Jeff Cohen first met Richard Donner while making “The Goonies,” the 1985 adventure classic about a group of misfit kids hunting for treasure. Cohen played Chunk, a mischevious preteen who loves ice cream and prank calls. Decades later, he credits Donner with coaxing out his performance, but Cohen owes more to the late director than a memorable role in an iconic film. Donner and his wife, Lauren Shuler Donner, paid his college tuition and provided a critical source of emotional and financial support when he needed it the most. Cohen is now a prominent entertainment attorney and the co-founder of the Cohen & Gardner firm in Beverly Hills.
Donner died Monday in Los Angeles at age 91. In addition to “Goonies,” his credits include “Superman,” “The Omen,” “Scrooged,” and the “Lethal Weapon” series. Tributes to Donner’s talent have been offered from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Danny Glover, and Mel Gibson, but few could touch the heartfelt memories that Cohen shared after the news broke. An emotional Cohen spoke to Variety about Donner’s legacy and generosity.
Here are his remarks, which have been edited for clarity:
Dick Donner was and is my favorite person in the world. He is the best person I’ve ever known. He is remarkably talented, remarkably kind, remarkably loving, and, as an artist, Dick Donner is one of the greatest film directors of all time.
Dick Donner directed the greatest superhero film of all time with “Superman.” That is the film that cracks the genre. You don’t have Tim Burton’s “Batman” if you don’t have “Superman.” You don’t have the Marvel movies without “Superman.” Dick Donner also directed one of the greatest kids movies of all time with “The Goonies.” Additionally, Dick directed one of the greatest horror movies of all time with “The Omen.” Additionally, Dick directed one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time with “Scrooged.” Additionally, Dick directed some of the greatest action movies of all time with the Lethal Weapon series. What director can make stellar films in all those categories?
As a human being, Dick was so kind to me. I’m an entertainment attorney, and I have a firm out here in Los Angeles. None of that would have happened for me without Dick Donner helping me when there was nothing I could do for him. To me, that’s a unique thing in our business. Dick Donner and Lauren Shuler Donner, because they were kind, paid for my college when I went to Berkeley.
The story is when my acting career started to peter out, I still loved show business, and Dick let me be a production assistant for him. I worked for him at Warner Bros. When I was applying to college, I said, ‘hey Dick, can you write me a letter of recommendation for college?’ And he said, ‘sure kid.” He called everybody kid. If you were seven years old he called you kid. If you were 50 years old he called you kid. He asked me to put some notes together to give him an indication of what he should say. In the note to him, I told him about my life and some of the struggles that I went through as a kid — my father not being there and other issues that I dealt with. And he called me on the phone and instead of merely writing a letter of recommendation to college, he told me that he and Lauren had read my letter and they were going to pay for my college. I was absolutely flabbergasted. I was shocked. I had to sit down, because, for me, paying for college was going to be a problem. That changed my life. Not only economically, but it showed that Dick and Lauren believed in me. They believed in me. They thought I could do something. They thought I could make something of myself. That is Dick Donner — being kind, being empathetic, and not because he wanted anything in return.
There’s a quote from Ben Franklin: “It is the height of cleverness to conceal it.” That is Dick Donner. He was the smartest guy in every room, but he never made anyone feel less than him. He always made everyone feel great. He made you feel smart and important. He never needed to show off. He never needed to step into the limelight. He wanted everyone else to look good. He wanted everyone else to succeed.
Dick’s through line in cinema was verisimilitude. He could take the most fantastic, remarkable situation, like a man flying, and make you believe it. You will believe a man can fly. In “Goonies,” this fantastic situation where there’s bad guys chasing these kids and there are all these booby traps, that could be ridiculous. But he made you believe it. He made you buy into it. Dick brought this humanity and understanding of the human spirit to all his work.
This is how great of a director Dick Donner is. I’m a terrible actor and he made me look great. The fact that I looked like I knew what I was doing and looked like I could act, proves that he was a genius.
I love him and I miss him already. The world is a darker place without him in it, but his amazing films and his good works as a human being will live on.