Director Robert Altman dies

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 Monday night in a hospital in Los Angeles, a spokesman for Altman's Sandcastle 5 Productions Company in New York City said today. The cause of death was not disclosed.

In March 2006, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored him with an honorary Oscar, Altman revealed that he 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, who had received five nominations for best director over the years but had never won an Oscar, 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."

Altman's latest film, "A Prairie Home Companion," an ensemble comedy with music based on the Garrison Keillor radio show, opened in June.

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 antiwar and antiestablishment sentiments of the Vietnam War era.

New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael called "MASH," featuring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould 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 two dozen principal characters, to be Altman's masterwork.Although "Nashville" had its detractors, Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice called it "Altman's best film and the most exciting dramatic musical since 'The Blue Angel.'"

Writing in the New Yorker, Penelope Gilliatt noted that "technically and emotionally the film is a crowning work and a harbinger. This is one of the ways that films will go, and Altman will have been the first to be there."

"Robert Altman was part of the heart of modernist Hollywood, that period between 1963 and 1976 of enormous thematic and formal experimentation," USC film professor Drew Casper told The Times in 2005.

"Altman's films always dealt with things he disapproved of or didn't like: All the cracks in American society, American lifestyles - that's what he made his cinema about," said Casper.

Altman's filmmaking career, however, was a series of highs and lows. 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."

Film critic and historian Richard Schickel said Altman's career as a director "was an extremely mixed bag."

"I give full credit to the innovative qualities of his early movies, particularly 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller'; it's a very interesting film," Schickel told The Times today. "But going back to his movies, even his ambitious ones like 'Nashville' and 'MASH,' I find them nowhere near as interesting as I once did. They're kind of indulgent, kind of narratively very mixed.

"I don't think I ever fully came to grips with Altman. There was something in his manner I found off-putting. There was a sort of nastiness in his sensitivity that I think the more you look at his work it became apparent. There was something unpleasant in his view of human nature, I think."

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 production company 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," a one-man drama starring Philip Baker Hall as a troubled President Richard Nixon. 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 mini-series 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.

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 1985, bounced back with the critically well-received "Vincent & Theo," his 1990 film biography of painter Vincent van Gogh and his patron brother.

"I scare the pants off of them out there [in Hollywood]," he told the Washington Post at the time. "There's a big resistance to me. They say, 'Oh, he's going to double-cross us somewhere.' When I explain what I want to do, they can't see it, because I'm trying to deliver something that they haven't seen before. And they don't realize that that's the very reason they should buy it."

"Bob had a tough time in the `80s," screenwriter Frank Barhydt, with whom Altman collaborated on a handful of scripts, told The Times in 1992. "But I never sensed that he was feeling sorry for himself. Though not every film he makes will be up to his standards, that's not what matters in the end. Bob takes joy in everything. He's one of the best examples of 'hanging in there' I know."

For his part, Altman told The Times, "I'm not aware of the bumps as much as others, I suppose. I feel like I've gotten a great shake."

A big, 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 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."

Though he admitted to taking "a lot of flak from writers" over the years, he viewed screenplays as blueprints. That didn't seem to bother Trudeau when he worked with Altman on "Tanner `88."

"What Bob makes is a kind of visual jazz," Trudeau told Time, "and I thought of myself as providing scat lyrics for him. They were always just a departure point."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."

"Actors feel very strongly about Bob because the industry has been so cold to him," Huston told the New York Times in 1992. "He's a radical. He's a fighter. He's a man who should be making movies all the time."

Tomlin, who made her film debut in "Nashville," also told the New York Times: "You always know that you'll never be disgraced with Bob. No matter what he lets you do on camera, he'll protect you when it comes to the cut. He's accessible and vulnerable and patriarchal at the same time."

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

"Sure, they're sending me scripts now, but it's things like, you know, 'The Return of Flipper,'" he told the New York Times in 1992. "They still don't want to make my films."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 were "Ready to Wear," "Kansas City," "Cookie's Fortune," "Dr. T & the Women," "Gosford Park," and "The Company." Altman's five Oscar nominations for best director were for "MASH," "Nashville," "The Player," "Short Cuts" and "Gosford Park."

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. 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.

Altman made no further progress in Hollywood and, for a time, he got involved in a dog-tattoo identification business, another failed venture.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 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.

Altman gave up his lucrative career in TV in the late 1960s to make feature films, later explaining that he didn't want to become "one of those hundreds of creative people who have just died in television."

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."Had 'MASH' happened to me when I was 31, I'd be dead today," Altman told the London Independent in 1995. "The arrogance factor would have set in and wiped me right out. But I was 45 at the time and was happy enough up to then with my lack of success. I was doing a lot of work, having a lot of fun. So the best thing about 'MASH' was the work it allowed me to do afterward. But as for 'becoming a success' - even then I knew it meant nothing. Nothing at all."

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."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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