A Movie Role Clairton Almost Did Not Want
March 2, 2009
As a cub reporter for the McKeesport (Pa.) Daily News I got 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 sweltering in Pittsburgh. As the beat reporter for the City of Clairton - it was my job to know everything that was going on in the community - including its politics, police and fire activities, and 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 Clairton Coke Works - and by 1977 already had its share of unfavorable press attention stemming from high unemployment, a rising crime rate and declining economic base.
But residents were proud of their town and worked hard at every turn to ward off any unfavorable perceptions that might do the city harm.
Thus it was no surprise when Mayor Lloyd Fuge - a bright and successful attorney - asked me to accompany and drive him (Lloyd had lost his sight in an accident as a young boy) to the Pittsburgh International Airport Holiday Inn some 30 miles away where 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 for the meeting 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 Mr. Cimino for him. When asked who he should say was requesting to see him - the mayor authoritatively flipped open an official police "badge," and simply said, "I am".
As mayor, Mr. Fuge was head of Clairton’s police department (although he had no jurisdiction at this location) but his unusual movie-style ploy had the desired effect - a worried Mr. Cimino arrived within minutes.
We sat in the lobby of the motel where Mayor Fuge first apologized for the novel approach he used to get Mr. Cimino’s attention (which the director gracious accepted), and he then articulated his concern that Clairton might be unfavorably portrayed in his movie. At one point Mayor Fuge went as far as saying that he might seek an injunction to stop the director from using the name of Clairton in the movie.
The director heard the concern, and went to great lengths to reassure the mayor 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 became satisfied that all would be well with the movie and the meeting ended. However, as part of the solution and to show transparency, Mr. 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 Duquesne, Pennsylvania, for the filming of a funeral scene the next day. The film crew had taken an abandoned piece of property and turned it into a makeshift cemetery. It was a 90-degree day - so they dyed surrounding tree leaves red/orange and large fans were brought in to create 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 funeral scene - Mr. Cimino escorted me to an unassuming trailer where he set up an interview for me 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.
As the interview ended, he turned to an actress inside the same trailer and said,, "You should interview the real star of the movie - meet Meryl Streep".
The Deer Hunter put both actors on the map, and the City of Clairton, too.