Jeff Cohen first met Richard Donner while directing “The Goonies,” the 1985 adventure classic about a group of misfit children looking for treasure. Cohen played Chunk, a mischievous preteen who loves ice cream and jokes. Decades later, he credits Donner with coaxing his performance, but Cohen owes more to the late director than a memorable role in an iconic film. Donner and his wife, Lauren Shuler Donner, paid for his tuition and provided a vital source of emotional and financial support when he needed it most.
Cohen is now a leading entertainment lawyer and the co-founder of Cohen & Gardner in Beverly Hills. Donner died Monday in Los Angeles at the age of 91. In addition to “Goonies,” his credits include “Superman,” “The Omen,” “Scrooged,” and the Lethal Weapon series. Tributes to Donner’s talent have been paid by Steven Spielberg, Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, but few have been able to touch the heartfelt memories Cohen shared after the news broke. A moved Cohen spoke to Variety on the legacy and generosity of Donner.
Here are his remarks, which have been edited for clarity:
Dick Donner was and is my favorite person in the world. She’s the best person I know. He’s remarkably talented, remarkably kind, remarkably loving, and as an artist Dick Donner is one of the greatest directors of all time.
Dick Donner made the greatest superhero movie of all time with “Superman”. It is the film that breaks the genre. You don’t have Tim Burton’s “Batman” if you don’t have “Superman”. You don’t have Marvel movies without “Superman”. Dick Donner also made one of the greatest children’s films of all time with “The Goonies”. Plus, Dick made one of the greatest horror movies of all time with “The Omen”. Plus, Dick made one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time with “Scrooged”. Plus, Dick has made some of the greatest action movies of all time with the Lethal Weapon series. What director can make stellar movies in all of these categories?
As a human being, Dick was so nice to me. I’m an entertainment lawyer, and I have a practice here in Los Angeles. None of this would have happened to me without Dick Donner’s help when I couldn’t do anything for him. For me, this is a unique thing in our business. Dick Donner and Lauren Shuler Donner, because they were nice, paid for my college when I went to Berekley.
The story is when my acting career started to run out of steam, I still loved show business, and Dick let me be a production assistant for him. I worked for him at Warner Bros. When I applied to college I said, “Hi Dick, can you write me a letter of recommendation for college?” And he said, ‘sure kid.’ He called everyone kid. If you were seven, he called you kid. If you were 50, he called you kid. He asked me to put together some notes to give him an indication of what to say. In the note to him, I told him about my life and some of the hardships I went through as a kid – my dad wasn’t around and other issues that I dealt with. And he called me on the phone and instead of just writing a letter of recommendation to college, he told me that he and Lauren had read my letter and that they were going to pay for my college. I was absolutely flabbergasted. I was shocked. I had to sit down, because for me paying for college was going to be a problem. It changed my life. Not only economically, but it showed that Dick and Lauren believed in me. They believed in me. They thought I could do something. They thought I could do something on my own. It’s Dick Donner – being kind, empathetic, and not because he wanted something in return.
There’s a quote from Ben Franklin: “It’s the height of intelligence to hide it. It’s Dick Donner. He was the smartest guy in every room, but he never made him feel less than him. He always made everyone feel good. He made you feel smart and important. He never needed to show up. He never needed to put himself in the limelight. He wanted everyone to be beautiful. He wanted everyone to be successful.
Dick’s direct line to the movies was verisimilitude. He could take the most fantastic and remarkable situation, like a flying man, and make you believe it. You will believe that a man can fly. In “Goonies,” this fantastic situation where there are villains chasing these kids and there are all these traps, that could be ridiculous. But he made you believe it. He made you join. Dick brought this humanity and understanding of the human spirit to all of his work.
That’s how awesome director Dick Donner is. I’m a terrible actor and he made me look good. The fact that I looked like I knew what I was doing and could play the part proves he was a genius.
I love him and already miss him. The world is a darker place without him, but his incredible movies and good works as a human will live on.