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‘Deer Hunter,’ ‘Heaven’s Gate’ director Michael Cimino dies at 77

Michael Cimino on the set of his masterpiece "The Deer Hunter" (1978). | Provided photo

LOS ANGELES — Michael Cimino, the Oscar-winning director whose film “The Deer Hunter” became one of the great triumphs of Hollywood’s 1970s heyday and whose disastrous “Heaven’s Gate” helped bring that era to a close, has died.

Mr. Cimino died Saturday at age 77, Los Angeles County acting coroner’s Lt. B. Kim said. He said Mr. Cimino had been living in Beverly Hills but did not yet have further details on the circumstances of his death.

Eric Weissmann, a friend and former lawyer of Mr. Cimino, said friends had been unable to reach Mr. Cimino by phone for the last few days and called the police, who found him dead in his bed. He said Mr. Cimino had not been ill that he had known of.

Mr. Cimino’s masterpiece was 1978’s “The Deer Hunter,” the story of the Vietnam War’s effect on a small steel-working town in Pennsylvania. The film won five Academy Awards, including best picture and best director for Mr. Cimino. It helped lift the emerging-legend status of Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep. Christopher Walken also won an Oscar for best supporting actor.

“Our work together is something I will always remember. He will be missed,” De Niro said in a statement Saturday.

Despite controversy over its portrayal of the North Vietnamese and use of the violent game Russian roulette, the film was praised by some critics as the best American movie since “The Godfather” six years earlier.

“With his visionary approach and attention to every detail, Michael Cimino is forever etched in the history of filmmaking,” Paris Barclay, president of the Directors Guild of America, said early Sunday. “In his most iconic work, the DGA and Academy Award-winning film ‘The Deer Hunter,’ Michael captured the horrors of war through a personalized lens — captivating a nation in the process.”

Mr. Cimino’s emerging career then took a U-turn with 1980’s “Heaven’s Gate,” a Western starring Kris Kristofferson and Walken that was a critical and financial disaster.

The film became synonymous with over-budget and out-of-control productions, and a cautionary tale for giving artistic-minded directors too much power in the new Hollywood that had been defined by directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.

Its initial budget of $11.5 million would balloon to $44 million after marketing. While those numbers are meager by today’s standards, at the time they were enough to hasten the demise of United Artists, and of Mr. Cimino’s career. Some say it helped bring down the director-driven renaissance that had fueled much of the great work of the 1970s, giving way to a business-and-blockbuster mentality that would dominate the decades that followed.

Steven Bach, a former executive vice president at United Artists, documented the production in the 1999 book “Final Cut: Art Money and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate.”

Vincent Canby, the New York Times film critic not known for his harshness, said that the film was an “unqualified disaster” that “fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the devil to obtain the success of ‘The Deer Hunter,’ and the devil has just come around to collect.”

But Mr. Cimino always stood by the movie as an artistic accomplishment, or at least a project worth undertaking. The critical reputation for “Heaven’s Gate” — praised by some as a misunderstood masterpiece — has been somewhat rehabilitated over the years, culminating in a 2012 restoration overseen by Mr. Cimino.

“I never second-guess myself,” he told Vanity Fair in 2010. “You can’t look back. I don’t believe in defeat. Everybody has bumps, but as Count Basie said, ‘It’s not how you handle the hills, it’s how you handle the valleys.’ ”

Clint Eastwood (left) and Michael Cimino attend a 2015 Directors Guild Of America symposium in Los Angeles, California. | Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
Clint Eastwood (left) and Michael Cimino attend a 2015 Directors Guild Of America symposium in Los Angeles, California. | Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Actor-director Clint Eastwood, a lifelong friend and co-star with Jeff Bridges of Mr. Cimino’s debut film “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974), also defended him in Vanity Fair.

“George Lucas made ‘Howard the Duck,’ and the guy who made ‘Waterworld’ — those films didn’t destroy them,” Eastwood said. “Critics were set up to hate ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ The picture didn’t work with the public. If it had, it would have been the same as ‘Titanic.’ ‘Titanic’ worked, so all is forgiven.”

Mr. Cimino became an eccentric figure even for Hollywood, living in solitude, constantly changing his appearance, claiming allergies to both alcohol and sunshine.

Born in New York City and raised on Long Island, Mr. Cimino graduated from Yale in 1961, and he earned a master’s degree from the University of New Haven in 1963, both in painting.

Mr. Cimino worked only sporadically in the years that followed “Heaven’s Gate,” and with no success. His remaining films were 1985’s “Year of the Dragon,” 1987’s “The Sicilian,” 1990’s “Desperate Hours,” and 1996’s “Sunchaser.”