Donner was born Richard Donald Schwartzberg in the Bronx, to Jewish parents, Hattie and Fred Schwartzberg. His father owned a small furniture manufacturing business. He has a sister, Joan. Donner started his career with hopes of acting but quickly moved into directing commercials and making business films.
He moved into television in the late 1950s, directing some episodes of the Steve McQueen western serial Wanted: Dead or Alive and the Chuck Connors western The Rifleman. In his early career as a director he worked on TV commercials and over twenty-five television series including Have Gun Will Travel, The Fugitive, Combat!, Get Smart, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, Gilligan's Island, Kojak, Tales from the Crypt and The Twilight Zone (most notably the famous "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" starring William Shatner and "From Agnes—With Love" starring Wally Cox), as well as the serial Danger Island from the children's program The Banana Splits.
Donner directed his first feature film in 1961, X-15, which starred Charles Bronson and Mary Tyler Moore. It was not until seven years later, however, that he directed his next film, Salt and Pepper (1968), with Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter Lawford. His break-through film was The Omen (1976). A supernatural thriller made in the wake of the success obtained by The Exorcist, the film stars Gregory Peck, David Warner and Lee Remick. It became the fifth highest-grossing movie of 1976.
In 1978, Donner directed Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve in the title role. The film became a hit worldwide, projecting both Reeve and Donner to international fame. Co-stars included Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, Marlon Brando as Jor-El and Gene Hackman as archvillain Lex Luthor. It succeeded at the box office, grossing $134 million domestically.
Principal photography of Superman included filming of its first sequel, Superman II. Donner filmed most of Superman II with the expectation he would complete the sequel after the release of Superman. Despite the first film's success, Donner was fired from Superman II. Throughout the filming of Superman and Superman II, Donner had a difficult relationship with executive producers Alexander Salkind and Ilya Salkind and producer Pierre Spengler. The Salkinds refused Donner's demand that Spengler be fired; instead, the Salkinds replaced Donner as director of Superman II with Richard Lester, who had worked with the Salkinds on The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers and as an uncredited producer on Superman. Following Donner's dismissal, Marlon Brando's scenes were removed from Superman II and much of the film was re-shot under Lester's direction. Gene Hackman refused to return for re-shoots; consequently, all the Lex Luthor scenes that appear in Superman II were filmed by Donner, although Donner received no onscreen credit for directing, because Donner refused to be on the credits.
Rotten Tomatoes' summary states that "Superman II meets, if not exceeds, the standard set by its predecessor". Donner continued to promote the view his contribution was superior to rest of the series. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut was released on November 28, 2006, on the same date as the DVD release of the summer film, Superman Returns. This version of the film features the re-insertion of Marlon Brando's scenes as Jor-El, and relies on a minimum of footage shot by Richard Lester.
Donner has mixed commercial flops (The Toy, Inside Moves, Radio Flyer) and successes (The Goonies, the Lethal Weapon series, Scrooged and Ladyhawke). In the case of Superman, it was Donner who insisted the subject of the comic book superhero should be treated "straight" rather than "camp", an approach that strongly influenced later genre directors such as Tim Burton (Batman, Batman Returns), Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2, X-Men: Days of Future Past), and Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises), who have made successful superhero films of their own. The influence of Superman can, to this day, be seen in superhero films outside the Superman storyline, and even outside the DC Comics universe. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man film is debatably one of the strongest examples of that influence. In the early 1980s, Donner proposed to Warner Bros. a non-camp film version of Batman, to star Mel Gibson.
Donner's next blockbuster film was Lethal Weapon, written by Shane Black. It starred Mel Gibson as a widowed narcotics detective with a suicidal bent "who breaks every rule for the sheer joy of it." It co-starred Danny Glover as a calm homicide detective with a loving family and consideration for retirement. The film's action sequences were considered "truly spectacular" and made the film one of the year's biggest hits.
Donner directed six films starring Mel Gibson overall, creating a Lethal Weapon franchise with 3 sequels, the last one being Lethal Weapon 4, released in 1998. In an interview in 2000, Gibson described his impressions of Donner:
"Uncle Dick. He’s a great guy, just terrific. Extremely professional. He’s an old veteran and has an understanding of film that is the culmination of years of experience. He’s got his technical stuff down, his vision down. No matter what you say about Dick, it underrates him. He really loves what he’s doing, loves working with actors, and he allows you freedom to explore all kinds of areas. 'All right, kid,' he’ll say, and slap you on the back and let you try something, because even he doesn’t know sometimes. He’s just an extremely charming, talented, great fuckin’ guy. I love him."
Richard Donner's cousin is actor Steve Kahan, who played a policeman tracking Otis in Superman: The Movie, and played Captain Ed Murphy in the Lethal Weapon movie franchise. Donner has cast Kahan in some of his other films too.
He became the executive producer for the 2000 Marvel Comics film X-Men, then also an executive producer for the 2009 X-Men prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and producer on X-Men: Days of Future Past. In addition, Donner's wife has produced all of the films in the X-Men film series under their Donners' Company brand.
On October 16, 2008, Donner and Lauren Shuler Donner received stars in a double ceremony on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for their achievements in motion pictures, located at 6712 Hollywood Boulevard.
One of Donner's assistants in the late 1990s was comic book writer Geoff Johns. In October 2006, Donner, Johns and artist Adam Kubert became the new creative team on Action Comics, the publisher's most time honored publication and one of DC Comics' two main Superman titles. Together, Johns and Donner collaborated on the stories Last Son and Escape from Bizarro World, both of which have been released in collected book form.
On November 10, 2010, Donner's authorized biography You're the Director... You Figure It Out: The Life and Films of Richard Donner by James Christie was published by BearManor Media. The book features a foreword by actor Mel Gibson.
Script Magazine described the book as an "engaging portrait of a warm-hearted (if occasionally gruff) man who can justly be considered the modern equivalent of Victor Fleming and Michael Curtiz – a highly talented, professional director of motion pictures who has thrived in the studio system and made some pretty good pictures to boot."
The Directors Guild of America called the book "a compelling study of an ebullient, ballsy risk-taker who was a director even before he was aware of it" that "ably captures Donner's joy in doing a job he loves."