When I was a kid and first discovering the four colored world of comic books, there had been a ragtag assortment of television, film and radio adaptations of some of the more vibrant superheroes that had graced the printed page – Batman and Robin, Captain Marvel (the real one from Fawcett Comics), the Green Hornet, Captain America and Superman all pitched in doing the live-action thing. Saturday morning cartoons had also featured a variety of popular 1960s Marvel characters such as the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and Iron Man. So it wasn’t quite Death Valley Days, that’s for sure, yet somehow all of the above in one way or another missed the mark in translating what it was exactly that was so magical about the world of comic books that it kept fans coming back monthly for their 17-22 page fix of incredible action, far-out plots and dalliances in the world of the soap opera. That all irrevocably changed with director Richard Donner and his 1978 opus, Superman: The Movie.
In just over three hours, Bronx native Richard Donner hit every blessed note on the comic book jukebox, bringing to life with his directing prowess archetypal do-gooder Superman, tying his history inexorably with that of Americana and, as the tag-line for the film promised, making all of us “believe that a man can fly.”
Richard Donner passed away on Monday at the age of 91.
Born Richard Donald Schwartzberg in the Bronx, New York on April 24, 1930, Donner initially harbored dreams of becoming an actor, but ‘twas not to be. The son to a father who owned a tiny furniture-manufacturing business had, like Superman, taller buildings to leap in a single bound, and so it was deemed by the Universe that the man would become one of the more noted directors of our times, initially making his bones in television. He memorably directed William Shatner in the Nightmare at 20,000 Feet episode of The Twilight Zone and also took a stab at helming other popular shows of the 1960s like The Fugitive, Gilligan’s Island and The Wild Wild West.
The big screen is ultimately where Richard Donner’s path rested: After directing several forgettable feature films during the 60s (X-15, anyone?), the struggling director hit pay dirt with his creepy horror overture The Omen. From the London soundstage of a possessed little boy it was but a small jump to the doomed planet of Krypton in the film that firmly announced Richard Donner as a director with real longevity and something to say – Superman: The Movie. Aided and abetted by a crackerjack script from Mario Puzo and blessed with tremendous actors in the form of Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Trevor Howard, Glenn Ford and Jackie Cooper, Superman captured the essence and magic of Jerry Siegel’s and Joe Shuster’s Man of Steel and put the world on notice that good film could originate from the world of comics.
Donner went on after Superman to direct such classic fare as the Lethal Weapon films and Goonies. When not directing, the prolific auteur could be found producing films alongside the great love of his life, wife Lauren Shuler Donner. And, appropriately enough, the man who brought the great city of Metropolis to life back in ’78 also took a stab at co-writing alongside former protégé Geoff Johns some issues of Action Comics which featured Superman. It seems that Kal-El, Lois Lane and the Phantom Zone were never really too far from the man’s heart of hearts.
Richard Donner, from a former five year old who learned to read from Superman comics and who counts your first brilliant film in that series as a high-water mark in the world of film, thank you for bringing such wonderful magic into not just my life, but in the lives of millions of others. Your kind will never be seen again. God Speed and Good Night, Mr. Donner.