Robert Altman dies; iconoclastic director was 81


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Columnist Martin Grove: Altman's final Oscar shot

Robert Altman, one of cinema's great democratic spirits whose wry appreciation of the idiosyncrasies of human nature suffused such films as "MASH," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Nashville" and "The Player," has died. He was 81.

Surrounded by his family, the director died Monday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles from complications of cancer. He had been dealing with the disease for the past 18 months, even as he completed his last film, "A Prairie Home Companion," and readied his next movie, a typically Altmanesque-sounding project about a Texas endurance contest where the locals compete to win a Nissan Hardbody.

Altman was Oscar-nominated as best director five times without winning -- he also earned two best picture noms for "Nashville" and "Gosford Park." But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences remedied that oversight this year at the 78th Annual Academy Awards, where he was presented with an honorary Oscar.

Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, who appear together as a singing sister act in "Prairie," introduced the director with a bravura demonstration of the overlapping dialogue and free-floating humor that characterized his films.

"No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have," Altman said in accepting the award. "I'm very fortunate in my career. I've never had to direct a film I didn't choose or develop. My love for filmmaking has given me an entree to the world and to the human condition." In a sense, he had become America's answer to France's Jean Renoir, whose 1939 "The Rules of the Game," with its indulgent view of human foibles, could have served as a gentle template for Altman's more raucous take on the absurdities of life.

In the warmth of the moment, Altman, often depicted as a cantankerous maverick, chose to overlook the obstacles that Hollywood sometimes threw in his path -- and which he somehow managed to overcome, bucking the odds as his career just kept rolling along.

Even after more than 30 subsequent movies, his most commercially successful film remained the anti-war comedy "MASH," which rocketed him to success in 1970 as it grossed $81.6 million, eventually spinning off the hit TV series that Altman himself couldn't abide.

But even though the movie, which won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, pushed him into the company of a new generation of Hollywood filmmakers who were shaking up the studio status quo, Altman, who was 45 by the time of his breakthrough film, had taken a surprisingly conventional route. He learned his craft by turning out such industrial films as "How to Run a Filling Station" before moving on to such episodic TV fare as "The Millionaire," "Bonanza" and "Combat."

For Altman could be as hard to categorize as the best of his films, which turned established genres inside out. With 1971's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, he reimagined the Western as a muddy opium dream in which pioneering individualism is pitted against corporate business interests. In 1973's "The Long Goodbye," he cast a shambling Elliott Gould as a modern-day Philip Marlowe -- instead of Raymond Chandler's mean streets of Los Angeles, Gould must find his way through the laid-back Los Angeles smog. And in 1974's "Thieves Like Us," he drained the romantic glamour out of period tales of lovers on the run such as "Bonnie and Clyde" or "They Live by Night" by having a vulnerable Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall play the awkward fugitives.

"Bob embodied the directors' ideal: a fiercely independent voice that was always challenging convention," DGA president Michael Apted said. "In doing so, he created a body of work of breathtaking diversity."

In 1975, Altman's groundbreaking experiments -- with dialogue seemingly overheard on the fly and a constantly prowling camera that can't resist poking around corners -- found an exuberant canvas in "Nashville." The film, full of music, much of which was penned by its sprawling cast of actors, was a celebration of America in all its craziness as it tossed together country singers, lonely housewives, preening politicians, clueless reporters and an ominous assassin. Nominated for five Oscars including best picture, it won just one for Carradine's deceptively simple song "I'm Easy."

That tune, along with "Nashville's" ironic sing-along "It Don't Bother Me," might as well have served as Altman's own theme songs, because when he was in his element on a film set, he did make it look easy. Like a genial ringmaster, he would set up a scene and then sit back, eagerly waiting for his actors to delight and surprise him. He didn't stand on hierarchy; anyone could make a suggestion. A little, throwaway detail could make a character -- like the way Duvall's upbeat Millie in "3 Women" keeps catching her yellow dress in the door of her car.

"Mr. Altman loved making movies," said Garrison Keillor, who collaborated with him on "Prairie." "He loved the chaos of shooting and the sociability of the crew and actors -- he adored actors -- and he loved the editing room, and he especially loved sitting in a screening room and watching the thing over and over with other people."

On an Altman set, the day didn't end when the crew wrapped. Instead, the director invited everyone, including visitors, to re-assemble for dailies. Drinks were passed around -- as well as the occasional joint or two -- as the day's work was reviewed, with Altman always leading the laughter at an unexpected piece of business or applauding enthusiastically at a particularly dramatic close-up.

His productions were something of a family affair -- figuratively and literally. Kathryn Reid Altman, his elegant, red-haired wife since 1959, circulated as a comforting presence, looking after the little details. His son Stephen worked his way up from assistant property master to set designer; another son, Matthew, worked as a set dresser. Crews and associates followed him from film to film. Scott Bushnell, who died earlier this year, worked in a producing capacity on more than 20 of his pictures. A friend and fan of jazz singer Annie Ross, Altman created a part for her in "Short Cuts."

Stars flocked to work with Altman, too -- from Paul Newman ("Buffalo Bill and the Indians") to Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren ("Pret-a-Porter").

But at the same time, Altman enjoyed discovering and nurturing quirky unknowns. "Brewster McCloud" (1970) starred the baby-faced Bud Cort and the sweetly gangly Duvall at the beginning of their careers. He gave Tomlin her first dramatic role in "Nashville," which earned an Oscar nomination. And arguably, only Altman would have thought to cast Lindsay Lohan as Streep's daughter in "Prairie" -- it fell to Streep to show her young co-star how to treat the veteran director with respect.

In the late Bert Remsen, Altman found one of his favorite actors. Remsen, a character actor who had abandoned acting after an on-set accident in which he broke his back, had gone on to a career as a casting director when Altman lured him back in front of the camera in such movies as "Brewster" and "California Split."

Actors returned the love in kind. "Bob's restless spirit has moved on -- I have to say, when I spoke with him last week, he seemed impatient for the future," Streep said. "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. What a gent, what a guy, what a great heart. There's no one like him, and we'll miss him so."

Born Feb. 20, 1925 in Kansas City, Mo. -- he'd return to explore his hometown roots in 1996's "Kansas City" -- he enlisted in the Air Force in 1945. Serving in the South Pacific, he tasted the military life he would later spoof in "MASH." Following the service, he made his first foray into Hollywood -- trying acting, with an uncredited appearance in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," and writing, earning a story credit on 1948's "Bodyguard." Returning to Kansas City, he went to work for a local film production company, where he filmed everything from short sports documentaries to educational films.

In 1957, he directed his first feature, "The Delinquents," followed by the documentary "The James Dean Story." Armed with a growing resume, and with two earlier marriages behind him, Altman returned to Hollywood, where he plunged into TV, finally working his way back to features in 1968 with the space adventure "Countdown," starring James Caan.

The prolific Altman might have never stopped working, but that was no thanks to Hollywood. Despite his string of successes in the '70s, he stumbled with such movies as 1979's mystifying "Quintet" and 1980's jokey "H.E.A.L.T.H."

In 1980, producer Robert Evans, eager to cash in on the growing comic book craze, persuaded Altman to tackle "Popeye," starring Robin Williams, but the result, with a script by Jules Feiffer and a song score by Harry Nilsson, proved too offbeat to attract a broad-based audience and grossed a little less than $50 million.

In its wake, Altman sold his production company, Lions Gate, and moved to Paris. His focus shifted to such stage plays as "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," "Streamers" and "Secret Honor," which he turned into films.

In 1988, he mixed fiction with political reality by taking Michael Murphy, in the character of presidential hopeful Jack Tanner, on the campaign trail in the HBO series "Tanner '88." He refined that notion further in 1992's "The Player," a Hollywood satire written by Michael Tolkin in which a long list of real stars playing themselves mixed with their fictional counterparts. The film earned Altman his third directing Oscar nomination.

"Short Cuts" (1993), a tale of intersecting Los Angeles lives based on the short stories of Raymond Carver, and 2001's "Gosford Park," an upstairs/downstairs murder mystery, brought Oscar directing nominations four and five, further consolidating Altman's reputation. "Prairie," released in the summer, drew warm reviews and posted a solid indie return of $20 million. "We had so much fun working on that project over the past year, and I know that he went out 'with his boots on,' " Picturehouse president Bob Berney said.

At the Oscars, Altman revealed that he'd had a heart transplant a decade earlier. Although he had kept that secret to himself, eventually insurers insisted that because of his health problems a standby director be assigned to his films. Stephen Frears stepped into that role on "Gosford Park," while Paul Thomas Anderson, whose films "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia" clearly owe a debt to Altman, happily paid it back on "Prairie." Their assistance was a measure of the esteem in which Altman had come to be held.

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

A memorial service is being planned. Donations in his name can be made to the Cedars-Sinai Hospital Heart and Lung Transplant Unit.

Films of Robert Altman as director, producer or writer include:

"Christmas Eve," 1947
"Bodyguard," 1948
"The Delinquents," 1957
"The James Dean Story," 1957
"Nightmare in Chicago," 1964
"Countdown," 1968
"That Cold Day in the Park," 1969
"M-A-S-H," 1970
"Brewster McCloud," 1970
"Events," 1970
"McCabe and Mrs. Miller," 1971
"Images," 1972
"The Long Goodbye," 1973
"Thieves Like Us," 1974
"California Split," 1974
"Nashville," 1975
"Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson," 1976
"Welcome to L.A.," 1977
"The Late Show," 1977
"Three Women," 1977
"A Wedding," 1978
"Remember My Name," 1978
"Quintet," 1979
"A Perfect Couple," 1979
"Rich Kids," 1979
"Health," 1980
"Popeye," 1980
"Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," 1982
"Streamers," 1983
"Secret Honor," 1984
"Fool for Love," 1985
"Beyond Therapy," 1987
"O.C. and Stiggs," 1987
"Aria" (one segment, "Les Boreades,") 1987
"Vincent & Theo," 1990
"The Player," 1992
"Short Cuts," 1993
"Pret-a-Porter" ("Ready to Wear,") 1994
"Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," 1994
"Jazz '34," 1996
"Kansas City," 1996
"The Gingerbread Man," 1998
"Cookie's Fortune," 1999
"Dr. T. and the Women," 2000
"Gosford Park," 2001
"The Company," 2003
"Tanner on Tanner," 2004
"A Prairie Home Companion," 2006
Sources: The Film Encyclopedia; Internet Movie Database