Donner, Richard

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Working name of Richard Donald Schwartzberg (1930-2021), US Television and Cinema director and producer whose early genre or genre-adjacent work for the small screen included directing six episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) – including the famous "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (11 October 1963) written by Richard Matheson – four episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968) and three of The Wild, Wild West (1965-1969).

Donner directed several journeyman films, including his first, the nonfantastic X-15 (1961). After two more non-genre productions, his first major film as director was the strikingly original supernatural thriller The Omen (1976), whose box-office returns led to three sequels under other directors. This was followed by the Superhero vehicle Superman (1978), whose portrayal of Superman was both a critical and a financial success, and which won a Hugo as best dramatic presentation. Originally meant to be shot back-to-back with Superman, the sequel Superman II (1980) suffered from management conflict and swapped directors in midstream, Donner being replaced by Richard Lester, who received sole directorial credit; something of Donner's intentions can be seen in Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006), re-edited to include much "lost" footage shot under Donner's direction and making minimal use of that shot by Lester.

Further genre films directed by Donner are the fantasies Ladyhawke (1985), set in medieval times and featuring two cursed Shapeshifters, and Scrooged (1988), a modern-dress retelling of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (1843). His final film as director was the Time Travel adventure Timeline (2003), based on Timeline (1999) by Michael Crichton. Among the movies crediting him as executive producer are two X-Men Films (which see): X-Men (2000) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

Superman remains Donner's best loved sf film and, together with the re-edited Superman II and Timeline, demonstrates – sometimes in passing – the extremely interesting and innovative filmmaker he never quite became, partly through disinclination: the list of scripts he turned down is a roll of honour of projects an ambitious creative figure might have readily undertaken. His declared distaste for CGI and its implications might seem to jar with the special effects required (for instance) to show Superman in flight, but it is clear that – particularly when he had the time or motive to focus thoroughly – Donner had a powerful visual sense of the proper way to shoot people. [DRL/JC]

Richard Donald Schwartzberg

born New York: 24 April 1930

died Los Angeles, California: 5 July 2021

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