The Directors: Richard Donner & Peter Hyams

Another installment in the directors series

 

Richard Donner started directing television Westerns with Zane Grey Theater. He directed many hours of television during the 1960s, Loretta Young Theater, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Route 66, Wagon Train, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, The Twilight Zone, The Man From UNCLE, The Wild Wild West, The Fugitive, Perry Mason, Twelve O’Clock High and many more. He is also remembered for directing two episodes of Get Smart and three episodes of Gilligan’s Island.

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Superman (1978) on the set Directed by Richard Donner Shown from left: Christopher Reeve (as Clark Kent/Superman), Richard Donner

He continued directing television into the mid 1970s, directing crime dramas and television films.

In 1976, he received his first theatrical film assignment: The Omen, starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. On a $3 million budget it made over $60 million at the box office in the U.S. His next assignment was Superman, starring Glenn Ford, Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman. On a budget of more than $50 million, the film collected more than $166 million in the U.S. alone.

Donner moved on to a variety of other films including Night Moves, The Goonies, Ladyhawke and The Toy. This was an interesting assortment of comedy, fantasy, drama and adventure. Donner proved he could mix genres in the same film while delivering box office success.

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Donner with Danny Glover and Mel Gibson on the set of Lethal Weapon.

The next film was a game changer: Lethal Weapon. On a $15 million dollar budget the film was a smash hit earning more than $120 million worldwide, and spawning three sequels.

Donner made other films, directing some, producing others, but his trademark was the Lethal Weapon comedy/action formula. His next directed film was Scrooged, a comedy variation on A Christmas Carol.

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SCROOGED, Bill Murray, Director Richard Donner on set, 1988. (c) Paramount Pictures.

Donner’s films were box office and popcorn films, not serious award nominated film fare. Donner will be credited with popularizing the “buddy film” although the concept had existed for many years, particularly in Westerns. Donner also mixed comedy with action, finding a formula of compatibility much darker than George Roy Hill in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Donner’s formula has been imitated liberally for the past thirty years, sometimes better, but usually not.

 

Peter Hyams came to filmmaking by way of reporting the news and making documentary films.  His entry to Hollywood was as a writer, but he soon work numerious hats on his films:  writer, producer and director; and later added the director of photography on many of his projects.  His first credit as writing T.R. Baskin (1971) and his first directing assignment was Rolling Man (1972, TV movie).

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Hyams’ first big scale project was Busting (1974), a buddy-cop movie that he wrote and directed, starring Elliott Gould and Robert Blake.  The film that put him on the A List was Capricorn One (1977), also starring Gould, which Hyams also wrote and directed.  The same year he adapted the book Telefon, into a film for Charles Bronson.

Hyams then enjoyed a 20 year run of big studio films, mostly falling into the action and mystery genres.  Hyams’ films usually revolved around two people thrust together on a journey or out to solve a crime.  This created an opportunity for some offbeat character interplay as in his earlier film Busting, the 1986 Billy Crystal-Gregory Hines film Running Scared, the 1988 Sean Connery-Mark Harmon film The Presidio, or the 1990 Gene Hackman- Anne Archer crime thriller, Narrow Margin.

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Hyams wrote and directed 2010 (1984), the follow-up to 2001, A Space OdysseyThe Star Chamber (1983), wrote The Hunter for Steve McQueen, and hooked up with Jean-Claude Van Damme (Timecop, Sudden Death) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (End of Days).    Hyams wrapped up his career in 2013 with Enemies Closer.

 

Hyams, like Donner, specialized in gritty, action films, and usually paired characters in difficult situations.  Hyams and Donner created dramatic premises and wrapped a comedy perspective around the reality, with a romance or two thrown it.  Donner started out with Superman and the Goonies, the fantasy/science fiction genre, where Hyams moved in that direction with Capricorn One, Outland, 2010 and Timecop.

Donner and Hyams provided entertainment, popcorn movies. Each started making films in the 1970s but truly came into their own in the next decade, as bullets and amusing lines of dialogue ruled the screen.   Neither one of them were aiming for serious art, just films that told a story that audiences enjoyed.

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Peter Hyams

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