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Deer Hunter director Cimino dies, 77

Associated Press Associated Press 3/07/2016

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.

Cimino died Saturday at age 77, Los Angeles County acting coroner's Lt B. Kim told The Associated Press. He said 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 Cimino's, told The New York Times police found Cimino's body at his home after friends were unable to reach him by phone.

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 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 movies since The Godfather six years earlier.

Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, called it "one of the most emotionally shattering films ever made".

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 $US11.5 million would balloon to $US44 million after marketing. While those numbers are meagre by today's standards, at the time they were enough to hasten the demise of United Artists, and of Cimino's career.

But Cimino always stood by the movie as an artistic accomplishment, or at least a project worth undertaking.

"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'."

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

His first film came with 1974's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, a heist picture with Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges playing the title characters that led to his landing The Deer Hunter.

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