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The Movie Role Clairton Almost Did Not Want

April 26, 2015

As a cub reporter for the McKeesport (Pa.) Daily News I received an early education into the working minds of local politicians and a first-hand glimpse at two young movie actors who are now screen legends.

It was the summer of 1977, and it was swelteringly hot in Pittsburgh. As the beat reporter for the City of Clairton - it was my job to know everything that was going on in that community - including its politics, police and fire activities, and in the schools.

Clairton is located along the banks of the Monongahela River - 14 miles southeast of the City of Pittsburgh. It was (and more so now) a distressed city. It was home to the U.S. Steel Co.'s Clairton Coke Works - and by 1977 already had its share of unfavorable press stemming from high unemployment, union strikes, a rising crime rate, and a declining economic base.

But residents were proud of their town and worked hard to ward off unfavorable perceptions or attention that might do the city harm.

So, it was no great surprise when Mayor Lloyd Fuge - a bright and successful attorney - asked me to drive him (Mayor Fuge had lost his sight in a chemical accident as a young boy) to the Pittsburgh International Airport Holiday Inn some 30 miles away. There he hoped to meet up with a young movie director by the name of Michael Cimino.

The Mayor had received word that Cimino was directing a movie that was to take place in a small steel town named Clairton. He feared that once again the city would be on the receiving end of bad press - this time on the big screen before a national audience.

His goal was to convince the director to change the name of the city where the movie would take place. Although he had no idea what the movie was about or how the city was going to be portrayed - he feared the worst.

We arrived at the motel and went straight to the front desk where Mayor Fuge asked the desk clerk to find Michael Cimino. When the desk clerk asked whom he should say was asking to see him - the Mayor authoritatively flipped open an official police badge in his wallet, and said, "I am."

As mayor, Lloyd Fuge was in charge of Clairton’s police department - although he had no jurisdiction at this location - but nonetheless the movie-style ploy had the desired effect - a worried Cimino arrived within minutes.

We sat in the lobby of the motel where Mayor Fuge first apologized for the novel approach to get Cimino’s attention (which the director graciously accepted). He told the Cimino of his concern that Clairton might be unfavorably portrayed in his movie. At one point, the Mayor went as far as saying that he might seek an injunction to stop the director from using the name Clairton in the movie.

Cimino heard the concern and went to great lengths to reassure Mayor Fuge that the movie would in no way damage the image of Clairton - "It’s about relationships of people," he said, describing the script.

As time went on, the Mayor was satisfied that all would be well with the movie and the meeting ended. However, as part of the solution and to show transparency, Director Cimino invited me to watch filming the next day to see for myself that the City of Clairton was not the focus of the movie.

I arrived on a high bluff in the City of Duquesne, Pennsylvania, for the filming of a funeral scene the next day. Although the movie script was set in Clairton the movie was filmed nearby on this day.

The film crew had taken an abandoned property and turned it into a makeshift cemetery. The scene was taking place in October, although it was a 90-degree July day. So surrounding tree leaves had been dyed red/orange and large fans were creating the illusion of a windy-cold fall day.

The movie was The Deer Hunter - winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1978. Mr. Cimino won the Academy Award for Best Director.

Following the shooting of the scene - Mr. Cimino escorted me to an unassuming trailer where he arranged an interview with one of the movie’s lead actors - someone by the name of Robert DeNiro. We talked for a while about the movie and his method as an actor. He was humble, nice, and accommodating.

I'm not sure what I was to think, but I was overly struck by his youth.

As the DeNiro interview ended, he turned to an actress also in the trailer and said, "You should interview the real star of the movie; meet Meryl Streep." She was young and pretty, and I interviewed her, too. A life's journey takes us on long, twisted paths. Our memory allows us to relive them.

The Deer Hunter put both actors on the map, and the City of Clairton, too.