Producer and director Richard Donner, who passed on July 5, left a lasting effect on both the cinema world and the San Juan Islands.
Donner was born in the Bronx, New York, on April 24, 1930. The beginning of his long-lasting and influential career began in 1961 when he directed his first film titled “X-15,” which was about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s rocket program. In 1968, he filmed “Salt and Pepper,” starring Rat Pack members Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford. Jerry Lewis of the Rat Pack also worked as a co-director for the film.
While working on “Salt and Pepper,” the Rat Pack was at the height of its popularity, allowing Donner to gain some serious traction. His big break happened just shy of a decade later when he came out with the 1976 horror classic “The Omen.” This movie is considered one of the best horror movies ever made. Film Daily refers to “The Omen” as one of the rare films to still remain a true horror classic. With many strange things happening during and after the production, the Los Angeles Times named it the most cursed film in history.
While other production members suffered tragedies, the reported “Omen curse” didn’t seem to touch Donner as he continued on successfully with his career. Some of the most famous of his films include “The Goonies” and “Lethal Weapon.” He also made history with his directed version of “Superman,” in which he made the heroes seem much more human, portraying their inner struggles of fighting with the good and bad inside of them.
It was his career that led him to cross paths with Lauren Shuler in 1989 while filming the movie “Ladyhawk.” Later, Donner and Schuler were married and remained married until his death. Together, they went on to direct and produce “X-Men.”
Donner was known for bringing fun, laughter and pranks to sets.
His wife, Lauren Donner, said, “On set, if someone’s kid had a baseball game, he’d kick them off the set and say, ‘Go watch your kid, your job will be here when you get back!’ He was a real man of the people. He loved his fellow humankind.”
The Donners were filming a movie in Tacoma when they decided they wanted to take a trip out to the San Juan Islands.
“We booked a trip and we were looking out at the beautiful islands and we fell in love,” said Lauren Donner.
The islands also became the location for one of the Donners’ well-known films, “Free Willy,” which raised environmental awareness for orcas in captivity.
They eventually bought property on Orcas, prompting them to lead a more private lifestyle. Though enjoying privacy, they were happy to get to know the community. One of the biggest ways they did so was through helping to raise money for the Orcas Island Animal Shelter.
Before the Donners’ help, stray animals roamed rampantly on Orcas as there was no shelter for them to be placed in. Marsha Waunch and Elyse Van den Bosch were two locals working to solve this problem.
“It just wasn’t a safe and healthy environment for these animals,” Waunch said.
With the motivation to help, Waunch, Van den Bosch and others formed what would become known as the Orcas Island Animal Protection Society. As the number of homeless pets grew, the two women realized they couldn’t do it in their homes anymore.
“I ended up with six cats and four dogs,” Van den Bosch said, laughing.
So, they began thinking about building an animal shelter.
“At the start, I don’t even think most of the community was aware of the problem at the time,” Van den Bosch continued. “We eventually got some stories out in the Sounder and started fundraising, but the money came very slowly.”
As it so happens, while this was going on, the Donners were enjoying their time at their new island home. Van den Bosch then found herself in the right place at the right time, when she went over to a friend’s house where they met the Donners. When she began talking about the difficulties they were having with starting the shelter, the Donners were eager to hop on board and help.
To assist in raising money, the Donners decided to host multiple premiers at the Seaview Theatre.
“We had a treasure trove of films that we directed and produced and we were able to persuade the studio to allow us to open these movies on Orcas and use that to raise some money for the shelter,” Lauren Donner said.
This was a hit with the community, said Waunch, and everyone loved it.
The Donners wanted to make sure the tickets were affordable, she noted. This allowed for large waves of the community to come to view the movies without it being too much of a financial burden. To help even more, the Donners arranged for Warner Brothers to cover the cost of popcorn and a soft drink for everyone, said Waunch.
Back in the 1990s, the large physical rolls of film made movies more difficult to transport than today. To make sure nobody got their hands on the film and pirated it, they had to secretly fly the film on a plane to the island. Van den Bosch recalled a moment where they lost track of a roll of film.
“I called Dick and said ‘Where’s the film?’ It was a Sunday and he ended up getting ahold of someone in Hollywood to grab a new film and get it flown in on his private plane to the island,” she said. “There were people waiting at the airport for the film and once it arrived in the theater everyone cheered! It was just so cute and sweet.”
The process took 10 years of fundraising before the shelter was able to open. Since then, the shelter walls have seen many animals be taken in for help. One of those animals was adopted by the Donners themselves.
“Elyse was a great advocate and one of the dogs we adopted, the craziest one of all, we got from her,” Lauren Donner said. “She said, we have a dog for you and I said no, no we have enough dogs. So Richard met the dog and he was bananas for it. It was Dick’s favorite dog I think out of all our dogs. Boy, yeah, he was crazy.”
Van den Bosch also recalled this moment of coming across what she described as a “big, funny-looking dog.”
“I gave Dick a call and asked if he wanted to take a look at it. He did. He came in, looked at the dog and the dog looked at him and he said, ‘That’s it. I want him. I love him. Terrific,’” she said, laughing.
While his work with the animal shelter shows what a hard worker he was, he also was compassionate with the people working with him, said Lauren Donner. He was described by his wife as having a sense of humor and a heart as big as the sky.
“He always had a laugh,” she said. “Even in the hospital, he had jokes for the nurses and doctors at the very end. Those are just some of the reasons I loved him.”