Altman memorial tribute is a hit


NEW YORK -- It was a tribute even the irascible Robert Altman would have loved.

On what would have been the director's 82nd birthday, three months after his death from cancer, hundreds of stars and filmmakers came to Broadway's Majestic Theater on Tuesday to pay homage to Altman.

The ensemble cast that took the stage ranged from actors Julianne Moore, Kevin Kline and Tim Robbins to collaborators Paul Thomas Anderson, Garry Trudeau and Picturehouse president Bob Berney. The equally high-wattage audience included Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Lauren Bacall, Susan Sarandon, Glenn Close, Patricia Neal, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi and Stanley Tucci.

Onstage stories were peppered with memorable quotes from a sometimes impatient Altman, who could turn down a suggestion with "Yeah, let's not do that" or try to speed things along with "Just get to the verb." Trudeau, the writer-producer of HBO's series "Tanner '88," said Altman's first words to him were, "I eat writers for breakfast." And as "The Player" star Robbins noted, "He would not only not suffer fools, he'd make fools suffer."

But despite the "occasional volatility" Trudeau felt was likely key to Altman's creative process, each tribute invariably ended with a testament to his role as an on-set father figure, a loving husband to wife Kathryn, a director who perfectly captured the chaos of life and an actor's best friend. "You never felt Bob's disappointment or disapproval with you as an actor," his "Nashville" and "A Prairie Home Companion" star Lily Tomlin said.

Moore remembered asking him, "Was that OK?" on the "Short Cuts" set, to which he replied, "Of course, it's OK. It's exactly what you're doing. You're perfect."

The overlapping dialogue of New York filmmakers Jim Jarmusch, Sidney Lumet, Michael Lynne, Christine Vachon, Pam Koffler, John Penotti, Jonathan Demme, Marcie Bloom, Dylan Leiner and John Sloss could be heard in the audience. Keith Carradine, David Brown, Cynthia Nixon, Buck Henry, Lee Grant, Sam Cohn, Richard Kind, Sally Kellerman, Lori Singer, Richard E. Grant and Kurt Vonnegut also were in attendance.

The event opened with a series of photos from throughout Altman's life and wrapped with a montage from his films. In between were performances from "Short Cuts" star and jazz singer Annie Ross (singing the Depression-era tune "One Meatball") and a song from an opera based on his film "A Wedding," written by William Bolcom and performed by Lauren Flanigan.

Sandcastle 5 producers Wren Arthur and Joshua Astrachan gave details of the film Altman was set to start filming Feb. 12, an adaptation of the endurance-test contest docu "Hands on a Hardbody." Meryl Streep, Billy Bob Thornton, Jack Black, Jack White, Chris Rock, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Tomlin and Tommy Lee Jones were set to appear in the two-week shoot.

"In our last conversation, he was as clear and present as ever," Arthur said in one of the event's most touching speeches. "Bob walked off this planet with his boots on. He was the most inspiring person right up to the end."

Set up for release at Picturehouse, "Hardbody" might be restarted with another director in a style paying tribute to Altman, Berney said after the ceremony.

Others offering reminisces were Altman's sons Michael, Stephen, Robert and Matthew, along with Bob Balaban, Joan Tewkesbury, Alan Rudolph, E.L. Doctorow and Harry Belafonte. The latter revealed Altman's one-time plans to make what would have likely been his most controversial film, "Cork," tackling the subject of blackface and minstrel shows.

Tewkesbury and Robbins noted that the homage would have been the perfect Altman project. "It's called 'The Memorial,' and we are making the film as we speak," Robbins said. "There are cameras everywhere with subplots, subterfuge, whispered conversations and backstage preening. He's going to find us out, and God will laugh."

Added actor Bud Cort of the Kansas City, Mo., native: "Bob would love to be here. It's not only his birthday, it's also Fat Tuesday. He'd also see a chance to secure additional territories."

But Cort, who Altman discovered and cast in his 1970 films "MASH" and "Brewster McCloud," ended on a serious note by summing up what was lost three months ago. "There's a hole in the acting community that I pray to God can be filled," he said. "I don't think it can. Prove me wrong."