Best known as the director of the 1984 cult film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, W.D. Richter had already established a reputation as a successful Hollywood screenwriter. The Connecticut-born Richter came to California in the 1970s with his wife, Susan, and began writing for the movies.
Richter's first screenplay was for Slither (1973), starring James Caan. The marketability of that offbeat story set the stage for a number of other scripts with a similar tone, including Peeper (1975), Nickelodeon (1976), a remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978, Dracula in 1979, and Brubaker (1980), for which Richter garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The 1981 film All Night Long, starring Barbra Streisand and Gene Hackman, marked the end of a busy chapter of his life as screenwriter, as Richter embarked on a new phase as a director.
Working with directors such as Peter Bogdanovich and Philip Kaufman gave Richter the confidence to form his own production company and secure funding to create the now legendary Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eight Dimension. For this achievement, Richter owed much to the brilliant ideas and writing of Banzai's creator, Earl MacRauch. Both alumni of Dartmouth College, it was through that connection that Richter first came into contact with MacRauch's work. MacRauch credited Richter and their collaboration on Buckaroo Banzai with launching his screenwriting career. The film centers around the title character, whose multifarious job descriptions include brain surgeon, race car driver, rock star, rocket scientist, and an integral part of America's defense program. Banzai, who is played to perfection by Peter Weller, is surrounded by equally versatile characters including Perfect Tommy (Lewis Smith), Jeff Goldblum as a doctor with an alter ego named Cowboy, Ellen Barkin as Penny Priddy, and Clancy Brown as Rawhide. Just as memorable are the movie's cast of villains, including the crazed professor Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), and an outrageous Matt Clark as Secretary of Defense. The story line is even more complex than the cast of characters. The script moves almost at the light speed capabilities of the Oscillation Overthruster they all seek. Many moviegoers were left behind, but for those who followed the visual and verbal puns, the movie was the ultimate brainteaser and a favorite with cerebral audiences. Nothing less could be expected from a film that is predicated on the idea that Orson Welles'
"War of the Worlds" broadcast was not a hoax.
Not until 1991 did Richter direct again, with the sci-fi spoof Late for Dinner, starring Marcia Gay Harden and Brian Wimmer. While having some of the same iconoclastic humor as Buckaroo Banzai, the film was only mildly successful.
Returning to screenwriting, Richter adapted Stephen King's novel #Needful Things for a 1993 release. He then penned the script for Jodie Foster's 1995 film Home for the Holidays, an all too painfully true comic look at dysfunctional families and holiday cheer.