Willem Dafoe’s career spans 140 roles over four decades. He began in experimental New York theatre, before landing roles in some of the best 80s thriller movies including; Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless, (1981) Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984), and William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA (1985). This was all before his breakout role in Vietnam war movie Platoon (1986). But before all of those movies, he was cast in Michael Cimino’s western Heaven’s Gate, but ended up being fired after he laughed at a dirty joke.
1980’s Heaven’s Gate is one of the most notorious troubled productions in Hollywood history, with the shooting schedule ballooning from three to eleven months, and the final budget being four times what was initially planned. It was critically panned upon release and became an infamous box office bomb. It has since been reappraised, with some considering it a great American film.
Speaking to Pedro Pascal on a version of Inside the Actors Studio, Dafoe recounted his experience of working with fanatical and fastidious director Michael Cimino, who reportedly demanded 50 takes of some scenes. “I was supposed to be there just for a couple of weeks.” They changed Dafoe’s contract from a daily to a weekly one, and said that they wanted him to stay as long as he was needed.
Dafoe was concerned about getting back to his theatre group. They told him not to worry about the theatre anymore, he’s in a movie directed by Cimino – who had just won the Academy Award for The Deer Hunter – “come on kid, wake up, smell the coffee.” Dafoe ended up being on set for a long time. “Things got very tense on the set. I was working a lot, Cimino built some stuff for me, actually made some scenes (for me). He was developing these characters, it was really interesting.”
However, Cimino clearly had a low tolerance for levity, or for anyone making mistakes, as Dafoe explains; “I was there one day during a lighting set up. We were all dressed and made up in these period costumes, standing still for eight hours basically. You’re there and you’re trying to be patient and the woman next to me told me a dirty joke, whispered it in my ear. And I did a big laugh and he [Cimino] turned around and said ‘Willem, step out’ and that was it. So I went home with my tail between my legs and that was a good start [to my movie career].”
The rest as they say, is history, because Dafoe has gone onto become an extremely prolific and respected actor who has been nominated for four Oscars. Heaven’s Gate is said to have ended the 70s era of auteur cinema (dominated by directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese), with Hollywood returning to studio comedies and action movies during the 80s.
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