnie Barbarino turned out to be a natural-born movie star; or that Michael Mann was the first showrunner who thought like a New Hollywood filmmaker; or that David Chase wanted so badly to be a filmmaker that he figured out a way to make television better than movies. But in the ’70s, when Donner graduated from television, it was no insult to the TV medium to say that most of it had a certain overly well-lit, edges-sanded-down quality. Donner initially planned to make “The Omen” a more ambiguous film than it was (he wanted it to be unclear whether Damien was the Antichrist, and whether the deaths that happened around him were simply freak accidents). But the movie he wound up directing, which planted him on the map of Hollywood power players, had a reassuringly tidy and reductive chill factor. It could have been called “Devil Boy’s Greatest Murder Hits.”
That’s because “The Omen” was already, in effect, an extension/adaptation of something else. It was greenlit because of “The Exorcist,” but at heart it was “Rosemary’s Baby Grows Up” — and, in fact, when the film’s June 1976 release was followed, four months later, by the ABC TV-movie “Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby,” the two mediums truly seemed to be flowing into each other. Donner was all set to direct the “Omen” sequel, but instead he got hired to make “Superman,” and in March 1977 he began shooting that film and its sequel simultaneously. Between Marlon Brando’s hijinks and demands and the war that erupted between Donner and the producers over scheduling and budget, it was one of the most tormented productions since “Cleopatra” — which is why “Superman II” wound up being completed by Richard Lester. (Donner shot about 75 percent of it.)
Yet 43 years later, “Superman” remains a beloved movie. The reason is that even though it’s a rather ungainly origin story, with a top-heavy structure, too many amber waves of grain, and a trio of villains who (to me) are cartoonish enough to be cringe-worthy, there’s something great in the middle of it: the nimble magic of Christopher Reeve’s performance — his awkward, glasses-nudging, hunk-as-shrinking-violet comical nerd presence as Clark Kent, and his stylized dashing American majesty as Superman. It’s still the chewiest human center that a comic-book movie has ever had. And that’s because Donner approached the scenes between Reeve and Margot Kidder as if they were good television: relaxed and relatable, tweaking the very idea of super-ness. He used the small-screen spirit to make a large story life-size.
“The Goonies” was also, in effect, a glorified small-screen riff, even though it was a 1985 hit movie. Based on a story by Spielberg, it was “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with kids, and it remains a beloved touchstone of Gen-X nostalgia. But it was Donner’s next film that would prove to be possibly his most defining. Released in 1987, “Lethal Weapon” seemed, on the surface, like a rehash of many other buddy movies, which it stuffed into a compactor: “Freebie and the Bean,” “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” “48 HRS.” Yet Donner, by winnowing the form down to unabashed formula, made it seem at once scuzzier and purer. There was no pretense to the prickly chemistry between Mel Gibson’s manic, just-how-nuts-am-I? Riggs and Danny Glover’s exasperated Murtaugh. It was pure razzmatazz. It stripped the buddy movie to its scruffy chassis, implicitly saying to moviegoers, “From now on, this will be enough for you.” And it was. There were three more “Lethal Weapon” films (the best of the whole lot was “Lethal Weapon 2”), but more than that the series opened the door to a new dimension of the blockbuster era: that it could now be built around scampish reruns on steroids.
Donner’s other big-ticket films were often comedies: “Scrooged,” the Bill Murray riff on “A Christmas Carol”; “The Toy,” a Richard Pryor dud that retrofitted a French movie for U.S. audiences; and “Maverick,” a gloss on the late-’50s television Western, and a movie so shticky and hammy it seemed more like TV than the TV show. But maybe one reason Donner wasn’t a great director of front-and-center comedy is that his movies, at their best, are naturally funny; they have a ticklish lift to them. Watching “Superman,” you believe a man can fly (that’s the visual effects), but you also believe he’s having the time of his life doing it. That’s the Donner effect.