Ivan Passer, the film-maker who was a key figure in the Czech new wave and who went on to direct the thriller Cutter’s Way after emigrating to the US, has died aged 86. Variety reported that an associate of his family confirmed the news.

Passer, who was born in Prague in 1933, spent his career inextricably associated with, and to some extent overshadowed by, his friend and fellow Czech director Miloš Forman. The pair met as schoolboys and studied together at the Prague Film Academy; they both became part of a group of film-makers who took advantage of a slight weakening of the communist government’s iron grip in the late 50s and early 60s. “We were all united, one way or another, with desire to expose the regime on the screen,” Passer told the LA Times. “And we got away with it because the regime was melting.”

Passer’s main contribution to the new wave was his directorial debut Intimate Lighting (1965), a gentle, funny, observational film about a famous musician visiting a smalltown friend; he also worked on Forman’s two new wave classics, A Blonde in Love (1965) and The Fireman’s Ball (1967).

However, the events of the Prague spring in 1968, which culminated in an invasion by Warsaw Pact forces in August that year, triggered a massive clampdown on creative activity. Passer and Forman planned an escape together, and managed to cross the border with Austria in January 1969.

Passer settled in New York and made a series of films with a counterculture flavour, including Born to Win (1971) with George Segal as a hairdresser turned junkie and which provided an early role for Robert De Niro, and Law and Disorder (1974), with Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine as a pair of wannabe cops. However, Passer never achieved the same success as Forman, whose One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won multiple Oscars in 1975.

The high point of Passer’s Hollywood career was the 1981 thriller Cutter’s Way, starring Jeff Bridges and John Heard, long regarded as a cult classic. They play two damaged men, called Bone and Cutter, who witness a murder and, led by Cutter, attempt to hunt down the man they hold responsible. Its producers, United Artists, had little faith in the film, and effectively killed it commercially, but its reputation has remained high in the years since.

Passer, however, found it hard to get films off the ground in the ensuing decades, as his brand of bleakly bittersweet comedy found less fertile territory. Much of his best known subsequent work was for TV, including an award-winning HBO film about Stalin, starring Robert Duvall, and an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, starring Armand Assante.

Passer’s final film credit was as a co-director (with Sergei Bodrov and Talgat Temenov) on the Kazakh epic Nomad: The Warrior, which was released in 2005.

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