Cimino was born in New York City and graduated from Yale University in 1963. Beginning his career filming commercials, he moved to Los Angeles to take up screenwriting in 1971. After co-writing the script of Magnum Force and Silent Running, he wrote the preliminary script Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Clint Eastwood read the script and sent it to his personal production company, which allowed Cimino to direct the film. After its success, Cimino co-wrote, directed, and produced the 1978 Academy Award-winning film The Deer Hunter. His next film, Heaven's Gate (1980), proved to be a financial failure. Cimino directed four movies after Heaven's Gate, but none were as successful as The Deer Hunter.
Cimino was born in New York City on February 3, 1939. A third-generation Italian-American, Cimino and his brothers grew up with their parents in Old Westbury, Long Island. He was regarded as a prodigy at the private schools his parents sent him to, but rebelled as an adolescent by consorting with delinquents, getting into fights, and coming home drunk. Of this time, Cimino described himself as
"always hanging around with kids my parents didn't approve of. Those guys were so alive. When I was fifteen I spent three weeks driving all over Brooklyn with a guy who was following his girlfriend. He was convinced she was cheating on him, and he had a gun, he was going to kill her. There was such passion and intensity about their lives. When the rich kids got together, the most we ever did was cross against a red light."
His father was a music publisher. Cimino says his father was responsible for marching bands and organs playing pop music at football games.
"When my father found out I went into the movie business, he didn't talk to me for a year," Cimino said. "He was very tall and thin ... His weight never changed his whole life and he didn't have a gray hair on his head. He was a bit like a Vanderbilt or a Whitney, one of those guys. He was the life of the party, women loved him, a real womanizer. He smoked like a fiend. He loved his martinis. He died really young. He was away a lot, but he was fun. I was just a tiny kid."
His mother was a costume designer. After he made The Deer Hunter, she said that she knew he had become famous because his name was in the New York Times crossword puzzle.
Cimino graduated from Westbury High School in 1956. He entered Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. At Michigan State, Cimino majored in graphic arts, was a member of a weight-lifting club, and participated in a group to welcome incoming students. He graduated in 1959 with honors and won the Harry Suffrin Advertising Award. He was described in the 1959 Red Cedar Log yearbook as having tastes that included blondes, Thelonious Monk, Chico Hamilton, Mort Sahl, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and "drinking, preferably vodka."
In Cimino's final year at Michigan State, he became art director, and later managing editor, of the school's humor magazine Spartan. Steven Bach wrote of Cimino's early magazine work:
"It is here that one can see what are perhaps the first public manifestations of the Cimino visual sensibility, and they are impressive. He thoroughly restyled the Spartan's derivative Punch look, designing a number of its strikingly handsome covers himself. The Cimino-designed covers are bold and strong, with a sure sense of space and design. They compare favorably to professional work honored in, say, any of the Modern Publicity annuals of the late fifties and are far better than the routine work turned out on Madison Avenue. The impact and quality of his work no doubt contributed to his winning the Harry Suffrin Advertising Award at MSU and perhaps to his acceptance at Yale."
At Yale, Cimino continued to study painting as well as architecture and art history and became involved in school dramatics. In 1962, while still at Yale, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve. He trained for five months at Fort Dix, New Jersey and had a month of medical training in Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Cimino graduated from Yale University, receiving his BFA in 1961 and his MFA in 1963, both in painting.
After graduating from Yale, Cimino moved to Manhattan to work in Madison Avenue advertising and became a star director of television commercials. He shot ads for L'eggs hosiery, Kool cigarettes, Eastman Kodak, United Airlines, and Pepsi, among others. "I met some people who were doing fashion stuff – commercials and stills. And there were all these incredibly beautiful girls," Cimino said. "And then, zoom – the next thing I know, overnight, I was directing commercials." For example, Cimino directed the 1967 United Airlines commercial "Take Me Along," a musical extravaganza in which a group of ladies sing Take Me Along (adapted from a short-lived Broadway musical) to a group of men, presumably their husbands, to take them on a flight. The commercial is filled with the dynamic visuals, American symbolism and elaborate set design that would become Cimino's trademark. "The clients of the agencies liked Cimino," remarked Charles Okun, his production manager from 1964 to 1978. "His visuals were fabulous, but the amount of time it took was just astronomical. Because he was so meticulous and took so long. Nothing was easy with Michael." Through his commercial work, Cimino met Joann Carelli, then a commercial director representative. They began a 30-year on-again-off-again relationship.
In 1971, Cimino moved to Los Angeles to start a career as a screenwriter. According to Cimino, it was Carelli that got him into screenwriting: "[Joann] actually talked me into it. I'd never really written anything ever before. I still don't regard myself as a writer. I've probably written thirteen to fourteen screenplays by  and I still don't think of myself that way. Yet, that's how I make a living." Cimino added, "I started writing screenplays principally because I didn't have the money to buy books or to option properties. At that time you only had a chance to direct if you owned a screenplay which some star wanted to do, and that's precisely what happened with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot." Cimino gained representation from Stan Kamen of William Morris Agency. The spec script Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was shown to Clint Eastwood, who bought it for his production company, Malpaso and allowed Cimino a chance to direct the film. Cimino co-wrote two scripts (the science fiction film Silent Running and Eastwood's second Dirty Harry film, Magnum Force) before moving on to directing. Cimino's work on Thunderbolt and Lightfoot impressed Eastwood enough to ask him to work on the script for Magnum Force before Thunderbolt and Lightfoot began production.
Cimino moved up to directing on the feature Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). The film stars Clint Eastwood as a Korean War vet named "Thunderbolt" who takes a young drifter named "Lightfoot", played by Jeff Bridges, under his wing. When Thunderbolt's old partners try to find him, he and Lightfoot make a pact with them to pull one last big heist. Eastwood was originally slated to direct it himself, but Cimino impressed Eastwood enough to change his mind. The film became a solid box office success at the time, making $25,000,000 at the box office with a budget of $4,000,000 and earned Bridges an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
With the success of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Cimino says he "got a lot of offers, but decided to take a gamble. I would only get involved with projects I really wanted to do." He rejected several offers before pitching an ambitious Vietnam War film to EMI executives in November 1976. To Cimino's surprise, EMI accepted the film. Cimino went on to direct, co-write, and co-produce The Deer Hunter (1978). The film stars Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage as three buddies in a Pennsylvania steel mill town who fight in the Vietnam War and rebuild their lives in the aftermath. The film went over-schedule and over-budget, but it became a massive critical and commercial success, and won five Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture for Cimino.
On the basis of his track record, Cimino was given free rein by United Artists for his next film, Heaven's Gate (1980). The film came in several times over budget. After its release, it proved to be a financial disaster that nearly bankrupted the studio. Heaven's Gate became the lightning rod for the industry perception of the loosely controlled situation in Hollywood at that time. The film's failure marked the end of the New Hollywood era. Transamerica Corporation sold United Artists, having lost confidence in the company and its management.
Heaven's Gate was such a devastating critical and commercial bomb that public perception of Cimino's work was tainted in its wake; the majority of his subsequent films achieved neither popular nor critical success. Many critics who had originally praised The Deer Hunter became far more reserved about the picture and about Cimino after Heaven's Gate. The story of the making of the movie, and UA's subsequent downfall, was documented in Steven Bach's book Final Cut. Cimino's film was somewhat rehabilitated by an unlikely source: the Z Channel, a cable pay TV channel that at its peak in the mid-1980s served 100,000 of Los Angeles's most influential film professionals. After the unsuccessful release of the reedited and shortened Heaven's Gate, Jerry Harvey, the channel's programmer, decided to play Cimino's original 219-minute cut on Christmas Eve 1982. The reassembled movie received admiring reviews. The full length, director approved version, was released on LaserDisc by MGM/UA, and later reissued on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection.
Cimino directed a 1985 crime drama, Year of the Dragon, which he and Oliver Stone adapted from Robert Daley's novel. However, Year of the Dragon was also nominated for five Razzie awards, including Worst Director and Worst Screenplay. The film was sharply criticized for providing offensive stereotypes about Chinese Americans. Cimino directed The Sicilian from a Mario Puzo novel in 1987. The film bombed at the box office, costing an estimated $16 million, grossing $5 million domestically.
In 1990, Cimino directed a remake of the Humphrey Bogart film The Desperate Hours starring Anthony Hopkins and Mickey Rourke. The film was another box-office disappointment, grossing less than $3 million. His last feature-length film was 1996's Sunchaser with Woody Harrelson and Jon Seda. While nominated for the Palme d'Or at that year's Cannes Film Festival, the film was released to video.
Cimino's films are often marked by their visual style and controversial subject matter. Elements of Cimino's visual sensibility include shooting in widescreen (in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio), deliberate pacing and big set-piece/non-dialogue sequences. The subject matter in Cimino's films frequently focuses on aspects of American history and culture, notably disillusionment over the American Dream. Other trademarks include the casting of non-professional actors in supporting roles (Chuck Aspegren as Axel in The Deer Hunter, Ariane in Year of the Dragon).
Cimino frequently credited Clint Eastwood, John Ford, Luchino Visconti and Akira Kurosawa as his cinematic influences. Cimino said that if it were not for Eastwood, he would not be in the movies: "I owe everything to Clint." Cimino also gave his literary references as Vladimir Nabokov, Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, Gore Vidal, Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, the classics of Islamic literature, Frank Norris and Steven Pinker.
Since the beginning of his film career, Cimino was attached to many projects that either fell apart in pre-production or were jettisoned due to his reputation following Heaven's Gate. Steven Bach wrote that despite setbacks in Cimino's career, "he may yet deliver a film that will make his career larger than the cautionary tale it often seems to be or, conversely, the story of genius thwarted by the system that is still popular in certain circles." Film historian David Thomson added to this sentiment: "The flimsy nastiness of his last four pictures is no reason to think we have seen the last of Cimino. ... If he ever emerges at full budgetary throttle, his own career should be his subject." Cimino claimed he had written at least 50 scripts overall and was briefly considered to helm The Godfather Part III.
Cimino's dream project was an adaptation of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Taking its cue from more than the novel, it was largely modeled on architect Jørn Utzon's troubled building of the Sydney Opera House, as well as the construction of the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York. He wrote the script in between Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Deer Hunter, and hoped to have Clint Eastwood play Howard Roark.
Cimino spent two and a half years working with James Toback on The Life and Dreams of Frank Costello, a biopic on the life of mafia boss Costello, for 20th Century Fox. "We got a good screenplay together," said Cimino, "but again, the studio, 20th Century Fox in this case, was going through management changes and the script was put aside." Cimino added, "Costello took a long time because Costello himself had a long, interesting life. The selection of things to film was quite hard. While working on the Costello biopic, Cimino wrote a biography on Janis Joplin called Pearl, also for 20th Century Fox. "It's almost a musical," replied Cimino, "I was working with Bo Goldman on that one and we were doing a series of rewrites." "All these projects were in the air at once," Cimino recalled, "I postponed The Fountainhead until we had a first draft on Pearl, then after meetings with Jimmy began Frank Costello."
In 1984, after being unable to finalize a deal with director Herbert Ross, Paramount Pictures offered the job of directing Footloose to Cimino. According to screenwriter Dean Pitchford, Cimino was at the helm of Footloose for four months, making more and more extravagant demands in terms of set construction and overall production. In the process, Cimino reimagined the film as a musical-comedy inspired by The Grapes of Wrath. Paramount realized that it potentially had another Heaven's Gate on its hands. Cimino was fired and Ross was brought on to direct the picture.
The same year Cimino was scheduled to work on The Pope of Greenwich Village, which would have reunited him with actor Mickey Rourke from Heaven's Gate. After Rourke and Eric Roberts signed on as the leads, Cimino wanted to finesse the screenplay with some rewriting and restructuring. However, the rewriting would have taken Cimino beyond the mandated start date for shooting, so Cimino and MGM parted ways. Stuart Rosenberg was hired as a result. The film, while receiving admiring reviews, bombed at the box office.
In 1987, Cimino attempted to make an epic saga about the 1920s Irish rebel Michael Collins, but the film had to be abandoned due to budget, weather and script problems. The film was to have been funded by Nelson Entertainment. Shortly after the Michael Collins biopic was cancelled, Cimino quickly started pre-production work on Santa Ana Wind, a contemporary romantic drama set in L.A. The start date for shooting was to have been early December 1987. The screenplay was written by Floyd Mutrux and the film was to be bankrolled by Nelson Entertainment, which also backed Collins. Cimino's representative added that the film was "about the San Fernando Valley and the friendship between two guys" and "more intimate" than Cimino's previous big-budget work like Heaven's Gate and the yet-to-be-released The Sicilian. However, Nelson Holdings International Ltd. cancelled the project after disclosing that its banks, including Security Pacific National Bank, had reduced the company's borrowing power after Nelson failed to meet certain financial requirements in its loan agreements. A spokesman for Nelson said the cancellation occurred "in the normal course of business," but declined to elaborate.
One of his final projects was writing a three-hour-long adaptation of André Malraux's 1933 novel Man's Fate, about the early days of the Chinese Revolution. The story was to have focused on several Europeans living in Shanghai during the tragic turmoil that characterized the onset of China's Communist regime. "The screenplay, I think, is the best one I've ever done," Cimino once said, adding that he had "half the money; [we're] trying to raise the other half." The roughly $25 million project was to be filmed wholly on location in Shanghai and would have benefited from the support of China's government, which said it would provide some $2 million worth of local labor costs. Cimino had been scouting locations in China since 2001. "There was never a better time to try to do Man's Fate", Cimino said, "because Man's Fate is what it's all about right now. It's about the nature of love, of friendship, the nature of honor and dignity. How fragile and important all of those things are in a time of crisis." Martha De Laurentiis, who with her husband Dino helped produce Year of the Dragon and Desperate Hours with Cimino, read his script for Man's Fate and passed on it. "If you edit it down, it could be a very tight, beautiful, sensational movie," she said, "but violent, and ultimately a subject matter that I don't think America is that interested in."
In 2001, Cimino published his first novel, Big Jane. Later that year, the French Minister of Culture decorated him Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and the Prix Littéraire Deauville 2001, an award that previously went to Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. "Oh, I'm the happiest, I think, I've ever been!" he said in response. Cimino also wrote a book called Conversations en miroir with Francesca Pollock in 2003.
Interviews with Cimino were rare; he declined all interviews with American journalists for 10 years following Heaven's Gate and he gave his part in the making of that film little discussion. George Hickenlooper's book Reel Conversations and Peter Biskind's highly critical book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls deal with the film and resulting scandal. Hickenlooper's book includes one of the few candid discussions with Cimino; Biskind focuses on events during and after the production as a later backdrop for the sweeping changes made to Hollywood and the movie brat generation. Steven Bach, a former UA studio executive, wrote Final Cut (1985), which describes in detail how Heaven's Gate brought down United Artists. Cimino called Bach's book a "work of fiction" by a "degenerate who never even came on the set". However, Bach's work does discuss times in which he did appear at the shooting location to confront Cimino about the budgetary issues.
While Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Francis Ford Coppola, Gene Hackman, Sidney Lumet and Robert De Niro all gave interviews for the 2009 John Cazale documentary I Knew It Was You, Cimino refused to do so.
However, the European DVD release of The Deer Hunter contains an audio commentary with Cimino as does the American DVD release of Year of the Dragon.
In 2011, the French movie critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret wrote a large profile on Michael Cimino for Les Cahiers du Cinéma. Cimino appeared on the cover.
In 2013, Thoret published in France an acclaimed book, Michael Cimino, les voix perdues de l'Amérique (lost voices of America). Flammarion. ISBN 978-2081261600
After Cimino's success with The Deer Hunter, he was considered a "second coming" among critics. In 1985, author Michael Bliss described Michael Cimino as a unique American filmmaker after only three films: "Cimino occupies an important position in today's cinema ... a man whose cinematic obsession it is to extract, represent, and investigate those essential elements in the American psyche ..." Frequent collaborator Mickey Rourke has often praised Cimino for his creativity and dedication to work. On Heaven's Gate, Rourke has said, "I remember thinking this little guy [Cimino] was so well organized. He had this huge production going on all around him yet he could devote his absolute concentration on the smallest of details."
Film director/screenwriter Quentin Tarantino has also expressed great admiration and praise for Cimino's The Deer Hunter, especially with regards to the Vietnamese POW Russian roulette sequence: "The Russian roulette sequence is just out and out one of the best pieces of film ever made, ever shot, ever edited, ever performed. ... Anybody can go off about Michael Cimino all they want but when you get to that sequence you just have to shut up." Tarantino also loved Cimino's Year of the Dragon and listed its climax as his favorite killer movie moment in 2004.
Film director/screenwriter Oliver Stone, who collaborated with Cimino in Year of the Dragon (1985), said of Cimino: "I have to admit I liked working with Michael Cimino, and I learned a lot from him."
Cimino has been described by colleagues and critics as vain, self-indulgent, egotistical, megalomaniacal and an enfant terrible. Producers and critics have tended to be harsher on Cimino than his collaborators. Critics, for example, Pauline Kael, John Simon and John Powers, have also noted and criticized these qualities in many of the films he wrote and directed. Cimino was also known to have given exaggerated, misleading and conflicting stories about himself, his background and his filmmaking experiences.
In writing about his experience working on The Sicilian, producer Bruce McNall described Cimino as "one part artistic genius and one part infantile egomaniac." In his book, Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off, producer Michael Deeley described his experience with Cimino on Deer Hunter as a "travail", adding "the only flaw I find in my Oscar [for The Deer Hunter] is that Cimino's name is also engraved on it." Deeley criticized Cimino for lack of professional respect and standards: "Cimino was selfish. ... Selfishness, in itself, is not necessarily a flaw in a director, unless it swells into ruthless self-indulgence combined with a total disregard for the terms in which the production has been set." Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond reported that Cimino was hard to work with but extremely talented visually.
Movie critics Pauline Kael and John Simon criticized Cimino's abilities as a filmmaker and storyteller. After his failure with Heaven's Gate, some commentators joked and/or suggested that he should give back his Oscars for The Deer Hunter. Pauline Kael in The New Yorker described Cimino's storytelling abilities in her review of Year of the Dragon:
As I see it, Michael Cimino doesn't think in terms of dramatic values: he doesn't know how to develop characters, or how to get any interaction among them. He transposes an art-school student's approach from paintings to movies, and makes visual choices: this is a New York movie, so he wants a lot of blue and harsh light and a realistic surface. He works completely derivatively, from earlier movies, and his only idea of how to dramatize things is to churn up this surface and get it roiling. The whole thing is just material for Cimino the visual artist to impose his personality on. He doesn't actually dramatize himself—it isn't as if he tore his psyche apart and animated the pieces of it (the way a Griffith or a Peckinpah did). He doesn't animate anything.
John Foote questioned whether or not Cimino deserved his Oscars for The Deer Hunter: "It seemed in the spring of 1979, following the Oscar ceremony, there was a sense in the industry that if the Academy could have taken back their votes — which saw The Deer Hunter and director Michael Cimino winning for Best Picture and Best Director — they would have done so."
Peter Biskind described Cimino in relation to The Deer Hunter as "our first, home-grown fascist director, our own Leni Riefenstahl".
Cimino was known for giving exaggerated, misleading and conflicting (or simply tongue-in-cheek) stories about himself, his background and his filmmaking experiences. "When I'm kidding, I'm serious, and when I'm serious, I'm kidding," responded Cimino. "I am not who I am, and I am who I am not."
Cimino gave various dates for his birth, usually shaving a couple of years off to seem younger, including February 3, 1943; November 16, 1943; and February 3, 1952. Many biographies about Cimino, such as the "Michael Cimino" entries in David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia, list his year of birth as 1943. In reference to Cimino's interview with Leticia Kent on December 10, 1978, Steven Bach said, "Cimino wasn't thirty-five but a few months shy of forty."
Cimino claimed he got his start in documentary films following his work in academia and nearly completed a doctorate at Yale. Some of these details are repeated in reviews of Cimino's films or his official bios. Steven Bach refuted those claims in his book Final Cut: "[Cimino] had done no work toward a doctorate and he had become known in New York as a maker not of documentaries but of sophisticated television commercials."
During the production of The Deer Hunter, Cimino had given co-workers (such as cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and associate producer Joann Carelli) the impression that much of the storyline was biographical, somehow related to the director's own experience and based on the lives of men he had known during his service in Vietnam. Just as the film was about to open, Cimino gave an interview to The New York Times in which he claimed that he had been "attached to a Green Beret medical unit" at the time of the Tet Offensive of 1968. When the Times reporter, who had not been able to corroborate this, questioned the studio about it, studio executives panicked and fabricated "evidence" to support the story. Universal Studios president Thom Mount commented at the time, "I know this guy. He was no more a medic in the Green Berets than I'm a rutabaga." Tom Buckley, a veteran Vietnam correspondent for the Times, corroborated that Cimino had done a stint as an Army medic, but that the director had never been attached to the Green Berets. Cimino's active service – six months while a student at Yale in 1962 – had been as a reservist who was never deployed to Vietnam. Cimino's publicist reportedly said that the filmmaker intended to sue Buckley, but Cimino never did.
Cimino died July 2, 2016, at age 77 at his home in Beverly Hills, California. Eric Weissmann, a friend and former lawyer of Cimino, said that friends had been unable to reach Cimino by phone for the last few days and called the police, who found him dead in his bed. Weissmann stated that he had not been aware of Cimino having any illness.