Ciulei began his career as an actor in his native Romania and later turned to directing. He went on to become artistic director of Bucharest's Bulandra Theatre, a position he held for ten years. In the U.S., he served as the head of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis for five years.
Among his New York stage credits are The Government Inspector, which played on Broadway in 1978, Hamlet, starring Kevin Kline, at the Public Theater in 1986, and Andorra, for Theater for a New Audience in 2002.
Among his film and television credits are The Forest of the Hanged, for which he won the Best Director Award at Cannes in 1965 and which also received a nomination for the Palme d'Or award, and Macbett.