Meryl Streep's Triumphant (and Tragic) Road to Her First Oscar Nomination for 'The Deer Hunter'

2012-04 END The Deer Hunter Meryl Streep Robert DeNiro H

Meryl Streep danced with Robert De Niro in "The Deer Hunter."

The actress, nominated this year for her 17th Academy Award for "The Iron Lady," worked on the 1978 film with actor boyfriend John Cazale, who died before it was released in theaters from bone cancer.

Meryl Streep, who won a Golden Globe for The Iron Lady and is up for a third career SAG Award on Jan. 29, earned her first Oscar nomination for 1978's The Deer Hunter.

The Summit, N.J.-born Streep said in 2009 that she was offered the role of the love interest for Christopher Walken's and Robert De Niro's characters after De Niro got her in front of director Michael Cimino "early in his career, when he had some clout." (De Niro had seen her onstage in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard at Lincoln Center.)

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But the Deer Hunter experience was bittersweet.

Streep, then 28, worked on the film -- a brutal look at the horrors of Vietnam, told through the experiences of a group of steelworkers -- with her live-in boyfriend, John Cazale. The actor, who had played Fredo in the first two Godfather films, was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer after being cast. Cimino knew about his condition; Universal didn't.

When the studio found out, it wanted Cazale replaced. Somehow, the completion insurance issues were resolved, and the schedule was rearranged so Cazale's scenes could be shot first. He died nine months before the movie was released, at age 42. "I've hardly ever seen a person so devoted to someone who is falling away like John was," Al Pacino said of Streep in a 2003 interview. "To see her in that act of love for this man was overwhelming."

The Hollywood Reporter's review called Deer Hunter "the great American film of 1978"; it went on to gross $49 million and collect five Oscars, including best picture.