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Michael Cimino dead: Deer Hunter director dies at 77

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Jeff Christensen/AP

Michael Cimino, the Oscar-winning director of The Deer Hunter as well as the infamous Heaven’s Gate, has died, the New York Times confirmed. He was 77.

News of Cimino’s death was first reported by Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux on Twitter. “Michael Cimino died peacefully surrounded by his family and the two women who loved him,” Fremaux wrote, in French, on the social media platform. “We loved him too.”

But Eric Weissman, Cimino’s friend and former lawyer, told the Associated Press that the director had been unreachable in the days before his death. Weissman said police found the director had died in the bed of his Los Angeles home. (Weissman made similar comments to the New York Times.) No other details about Cimino’s death were immediately available.

Cimino directed seven feature films over the course of his career, though the New York-born filmmaker got his start on TV spots for United Airlines, Pepsi, and other companies. After moving to Los Angeles, he wrote the screenplay for Magnum Force, for which he caught the eye of Clint Eastwood.

The actor agreed to produce and star in Cimino’s feature film directorial debut, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, a 1974 heist movie which earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar nomination for his performance. Cimino then went on to helm Deer Hunter in 1978, starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Cazale, and John Savage. The film, about friends who are torn apart by the Vietnam War, scored nine total Oscar nominations and won five: best picture, best director for Cimino, best supporting actor for Walken, best sound, and best film editing.

Heaven’s Gate came two years later in 1980. Because of his success, Cimino was granted creative control over the Western from studio United Artists, which would be forced into bankruptcy following a $44 million budget, numerous production delays, poor critical reception, and little return at the box office. Initially derided as an example of Hollywood excess, the film has enjoyed a critical reevaluation in recent years.

“All of those years, I felt like Heaven’s Gate was a beautiful, fantastically colored balloon tied to a string fastened to my wrist, so the balloon could never fly,” Cimino said in a 2013 interview, one of the rare times he spoke with press in the last two decades.

After Heaven’s Gate flopped, Cimino went on to direct four more films, his last being The Sunchaser in 1996. His last interview happened in 2015 with The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s always a daily struggle to write,” he said of his day-to-day life at the time. “I’ve published a couple of short novels in France that I didn’t want to publish in English because I loved the characters too much to subject them to American critics who were not exactly favorable toward my work.”

Following news of his death, filmmakers such as Oscar-winner Christopher McQuarrie, director Edgar Wright, and many others paid tribute to Cimino on social media.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Deer Hunter, and yes… Heaven’s Gate,” wrote McQuarrie, an Oscar winner for The Usual Suspects. “May the rest of us do half as well.”

https://twitter.com/chrismcquarrie/status/749355442309062656

“I cannot believe Michael Cimino has passed away too. Thunderbolt & Lightfoot is one of my [favorite] films. R.I.P.” wrote Wright.

Director William Friedkin added, “I wish I had paid tribute to Michael Cimino while he was alive. He was an important and masterful filmmaker. We will always have his work.”

Filmmaker Jason Reitman wrote, “Heaven’s Gate was the bravest swing for the fences. May we all be that bold when we turn on the camera.”

See Fremaux’s initial tweet below.

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