Jonathan Demme died in New York due to esophageal cancer and complications from heart disease

By Stephanie Petit
April 26, 2017 11:14 AM
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Credit: Nick Wall/WireImage

Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning director behind The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, died Wednesday morning, PEOPLE confirms. He was 73 years old.

A rep for Demme said he died at his apartment in New York City due to complications from esophageal cancer.

The family plans to hold a private funeral and asked that donations be made to Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami, Florida, in lieu of flowers.

Demme made his film debut with the 1971 biker film Angels Hard as They Come.

He rose to fame in Hollywood in the 1980s with comedies such as Melvin and Howard (1980), Swing Shift (1984), Something Wild (1986) and Married to the Mob (1988). He won his Oscar for directing 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, which starred Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in Oscar-winning performances, and later helmed Philadelphia (1993) and Rachel Getting Married (2008).

His last full-length feature film was 2015’s Ricki and the Flash, starring Meryl Streep as an aging rocker. In a statement released to PEOPLE, the actress remembers the late director: “A big hearted, big tent, compassionate man in full embrace in his life of people in need — and of the potential of art, music, poetry and film to fill that need. A big loss to the caring world.”

The Long Island, New York, native’s most recent credits included the 2016 documentary Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids, one of his many concert films,and an episode of the TV series Shots Fired.

Foster paid tribute to her Silence of the Lambs director, saying in a statement: “I am heart-broken to lose a friend, a mentor, a guy so singular and dynamic you’d have to design a hurricane to contain him. Jonathan was as quirky as his comedies and as deep as his dramas. He was pure energy, the unstoppable cheerleader for anyone creative. Just as passionate about music as he was about art, he was and will always be a champion of the soul. JD, most beloved, something wild, brother of love, director of the lambs. Love that guy. Love him so much.”

Tom Hanks, whom Demme directed to a Best Actor Oscar in 1993’s Philadelphia, said in a statement: “Jonathan taught us how big a heart a person can have, and how it will guide how we live and what we do for a living. He was the grandest of men.”

Martin Scorsese also paid tribute to his late friend, saying in a statement: “Whenever I ran into Jonathan, he was filled with enthusiasm and excitement about a new project. He took so much joy in moviemaking. His pictures have an inner lyricism that just lifts them off the ground—even a story like The Silence of the Lambs. I have great admiration for Jonathan as a filmmaker—I love the freshness of his style and his excellent use of music, from Buddy Holly to Miklos Rozsa. There’s so much more to be said, and I hardly know where to begin. I also loved him as a friend, and to me he was always young. My young friend. The idea that he’s gone seems impossible to me.”

Mary Steenburgen, who won an Oscar for the Demme-directed Melvin and Howard in 1980, said in a statement to PEOPLE, “I can’t imagine that having happened with any other director. He was pure magic. Brilliant technically but he never let that make him isolated. He included everyone on that set in the making of the movie in the most edgy, thrilling, wildly collaborative way.”

They worked together again on Philadelphia in 1993. “We never forgot for a moment that that film could change the experience of being HIV positive in this country and it did,” she says of working on the film. The heartbeat and the integrity of it began with Jonathan’s goodness and sense of justice. I’m so proud to have been in it.”

Steenburgen says Demme’s last public appearance might have been a screening of her son, Charlie McDowell’s film, The Discovery, in New York City. The director hosted the event, and Steenburgen says, “It can’t have been easy for him to go to N.Y.C. from Nyack and do that a couple of weeks before his death. But Jonathan celebrated and honored creativity more fiercely than anyone I have ever known. My daughter worked with him in The Manchurian Candidate. We all admired him so much. I send all of our family’s love to his beautiful family and I will hold him where he’s always been, in my heart, forever.”

Other celebrities shared their reactions to Demme’s death on Twitter, many thanking him for his work and speaking about their experiences working with him.

The filmmaker is survived by his wife, Joanne Howard, and three children: Ramona, 29, Brooklyn, 26, and Jos, 21.