The success of “The Deer Hunter”, a 1978 film about the Vietnam War starring Robert De Niro, made Cimino one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood. The film won five Academy Awards, including best picture and best director.
Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux tweeted the news on Saturday that Cimino died peacefully, “surrounded by his family and the two women who loved him. We loved him too.”
The cause of death was not immediately known. U.S. media reports said Cimino died at his home in Los Angeles, citing the Los Angeles County coroner’s office. Officials at the coroner’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to Variety, friends phoned the police when they could not reach him and he was found dead on Saturday.
Word of Cimino’s death triggered tributes from admirers including De Niro, who said their work together was something he will always remember. “He will be missed,” De Niro said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.
“The Deer Hunter,” which explored the impact of the Vietnam War on a small town of steel workers in Pennsylvania, was also a big boost for the careers of Meryl Steep and Christopher Walken, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times described it as “one of the most emotionally shattering films ever made.”
But after that movie’s runaway success, Cimino followed up in 1980 with “Heaven’s Gate,” an epic Western that New York Times critic Vincent Canby called “an unqualified disaster.”
The film came in way over budget at $36 million, three times the average cost of a movie in those days, and Cimino’s career never fully recovered.
“He went from a big Oscar film to suddenly being a pariah – everybody’s whipping boy,” Kris Kristofferson, who starred in the film, told the Los Angeles Times in 2004. “Everybody who didn’t get to do a film blamed ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ saying all the money went to ‘Heaven’s Gate.'”
Born in New York City to a wealthy family, Cimino earned a master’s degree in architecture at Yale University. He was a well-known director of TV commercials before directing his first movie, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” a crime drama starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, in 1974.
After the flop of “Heaven’s Gate”, Cimino’s comeback film in 1985, “Year of the Dragon,” starring Mickey Rourke as a New York City cop, failed to excite either moviegoers or critics.
He followed up with “The Sicilian,” based on a Mario Puzo novel; and “Desperate Hours,” a remake of a Humphrey Bogart film about a fugitive, starring Rourke and Anthony Hopkins. Both films were panned by critics and largely ignored by filmgoers.
His final Hollywood film, 1996’s “The Sunchaser,” a drama about a doctor, played by Woody Harrelson, who is kidnapped by a dying patient, didn’t fare any better and marked the end of Cimino’s career.