‘Deer Hunter’ Director’s Death: The ‘Final Cut’ On Michael Cimino’s Abrupt Career

Michael Cimino, who became famous for directing the critically acclaimed The Deer Hunter and the demise of United Artists has died at 77-years-old. His death was announced by Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux in French via Twitter saying, “Cimino died peacefully, surrounded by his family and two women who loved him. We loved him too.” Reports are that he died at home from natural causes.

Michael Cimino was born on February 3, 1939, in New York City to a music publisher father and a costume designer mother. He went to Michigan State University and graduated a year ahead of schedule and majored in graphic arts and was the art director and managing editor of the school’s Spartan magazine. After Michigan State, he studied painting at Yale, and while still enrolled, enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve in 1962. He earned a B.F.A. in 1961 and graduated with an M.F.A. in painting in 1963.

He went into advertising directly after college and became a top Madison Avenue commercial director; shooting commercials for many familiar household brands including Pepsi, Eastman Kodak, and United Airlines.

His screenwriting career began with his relationship with Joann Carelli, a commercial director representative he had an on-and-off-again relationship with for 30-years. Carelli convinced him to try screenwriting, and even after successfully creating scripts for his commercials, he didn’t believe he was particularly good at it. One of his spec scripts for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot caught Clint Eastwood’s eye, and which gave Michael Camino his first movie directing job and the opportunity to write the screenplays for Magnum Force and Silent Running.

Cimino’s fame went into overdrive when he co-wrote, co-produced, and directed The Deer Hunter, a Vietnam War film about three friends from a steel town in Pennsylvania who fight in the war and return home attempt to rebuild their lives after surviving the horrors of war. The movie starred Christopher Walken, Robert De Niro, John Savage, and Meryl Streep. It was a commercial and critical success, earning five Academy awards in 1978, including Best Director and Best Picture.

After Deer Hunter, he had a license to do what he wanted and his next project drove United Artists out of business. The overly ambitious Heaven’s Gate — a western based on the Johnson County War — starred Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Huppert, and Willem Dafoe was a box office bomb. The theatrical version ran three hours and 39 minutes long, was severely over budget, and critics hated it. The movie was budgeted for $11 million but took $44 million to make and only made $3.5 million. It stopped showing in theaters after only two weeks and is considered the biggest box office bomb ever.

“I don’t make movies to make a point, I make movies to tell stories about people.”

The financial loss drove United Artists out of business and the industry was reluctant to take Cimino seriously after that. Stephen Bach, a former United Artists executive, wrote Final Cut, a book about the production of Heaven’s Gate in 1985.

“I’m blown away. I’ve watched it several times now, happily watched it, and I’d watch it again, especially on a big screen.”

In a Hollywood Reporter interview in 2015, Michael Cimino was still very impressed with Heaven’s Gate and had fond memories of making the film and the actor’s dedication and passion in making the film.

Michael Cimino directed eight films in his career, his last being Sunchaser in 1996, although Variety notes that he circled many projects; adaptations of Crime and Punishment, and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead that never came to fruition, or projects that were eventually directed by someone else such as Footloose and Born on the Fourth of July.

The Deer Hunter director’s death reminds us of Michael Cimino’s quick rise and abrupt fall from grace. His talent and subsequent reclusive nature will surely be the subject of films and books in the near future.

[Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images]