Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino dies, aged 77

Director Michael Cimino

by James White |
Published on

A man whose life and career would make for a film almost as dramatic as those he created has left us. Michael Cimino, the director behind The Deer Hunter, Thunderbolt And Lightfoot and Heaven's Gate, has died at the age of 77.

Cimino was born in New York and raised in Long Island. Studying at Yale, he graduated in 1961 with an MFA and launched a career directing TV ads for Kool Cigarettes, Kodak, Pepsi and more. In 1971 he made the move to Los Angeles to make his name as a screenwriter, encouraged by long-term on-again, off-again partner Joann Carelli. Despite claiming that writing wasn't his driving talent, he kicked off his Hollywood career co-scripting 1972's Silent Running, and his spec script Thunderbolt And Lightfoot came to the attention of Clint Eastwood, who had liked Cimino's script work on Magnum Force. Eastwood bought Thunderbolt and gave Cimino the chance to direct.

After the success of the crime film, Cimino rejected several offers before deciding to make The Deer Hunter, co-writing, co-producing and directing the story of three friends from a Pennsylvania steel town who fight in Vietnam and must rebuild their lives in the aftermath. Though the shoot went over schedule and over budget, it went on to become a huge hit both critically and commercially, was nominated for nine and won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken.

But if making Deer Hunter had been a torturous affair, it was a cakewalk compared to 1980's Heaven's Gate. Given free rein by United Artists, Cimino planned an incredibly ambitious epic Western Loosely based on the Johnson County War and portraying a fictional dispute between land barons and European immigrants in Wyoming in the 1890s. Cimino wrote the script in 1971, but had to wait to get it made. The production was beset by problems brought about by its director's fanatical attention to detail and he ended up shooting nearly 220 hours of footage. Originally budgeted around $11.6 million, it ended up costing nearer $30 million and brought Cimino into conflict with the executives, who blanched at his five-hour plus running time. It was seen as a disaster upon release and was long known as a cautionary tale among filmmakers, but has since been re-evaluated and praised for its visionary ideas.

Still, the film, hurt Cimino's reputation and he went on to make just a few movies in the years after its release, including 1987's The Sicilian, 1990's Desperate Hours and 1996's The Sunchaser, his last feature-length project. He leaves many potential projects that never quite came to fruition and also wrote a novel, called Big Jane. “Hollywood has always been crazy," he told The Guardian in 2001. "It’s controlled anarchy. But how can you loathe something that has given you so much?"

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