Peter Zinner, 88; film editor won Oscar for ‘The Deer Hunter’

Times Staff Writer

Peter Zinner, who co-edited the first two “Godfather” films and won an Academy Award for editing the 1978 Vietnam War film “The Deer Hunter,” has died. He was 88.

Zinner died Tuesday at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica after a long illness, said his stepson, Dr. Nicolas Nelken.

The Austrian-born Zinner’s numerous credits as a film editor since the early 1960s include “The Professionals,” “In Cold Blood,” “Darling Lili,” “Crazy Joe,” the 1976 version of “A Star Is Born” and “An Officer and a Gentleman,” for which he received an Oscar nomination.


Zinner also edited a number of television productions, including co-editing the TV miniseries “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.”

His work on the latter miniseries earned him an Emmy Award in 1989, and he won a second Emmy in 1993 for editing the HBO movie “Citizen Cohn.”

Zinner already had shared an Academy Award nomination for editing Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film “The Godfather” when he picked up his Oscar for “The Deer Hunter.” The film won five Oscars, including best picture and best director (Michael Cimino).

“Peter is definitely in the top rank of editors of two or three generations,” said screenwriter-director Frank Pierson, whose “A Star Is Born” and four other movies Zinner edited.

“I think the one distinguishing characteristic of Peter’s is that he had a great sense of music,” Pierson told The Times on Thursday. “Musical rhythm is really an essential part of the motion picture language.”

He said, for example, that Zinner edited a famous sequence in “The Godfather,” in which the murders of Mafia leaders are intercut with the christening of a baby, by cutting it to organ music and the priest’s voice.


“That’s the kind of thing that he was brilliant at, and it’s become a classic sequence in movie history,” Pierson said.

Zinner considered “The Godfather” to be “the most classic movie” he ever worked on.

“Not until we did a screening for the exhibitors did we know the impact was going to be enormous,” he told the Palisadian Post in 2003. “Even though it plays in a particular time, it’s timeless. All the characters are totally believable, natural and acceptable. You can’t say that about many pictures.”

“He’s as good as they come,” producer and former Paramount production head Robert Evans told the Palisadian Post. “He has a terrific eye, he’s terribly talented and he deserves more credit than he got.”

When Zinner was 60, he directed his first -- and only -- film, “The Salamander,” a 1981 political thriller filmed in Italy with a cast that included Anthony Quinn and Claudia Cardinale.

“Any ambitious editor gets frustrated editing other people’s films, no matter how good the films are,” Zinner told The Times in 1980. “I’ve learned many things as an editor that are coming in handy now. For instance, I’ve only shot angles that are usable. As an editor, I know how much can’t be used.”

Working with Coppola, he said, “taught me an enormous lesson. We had to drop wonderful stuff because the film was already so long. Same problem with ‘The Deer Hunter,’ where I had close to 600,000 feet of film printed. That was more even than ‘The Godfather.’ The final cut was 18,000 feet. Michael Cimino and I had our differences at the end, but he kissed me when we both got Academy Awards.”


Zinner was born July 24, 1919, in Vienna. He studied piano, composition and theory before fleeing the Nazis with his parents in 1938.

He arrived in Los Angeles from the Philippines in 1940 with dreams of working in motion pictures.

After working as a taxi driver and playing piano in theaters that showed silent movies, he began his career in 1943 as an apprentice film editor at 20th Century Fox. He was an assistant sound-effects editor at Universal from 1947 to 1949 and a music editor at MGM from 1949 to 1960.

His most recent credit was “Running With Arnold,” a 2006 documentary about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, which Zinner worked on with his daughter, film editor Katina Zinner.

In addition to his stepson and daughter, Zinner is survived by his wife, Christa, a former fashion photographer.

Services are pending.