Los Angeles County acting coroner’s lieutenant B Kim said Cimino, aged 77, died on Saturday. He had been living in Beverly Hills.
Cimino had his directorial breakthrough in 1978 with his second film, 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.
But his emerging career took a U-turn with 1980’s Heaven’s Gate, a Western starring Kris Kristofferson that was a critical and financial disaster.
Eric Weissmann, a friend and former lawyer of Cimino’s, told The New York Times police found his body at his home after friends were unable to reach him by phone.
The Deer Hunter 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.
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”.
But Heaven’s Gate, which also starred Walken, 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 defined by directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
Its initial budget of $11.5m (€10.3m) would balloon to $44m 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 Cimino’s career.
Some say it helped bring down the director-driven renaissance that had fuelled much of the great work of the 1970s, giving way to a business-and-blockbuster mentality that would dominate the decades that followed.
Cimino became an eccentric figure , living in solitude, constantly changing his appearance, claiming allergies to both alcohol and sunshine.
He worked only sporadically in the years that followed Heaven’s Gate. His remaining films were 1985’s Year Of The Dragon, 1987’s The Sicilian, 1990’s Desperate Hours, and 1996’s Sunchaser.