Michael Cimino

Active - 1972 - Present  |   Born - Feb 3, 1939 in New York, New York, United States  |   Died - Jul 2, 2016   |   Genres - Drama, Crime, Thriller, Action

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Writer/producer/director Michael Cimino, the son of a Long Island-based music publisher, earned an MFA in Painting at Yale University, where he also became involved with student theatrical productions. Upon moving to New York City, he augmented his acting lessons with ballet classes, and began directing TV commercials and industrial films around 1963. In 1971, Cimino moved to Hollywood, where he wrote his first big-studio film, the Douglas Trumbull-directed Silent Running. This led to his own feature-length directorial debut, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), a successful Clint Eastwood vehicle which Cimino patterned after one of his favorite '50s films, Captain Lightfoot. Given virtual carte blanche for his next project, Cimino spent nearly three years on the preparation and production of The Deer Hunter, a long, elegiac Vietnam-era epic which won five 1978 Oscars, including Best Picture. Operating on the theory that Cimino could do no wrong, United Artists gave the filmmaker another free hand on his next project, Heaven's Gate (1980). The melancholy history of this mother of all cinematic fiascoes has been thoroughly covered elsewhere, so suffice to say that the production's combination of clashing egos, on-set drug participation, misfired "atmosphere" sequences, muddy (and muddled) battle scenes and incomprehensible dialogue added up to the Picture That Killed United Artists.

This critical blow derailed his career, though he continued to work periodically. He directed Mickey Rourke in both the 1985 thriller Year of the Dragon and a 1990 remake of The Desperate Hours, and hired Woody Harrelson to head-up his 1996 film The Sunchaser. It was another ten years before his next project when he contributed to the omnibus film To Each His Own Cinema. Cimino died in 2016, at age 77.

Movie Highlights

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  • Started out in the film industry directing commercials and writing screenplays.
  • Wrote two successful scripts, Silent Running and Magnum Force, before being offered his feature-film directorial debut for a screenplay he wrote for the 1974 Clint Eastwood vehicle Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.
  • Best known as writer and director of the 1978 war drama The Deer Hunter, which won five Academy Awards.
  • Nearly ruined his reputation as a writer and director with 1980's Heaven's Gate, a commercial and critical flop.
  • Wrote a novel, Big Jane, in 2001.