Robert Downey Sr and Richard Donner

By Steve Sasanow

There are certain films that make a lasting impression, and the deaths this past month of directors Robert Downey Sr (5/7/21 in Los Angeles) and Richard Donner (7/7/21 in New York City) brought to mind two features of distinctly different character and influence.

The year was 1969, a pretty memorable one for many reasons, and I was a psychology student at Brooklyn College in New York.  In the middle of the chaos, drama and political events, I went to see a strange little arthouse film, Putney Swope, directed by Downey, who is now better known as the father of Ironman.  

The eponymous ‘hero’, if he could be called that, is the only black person on the board of a New York City advertising agency.  The head man has a heart attack and, in the succession scramble, a vote is taken on the new leader.  With many of the board members not wanting to vote for any possible rival – they could not vote for themselves – many vote for Swope.  

Swope (Arnold Johnson) cleans house, renames the agency Truth & Soul Inc and the anarchy begins. The film took a unique spin on racial politics, hippie-dom and the advertising biz.  Antonio Fargas, whose career pinnacle was playing Huggy Bear in Starsky and Hutch, played the Arab, also known as Lawrence of Nigeria. There was a photographer named Mark Focus.  One of the products the agency was promoting was Ethereal Cereal.  Mel Brooks and Allen Garfield had cameos.  As we said in those days, it was a pisser.

Downey made films before and after, and had bit parts in many films and on television.  The fact that he is remembered at all is down to his quirkiness.

And for me, Putney Swope epitomised the anarchy of the time.

Scroll forward nine years and much had changed.  Woodstock had come and gone, as had peace and love.  Nixon was out, Jimmy Carter was president and I was the editor and film critic on an alternative newspaper called Up The Creek, in Denver, Colorado. (Cherry Creek runs through the city in case you wondered.)

There were many memorable films from my two years in Denver which is seen as one of the pinnacles of Hollywood film making: Little Big ManChinatownStar WarsKluteApocalypse Now, among others.  One, though, that has had a significant effect on the future of Hollywood was Superman.  

At that time there were no superhero franchises, only comic books.  The television Superman was history – as was George Reeves who killed himself – and the Batman tv series with Adam West was just camp silliness. Into this void, Christopher Reeve came flying onto the screen.  Along with Star Wars, this film launched the modern era of special effects.  Donner has been quoted as saying that he knew that he needed to make Reeve fly, but he did not know how we was going to do it.

Unlike the first Star Wars film, which was made with a bunch of unknown actors except for Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, Superman had star power – Marlon Brando and Susannah York played the Kryptonian parents, Gene Hackman was Lex Luthor, with Ned Beatty (another recent passing) as his sidekick.  The script was written by Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather. The returns were over $300 million, or more than six times the budget.  This film proved to Hollywood filmmakers that there was money to be made from superheroes.  The rest, as they say, is history or Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Donner was a much more significant person in movie annals than Downey.  He scared the crap out of filmgoers with The Omen, boosted the buddy cop genre with the Lethal Weapon series and brought Dickens into the modern era with Scrooged.

What brings Downey and Donner together is that both were mavericks who ruffled Hollywood feathers. RIP.

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