In 1973, Mike Cimino cast me as Lightfoot in the first movie he directed – Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. I was just starting out, just a kid. I remember being up in Montana wondering why he had picked me. I didn’t feeling anything like the character I had been hired to play. I felt inadequate, undeserving, confused. The day before shooting began I confessed this all to Mike. This was Mike’s first movie, one he had written as well. He’d been given this opportunity by Clint Eastwood, the movie’s producer and star. I felt sorry for Mike. This was a big break for him, and here he was the day before his movie was to start shooting, and this frightened young actor who had a major roll in it was telling him he didn’t know if he could do it. After not too long a pause, Mike looked at me, and said, “You know that game Tag?” “Yeah,” I said. “Well… You’re it,” Mike told me. He went on to say that this guy, Lightfoot, was no one other than me, that I couldn’t make a mistake, or a false move, even if I wanted to. I’ve never forgotten that bit of direction that that young director gave me on his first movie, that gift of confidence. I’ll often bring it to mind when that feeling of inadequateness, that feeling of not deserving what I’ve been given comes to me. I’ll remember to enjoy the game, this game of ‘Tag.’
A few years later, after Mike won an Academy Award for directing The Deer Hunter, he cast me again in another movie. Now he was an award winner, and along with Coppola, Bogdanovich, & Scorsese, a ‘Hollywood Darling’, encouraged to make whatever movie he wanted to make. Heaven’s Gate is what he had in mind. A movie about a particularly fascinating time in American History when Cattle Barons, sanctioned by the United States government, waged war on emigrants – the Johnson County Wars. I was cast to play John Bridges, a character Mike loosely based on one of my relatives. The many months of shooting in Montana were a one of a kind movie making experience. When Heaven’s Gate came out, many critics called it a flop, a disaster. Well…that’s just their opinion, man. To me, and many others, it’s a masterpiece, and grows in beauty each time it’s seen.
Michael Cimino was a splendid filmmaker. Getting to work with him was a great pleasure and honor, and a real stroke of luck, a blessing. I’ll miss you, Mike. Thanks for tagging me, man.