Television

Richard Donner, Director of Superman and The Goonies, Has Died. Here’s Where to Find His Early TV Work.

Richard Donner and Lauren Shuler Donner, in medium close-up, smiling on a red carpet.
Richard Donner and his wife Lauren Shuler Donner attending the Producers Guild Awards in 2019. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Director Richard Donner died Monday at the age of 91. His feature films include The Omen, Superman, The Goonies, and the Lethal Weapon franchise, which have several things in common, despite spanning multiple genres: They were all blockbusters, they were all hugely influential, and you’ve probably already seen them all many, many times. There’s one more thing, too: They’re a relatively small part of Donner’s filmography. Donner learned his trade in network television, and whether you count by runtime, number of episodes, or number of shows, he directed more TV in the first five years of his career than in 45 years of making feature films. The approach he learned there stuck with him long after he jumped to theatrical releases, too: As late as 2006, he described himself in an Archive of American Television interview as someone who was “pretty good at meeting a schedule and a budget” like a TV director-for-hire, not an auteur.

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If you want to watch Donner’s early work and see him trying things out, though, it’s surprisingly difficult to do. With only a few exceptions—his episodes of enormously successful shows with long syndicated afterlives like The Twilight Zone or Perry Mason—virtually none of it is legally available to stream. That’s a shame, because even Donner’s earliest work has great performances and visually striking shots, like the shot of Harry Dean Stanton goofing around with a noose in his episode of Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre, which was only his second time directing TV. Here’s a guide to the first five years of Donner’s TV career—which doubles as a guide to a decent slice of early 1960s TV, because he was so prolific—complete with information about how or where you can watch his work. As you’ll see, the networks are doing a pretty terrible job of keeping their own history available to the public, despite the fact that they now run streaming services.

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• Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre. As a CBS show, Zane Grey Theatre’s natural home for streaming should be Paramount Plus, but you won’t find it there. Although the first three seasons got DVD releases, Donner’s episode, “So Young the Savage Land,” which features both Claudette Colbert and Harry Dean Stanton, hasn’t been released on home video. It’s not hard to see, though: Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications has the full episode, complete with the original ads.
• The DuPont Show With June Allyson. Another early CBS show that’s not available on their proprietary streaming network. Like Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre, June Allyson’s show was an anthology produced by Powell’s Four Star Television (headed at the time by future television legend Aaron Spelling). Donner’s episode, “Emergency,” stars Robert Vaughn as a young surgeon who has to operate on the chief surgeon’s daughter. It’s never gotten a legitimate home video release, but can be readily found on YouTube.
• The Loretta Young Show is another anthology series that’s not available on its original network’s streaming service, but this time the culprit is NBC instead of CBS. Donner directed five episodes, all from the spring of 1961, and all included on Shout! Factory’s 2013 DVD box set. One of Donner’s episodes, “Quiet Desperation,” which stars Young herself as a woman whose husband is being pressured to relocate to Japan, has trickled down to YouTube. To see “Woodlot,” the episode with the most interesting cast (Ellen Burstyn and Charles Bronson!), you’ll have to shell out for the DVDs.
• Wanted: Dead or Alive is another Four Star production for CBS, and yet another show that’s inexplicably unavailable to stream anywhere. In this case, that’s despite the fact that the show starred Steve McQueen and inspired fictional TV show Bounty Law in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The complete series is available in a DVD box set; Donner’s six episodes feature appearances from Warren Oates, Cloris Leachman, Noah Beery Jr., and Mary Tyler Moore.
• Route 66 is the first show in Donner’s filmography that is readily available to stream legally: IMDb TV has it for free (with ads). The show’s gimmick was that it was shot on location all over America, and Donner’s episode, with guest star Nina Foch, was filmed around Spring Grove State Hospital near Baltimore, Maryland.
• The Tall Man, an NBC show starring Barry Sullivan and Clu Gulagar as highly fictionalized versions of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, is not available to stream on Peacock or anywhere else. However, the series got a DVD release in 2011, and Donner’s episodes of the show, “Petticoat Crusade” and “The Leopard’s Spots” are not difficult to find online.
• Bette Davis appeared on Wagon Train three different times as three different characters. Donner directed her final appearance, “The Bettina May Story,” but unless you’re lucky enough to catch that specific episode airing on MeTV (and the odds are 1 in 284—Wagon Train ran for a long time!) there’s no way to exchange money with the copyright holders for the right to watch it legally. The 2012 DVD release of the show’s fifth season is out of print, and no one has it streaming. It can be found through less legitimate means.
• The Detectives, a Four Star-produced crime drama starring Robert Taylor, has never had a home video release except for a German-language-only DVD. Donner’s episode, “Never the Twain,” featured a pre-Mod Squad Mark Goddard and a pre-Batman Adam West, both of whom were series regulars. Good luck watching it, though, unless you speak German!
• The Rifleman. Richard Donner directed seven episodes of this Four Star / ABC production, which stars Chuck Conners as a single father raising a son in the New Mexico Territory, and for once, you can easily them all on IMDb TV: “Gunfire” (with Lon Chaney, Jr.), “Deadly Image,” “The Debt,” “Guilty Conscience,” “The Day a Town Slept,” “Milly’s Brother,” and “Outlaw’s Shoes.”
• Have Gun – Will Travel was a CBS production for the CBS network, but you wouldn’t know that from Paramount Plus, where it’s missing. Paramount did release a DVD box set of all 225 episodes, five of which were directed by Richard Donner, but they’re not on any streaming service.
• NBC’s legal drama Sam Benedict got a Warner Archive DVD release, but is otherwise unavailable. The show starred Edmund O’Brien as a San Francisco lawyer; guest stars on Donner’s six episodes include Ida Lupino, Nina Foch, and Eddie Albert.
• Philbert, a pilot for ABC about a cartoonist and his creation that saw Donner collaborate with legendary animator Friz Freling, didn’t get picked up to series, and was re-edited and released as a theatrical short. It got a home video release in 2005 as part of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 3 because of Freling’s involvement, but isn’t available to legally stream.
• The Eleventh Hour, a Dr. Kildare spinoff about psychiatrists, was only on NBC for two seasons, and in the second season the network had to replace original star Wendell Corey with perpetual second choice Ralph Bellamy, because Corey couldn’t stay sober. Warner Archive released the first season on DVD back in 2016, but Donner’s three episodes were all in the second season, and are currently unavailable.
• Donner directed the finale of the first season of ABC’s WWII drama Combat!, “No Trumpets, No Drums.” (The show alternated protagonists between episodes; Donner’s starred Vic Morrow.) You can watch it on DVD by buying either the first season or the complete series, but you can’t currently watch it on any streaming service.
• The Doctors and the Nurses has a truly bizarre production history: It premiered on CBS in 1962 as an hourlong medical drama called The Nurses, added some new characters and changed its title to The Doctors and the Nurses for two more seasons on CBS, then changed the title back to The Nurses, changed its format to a half-hour daytime soap opera, changed networks to ABC, and pumped out another 385 episodes before going off the air. None of it is readily available to watch in any format, including Richard Donner’s second season episode, “The Helping Hand.”
• The Lieutenant, an NBC hour-long drama about the Marines, was the first show created by Star Trek’s Gene Roddenberry. You wouldn’t know that from streaming services, however, because none of them carry it. To watch Donner’s two episodes, your only option is a 2012 two-part DVD release from Warner Archive.
• The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, stars a twelve-year-old Kurt Russell and Robocop’s Dan O’Herlihy, and was produced by MGM Television for ABC, both of which are still going concerns. Despite all that, it’s not officially available to stream or watch in any format. Donner directed the 22nd episode, “The Day of the Picnic.” Is it great? Is it awful? Who knows?
• The Twilight Zone you’ve probably heard of. Donner directed six episodes, including the all-time classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and for once, it’s simple to check out his work. Although Netflix, which used to carry four of the show’s five seasons, dropped it on July 1, the entire show is available on Paramount Plus, and it can be purchased or rented from just about any digital video service.
• Mr. Novak, an NBC drama starring James Franciscus as a teacher at a Los Angeles high school, got a Warner Archive DVD release, but only of its first season. That includes five of the seven episodes Donner directed, including the one with a guest appearance from Frankie Avalon, but his two second season episodes remain unavailable.
• The Man From U.N.C.L.E. joins The Twilight Zone as one of the very few shows Donner worked on that can be rented or purchased from just about any video service you like. Donner directed four episodes of the first season, and has a cameo appearance in one of them.
• In 1964, Donner directed a pilot for ABC of a suspense show about Caribbean fishermen called Yellowbird, starring All in the Family’s Carrol O’Connor. If you’ve noticed how difficult it is to find ways to see long-running, highly-acclaimed TV shows from this period, you will not be surprised to learn that Yellowbird is unavailable.
• In a break from his usual diet of westerns and procedural dramas, Donner directed three episodes of Gilligan’s Island’s first season. Everybody loves Gilligan’s Island, and accordingly Donner’s work on the show is easy to rent or buy from any digital video service you like.
• Perry Mason joins Gilligan’s Island, The Twilight Zone, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in the easy-to-watch club: you can find it anywhere, and Paramount Plus has it for free, including Donner’s three first season episodes.
• Donner directed four episodes of WWII drama 12 O’Clock High for ABC, beginning with the second season premiere, in which the network mandated that Robert Lansing, star of the first season, get killed and replaced by Paul Burke. (This was a failed attempt to capture younger viewers: although Burke was older than Lansing, he looked younger.) The show still airs on the Heroes & Icons network, and a lot of it has landed on YouTube, but it’s not available to legitimately rent or buy in any format.
• Get Smart, the Mel Brooks spy spoof for which Donner directed three season one episodes, is easy to find at the digital video service of your choice.

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That’s the entire output of the first five years of Richard Donner’s career, not counting his 1961 feature X-15. It represents 25 different shows, including two failed pilots, for a total of 74 episodes and about 51 and a half hours of television. (His theatrical features, released over a 45-year span between 1961 and 2006, add up to 39 hours and 52 minutes of screen time by my count, and that’s only if you include Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.) Six of the 25 shows Donner directed—Route 66, The Rifleman, The Twilight Zone, Gilligan’s Island, Perry Mason, and Get Smart—are currently available to legally rent or stream. The shows that are available tend to be long-running ones for which Donner directed more than one episode, but even so, that’s only about 25% of his journeyman television work by runtime, and none of it is included in the free selections of Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, or Amazon Prime. More is available if you’re willing to buy DVDs or troll YouTube, but some of it can’t be seen for any price. It’s yet another reminder that despite endless hours of content, streaming services provide a diminished and distorted view of the history of film and television. If you want a more complete picture of the medium, tracking down Richard Donner’s early TV work is a great place to start—just hang on to your DVD player.

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