RIP: Robert Altman (1925-2006)

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Director Robert Altman dead at 81

By Dennis McLellan
Times Staff Writer

November 21, 2006

Robert Altman, the maverick director who earned a reputation as one of America's most original filmmakers with landmark movies such as "MASH," "Nashville," and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," has died. He was 81.

Altman, who never stopped producing and directing films, died of complications due to cancer Monday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, a spokesman for Altman's Sandcastle 5 Productions Company in New York City said today.

Over the years, Altman earned five Academy Award nominations for best director -- for "MASH," "Nashville," "The Player," "Short Cuts" and, most recently, "Gosford Park." His latest film was this year's "A Prairie Home Companion," an ensemble comedy with music based on the Garrison Keillor radio show.

"Bob's restless spirit has moved on," Meryl Streep, one of the many stars who appeared in "A Prairie Home Companion," said in a statement. "I have to say, when I spoke with him last week, he seemed impatient for the future. He still had the generous, optimistic appetite for the next thing, and we planned the next film laughing in anticipation of the laughs we'd have."

Elliott Gould, who made "MASH" and four other films with Altman, said in a statement today, "He was the last truly great American film director in the tradition of John Ford. I'll always be grateful to him for all the opportunities he gave me. He was my friend."

Asked what made Altman a great director, Gould laughed and said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, "He was a riverboat gambler; he dared to show life taking its course. He was quite an innovational artist."

While filming "MASH," Gould recalled, "He was so innovative that Donald (Sutherland) and I almost got him fired. We couldn't handle him, and we were complaining about him. I had never experienced someone doing that." But as a director, he said, "He gave us all more freedom than any of us could ever hope to have experienced. And that was really what gave me my opportunity to fly."

Bud Cort, who had a small part in "MASH" and then played the lead in Altman's next film, "Brewster McCloud," told The Times today: "Bob was, in essence, a master painter and the depth and breadth of his art changed the face of film forever. His wildest talent was that he could look at you and see immediately what you were trying to hide."

In March, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored him with an honorary Oscar, Altman revealed that he had had undergone a heart transplant 11 years earlier.

"I got the heart of, I think, a young woman who was about in her late 30s," he told the audience. "And so, by that kind of calculation, you may be giving me this award too early -- because I think I've got about 40 years left on it. And I intend to use it."

Altman told reporters backstage that he had kept the transplant a secret, fearing that "maybe no one would hire me again. You know, there's such a stigma about heart transplants, and there's a lot of us out there."

Altman had said that he viewed the honorary Oscar "as a nod to all of my films. To me, I've just made one long film."

A former Kansas City industrial film director who launched his Hollywood career in television in the late 1950s, Altman became a major filmmaking force in 1970 with "MASH." A black comedy set in the Korean War, MASH memorably captured the anti-war and anti-establishment sentiments of the Vietnam War era.

New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael called "MASH," featuring Gould and Donald Sutherland as irreverent young surgeons with a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, "the best American war comedy since sound came in."

It was chosen as best film at the Cannes Film Festival and was named the best film of 1970 by the National Society of Film Critics. It was one of the year's top box-office hits and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best director and best picture -- its sole Oscar win was for the screenplay adaptation by Ring Lardner Jr.

"MASH" contained elements that became hallmarks of Altman's filmmaking style, including a cynical, satiric tone, ensemble acting, improvisation, an elliptical, episodic narrative, a floating camera, and a layered soundtrack with overlapping dialogue.

In a flurry of filmmaking activity in the wake of his "MASH" success, Altman made seven films in the next five years that were known for their variety, creativity and vivid characters: "Brewster McCloud," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Images," "The Long Goodbye," "Thieves Like Us," "California Split" and, most notably, "Nashville."

Many consider "Nashville," his ambitious, song-filled 1975 drama that tells the intersecting stories of numerous principal characters, to be Altman's masterwork.

His immediate post-"Nashville" films included box-office disappointments such as "Quintet," "A Wedding," and "Health."

"No one else alive," David Thomson wrote in "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film," "is as capable of a dud, or a masterpiece."

By the late 1970s, Altman had largely fallen out of critical favor and was well known for antagonizing Hollywood unions and for badmouthing studio executives.

After his rocky relations with Paramount while making "Popeye," the big-budget 1980 comedy musical starring Robin Williams that received mixed reviews and less-than-blockbuster box-office returns, Altman sold his Lions Gate Films and moved his family to New York City.

He spent the 1980s moving from film to stage to television, including directing an off-Broadway production and the film version of "Come Back to the Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," as well as bringing to the screen the play "Streamers" and "Secret Honor." Altman even staged an opera, "The Rake's Progress," at the University of Michigan with a cast of 139.

He also notably directed "Tanner '88," a satirical HBO miniseries written by "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau that followed a fictional Democratic candidate played by Altman regular Michael Murphy through the real-life presidential race. Altman considered "Tanner," which earned him an Emmy for outstanding directing in a drama series, his best work of the decade.

But he also directed feature films such as "O.C. and Stiggs" and "Beyond Therapy," two 1987 comedies that made many critics' year-end "worst film" lists.

Altman, who moved his offices to Paris in the mid '80s, bounced back with the critically well-received "Vincent & Theo," his 1990 film biography of painter Vincent van Gogh and his patron brother.

A gregarious man with a gray goatee and mustache -- he was once described in the Los Angeles Times as "a prairie Buddha" -- Altman was known for having enormous energy and stamina during his filmmaking heyday.

On the Canadian location of "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," his 1971 Western starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, it reportedly was not unusual for the director to head for bed at 2 a.m., holding a last glass of scotch in one hand and a final joint in the other -- and then be on the set at 7 a.m. He reportedly gave up alcohol for health reasons later in life, but was said to continue to unwind with a marijuana cigarette at the end of the day.

Altman, who created a family atmosphere for cast and crew on his films, was known to have a fondness for actors, whom he encouraged to contribute to the creative process.

"I collaborate with everybody, but mostly the actors," he told Time Magazine in 1992. "You could point out any really good thing that happened in any of my films (and ask), `Whose idea is that?' (and) it is almost invariably somebody else's. And I don't even know whose."

But by 1990, Altman was described in The Washington Post as "the forgotten master," a filmmaker who was on no one's "A" list of bankable directors."

Then came "The Player." The critically acclaimed 1992 dark comedy about Hollywood greed and power starring Tim Robbins as a paranoid young movie executive. The film reinvigorated the maverick director's career, prompting him to joke in the press about making his "fourth comeback."

As testament to Altman's reputation as an actor's director, more than 60 celebrities, including Jack Lemmon, Bruce Willis, Cher, Lily Tomlin, Burt Reynolds, and Anjelica Huston agreed to work for scale playing themselves in cameos in "The Player."

In the wake of "The Player," the studios began offering him scripts for high-profile, higher-budgeted projects.

Refusing to go mainstream, he used his renewed leverage to make a pet project that had previously been turned down by every major studio: "Short Cuts," a character-laden drama based on the writings of Raymond Carver.

Among his other post-"Player" films are "Ready to Wear," "Kansas City," "Cookie's Fortune," "Dr. T & the Women," "Gosford Park," and "The Company."

Of film directing, Altman once said: "It's a great trip. I get to spend my life going from one adventure to another -- new people, new places, new challenges. New attempts at success, new failures. Who else can do that?"

The only son in a socially prominent German-American family with three children, Altman was born in Kansas City, Mo. on Feb. 20, 1925. His father was a successful insurance salesman who, Altman later said, "devoted a lot of his energies to gambling and women" -- as Altman himself later did.

Raised a Catholic, he attended parochial schools and, briefly, a public high school before being transferred to Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Mo., in his junior year.

He remained at Wentworth through junior college, then enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1945 at age 19. As a B-24 copilot in the final months of World War II, he flew 46 bombing missions while based on the island of Morotai in the Dutch East Indies.

After the war, Altman married his first wife, LaVonne, whom he had met on his last furlough before going overseas, and they moved to Los Angeles, where his parents were living.

Unsure of what career path to take, Altman sampled a variety of jobs, including selling insurance and serving as a Southern California Edison representative in Mexico.

He also took a stab at acting. An agent landed the tall, good-looking former airman a short-term contract at 20th Century Fox. But the highlight of his fledgling acting career was working as an extra in a nightclub scene in the Danny Kaye comedy "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

Teaming up with a composer and a writer, Altman next wrote the lyrics for a musical comedy intended for Broadway. But like his acting career, it fizzled. Then, with George W. George, an assistant director and the son of New Yorker cartoonist Rube Goldberg, Altman collaborated on a story that became the basis for "Bodyguard," a 1948 crime-drama starring Lawrence Tierney.

But he made no further progress in Hollywood.

Moving back to Kansas City, Altman landed a job driving a generator truck and handling new accounts at the Calvin Co., one of the nation's major industrial film companies. Within six months, he was promoted to director.

Over the next few years, Altman not only directed dozens of industrial films but gained experience with writing, sound, editing, camerawork, production design and budgets.

While still in Kansas City, he wrote and directed his first feature, "The Delinquents," a low-budget, 1957 exploitation film starring Tom Laughlin. The same year also saw the release of "The James Dean Story," a documentary co-directed by Altman about the young film legend who had died in a car crash two years earlier.

Altman's first break in Hollywood came when Alfred Hitchcock saw "The Delinquents" and recommended him for a directing job on the television series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."

In the ensuing years, Altman directed episodes of numerous TV shows, including "The Whirlybirds," "The Millionaire," "Hawaiian Eye," "Peter Gunn," "Bonanza," "Bus Stop," "Kraft Suspense Theatre" and, most notably, "Combat," the gritty World War II series with Rick Jason and Vic Morrow.

He gave up his lucrative career in TV in the late 1960s to make feature films.

He directed "Countdown," a 1968 moon-landing thriller with James Caan and Robert Duvall. That was followed by "That Cold Day in the Park," a quirky 1969 drama with Sandy Dennis.

Neither film fared well at the box office. And by the time Altman was offered the job of directing "MASH," he said, some 14 other directors had turned it down.

Looking back on his career on the eve of a retrospective of his films sponsored by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2000, Altman repeated a familiar refrain.

"There isn't a filmmaker who ever lived who has had a better shake than I did," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I am 75 years old and I have never been without a project of my own. I have never been out of work, and the only thing I haven't made are these big, popular films. I have never wanted to and I never will. I would fail at it. I would be late for work."

Altman is survived by his wife, Kathryn Reed Altman; six children, Christine Westphal, Michael Altman, Stephen Altman, Connie Corriere, Robert Reed Altman and Matthew Altman; 12 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.