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Director was a true original

Times Staff Writer

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 from complications of cancer Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, Joshua Astrachan, a producer at Altman’s Sandcastle 5 Productions in New York City, announced Tuesday.

Altman, his production office said, had lived and worked with the disease for the last year and a half, during which he made his last film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” which opened in June. He also had planned to begin shooting a film in February.

Over the years, Altman earned five Academy Award nominations for best director -- for “MASH,” “Nashville,” “The Player,” “Short Cuts” and, most recently, “Gosford Park.”

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“Bob’s restless spirit has moved on,” Meryl Streep, one of the 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 starred in “MASH” and “The Long Goodbye” and appeared in other Altman films, said in a statement Tuesday that “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 told The 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.”

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Fellow “MASH” cast member Sally Kellerman told The Times that “there was no one like him; no matter if his films made money or didn’t, nothing stopped him. He was a real artist, driven by a creative need. He said making movies was his ‘play.’ Some people play tennis; for him movies was his fun.”

Richard Gere, who starred in Altman’s “Dr. T & the Women,” said in a statement that “There’s no one I’m prouder to have worked with. He was an ecstatic ... a magician ... a conjurer ... a mischievous boy. Perhaps unprecedented. He understood and could express that uniquely American shapeshifting goofiness more than anyone. He was the deepest ocean and the lightest feather at the same time ... we all loved him so very much.”

In March, 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.”

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Altman 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 antiwar and anti-establishment sentiments of the Vietnam War era.

‘MASH’ was his breakthrough

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

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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. One of the year’s top box-office hits, it 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 after his “MASH” success, Altman made seven films in the next five years that were noted 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.

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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 wrotethat “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,” Casper said.

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.”

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“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 on Tuesday. “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.”

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

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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 Lion’s Gate Films and moved to New York City.

The ‘80s were difficult

He spent the ‘80s 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 Nixon.

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.

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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.

“Bob had a tough time in the ‘80s,” screenwriter Frank Barhydt, with whom Altman collaborated on a few 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.”

Altman, who moved his offices to Paris in the mid-1980s, 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.

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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.”

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But by 1990, Altman was described in the Washington Post as “the forgotten master,” a filmmaker absent from anyone’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 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.”

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He stayed out of the mainstream

After “The Player,” 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.”

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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 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 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 moved to Los Angeles with his first wife LaVonne. Unsure of what career path to take, Altman sampled a variety of jobs. 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.”

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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, 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 and moved back to Kansas City where he landed a job driving a generator truck and handling new accounts at 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.

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Hitchcock gave him his 1st break

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, 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.

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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 “MASH,” he said, 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 before a retrospective of his films at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2000, Altman repeated a familiar refrain.

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“There isn’t a filmmaker who ever lived who has had a better shake than I did,” he told The 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.

Memorial services are pending.

Donations may be made in Altman’s name to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Heart and Lung Transplant Unit.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A life in film

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Feature films directed by Robert Altman:

“A Prairie Home Companion” (2006)

“The Company” (2003)

“Gosford Park” (2001)

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“Dr. T and the Women” (2000)

“Cookie’s Fortune” (1999)

“The Gingerbread Man” (1998)

“Kansas City” (1996)

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“Jazz ’34" (1996)

“Pret-a-Porter,” or “Ready to Wear” (1994)

“Short Cuts” (1993)

“The Player” (1992)

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“Vincent & Theo” (1990)

“Aria” (segment “Les Boreades”) (1987)

“O.C. and Stiggs” (1987)

“Beyond Therapy” (1987)

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“Fool for Love” (1985)

“Secret Honor” (1984)

“Streamers” (1983)

“Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” (1982)

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“Popeye” (1980)

“Health” (1980)

“A Perfect Couple” (1979)

“Quintet” (1979)

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“A Wedding” (1978)

“3 Women” (1977)

“Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson” (1976)

“Nashville” (1975)

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“California Split” (1974)

“Thieves Like Us” (1974)

“The Long Goodbye” (1973)

“Images” (1972)

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“McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971)

“Brewster McCloud” (1970)

“MASH” (1970)

“That Cold Day in the Park” (1969)

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“Countdown” (1968)

“The James Dean Story” (1957)

“The Delinquents” (1957)

Source: www.imdb.com, www.tcmdb.com

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Voices

‘I was friends with Bob for 20 years before we worked together on “Gosford Park.” It was then that I experienced the real magic of Robert Altman. When he was working, he had a youthful joyfulness that was just amazing.’

Bob Balaban, actor

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‘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.’

Bud Cort, actor

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‘I’m sorry that our movie turned out to be his last, but I do know that he loved making it. It’s a great thing to be 81 and in love.’

Garrison Keillor, creator of ‘Prairie Home Companion’

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‘A great man has left this stage. In my too brief time with him, his life seemed to be concerned with two things: telling it like it is and having fun.’

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John C. Reilly, actor

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‘He was a great man of the cinema and a great man. ‘

Kenneth Branagh, actor and director

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