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Director Robert Altman dies at 81

Robert Altman, the caustic and irreverent satirist behind “M*A*S*H,” “Nashville” and “The Player” who made a career out of bucking Hollywood management and story conventions, died. He was 81.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Robert Altman, a five-time Academy Award nominee for best director whose vast, eclectic filmography ranged from the dark war comedy “M*A*S*H” to the Hollywood farce “The Player” to the British murder mystery “Gosford Park,” has died of complications from cancer. He was 81.

“He had lived and worked with the disease for the last 18 months, a period that included the making of his film ‘A Prairie Home Companion,”’ the director’s Sandcastle 5 Productions in New York said in a statement Tuesday. “His death was, nevertheless, a surprise: Altman was in pre-production on a film he had planned to start shooting in February.”

He died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, surrounded by his wife and children.

When he received a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2006, Altman revealed he’d had a heart transplant a decade earlier. “I didn’t make a big secret out of it, but I thought nobody would hire me again,” he said after the ceremony. “You know, there’s such a stigma about heart transplants, and there’s a lot of us out there.”

Altman was to begin work on “Hands on a Hardbody,” a fictionalized version of the documentary about a Texas contest in which people stand around a pickup truck with one hand the vehicle, and whoever lasts the longest wins it. The film would have been vintage Altman.

While he was famous for his outspokenness, which caused him to fall in and out of favor in Hollywood over his nearly six decades in the industry, he was perhaps even better known for his influential method of assembling large casts and weaving in and out of their story lines, using long tracking shots and intentionally having dialogue overlap.

‘Mr. Altman loved making movies’
His most recent example of this technique, “A Prairie Home Companion,” starred Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson, Kevin Kline and Lindsay Lohan.

“I feel as if I’ve just had the wind knocked out of me and my heart aches,” Lohan said Tuesday night in a lengthy e-mail statement. She added, “I learned so much from Altman and he was the closest thing to my father and grandfather that I really do believe I’ve had in several years.”

“Mr. Altman loved making movies. 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,” Keillor, who also wrote and co-starred in the film, told The Associated Press. “He didn’t care for the money end of things, he didn’t mind doing publicity, but when he was working he was in heaven.”

“He was very good at letting actors think that they had more control than they actually did,” said “Prairie Home Companion” co-star Tommy Lee Jones.

“From a filmmaker’s point of view, he had a great many lessons to teach — presence of mind and relaxation around the camera and planning, preparedness,” Jones added.

Tim Robbins, who starred in the “The Player” and also appeared in “Short Cuts” and the fashion-world comedy “Pret-a-Porter,” described Altman as “a great friend and inspiration to me since I had the honor of meeting him in 1990. His unique vision and maverick sensibilities in filmmaking have inspired countless directors of my generation and will continue to inspire future filmmakers.”

Altman received best-director Oscar nominations for “M*A*S*H,” “Nashville,” “The Player,” “Short Cuts” and “Gosford Park.” No director ever got more nominations without winning a competitive Oscar, though four other men — Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Clarence Brown and King Vidor — tied with Altman at five.

‘A force of nature’Despite his longevity and the many big-name stars who’ve appeared in his films, Altman famously bucked the studio system and was often critical of its executives. One of his best-received films, the insiderish “The Player,” follows the travails of a studio executive being blackmailed by a writer.

Robert Altman and actress Shelley Duvall stroll along the Croisette Boulevard in Cannes, France, in May 1974. They were presenting their film \"Thieves Like Us\" at the Cannes International Film Festival. Altman, the caustic and irreverent satirist behind \"M-A-S-H,\" \"Nashville\" and \"The Player\" who made a career out of bucking Hollywood management and story conventions, died at a Los Angeles Hospital, his Sandcastle 5 Productions Company said Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006. He was 81.Levy / AP

But amid all those critical hits were several commercial duds including “The Gingerbread Man” in 1998, “Cookie’s Fortune” in 1999 and “Dr. T & the Women” in 2000. His reputation for arrogance and hard drinking — a habit he eventually gave up — hindered his efforts to raise money for his idiosyncratic films.

Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 2001’s “Gosford Park,” called the director “a force of nature.”

“A lifelong rebel, he managed to make the movie industry do his bidding, and there are very, very few people who can claim that. He altered both my career and my perceptions, vastly for the better, and no matter how long I live, I will die grateful to him.”

“M*A*S*H” star Elliot Gould said Altman’s legacy would “nurture and inspire filmmakers and artists for generations to come.”

“He was the last great American director in the tradition of John Ford,” Gould said. “He was my friend and I’ll always be grateful to him for the experience and opportunities he gave me.”

But it was Altman’s love of actors that came through over and over as Hollywood reacted to his death.

Movies that matteredTom Skerritt, who got his break from Altman on the 1960s TV series “Combat!” which led to his role in “M*A*S*H,” said the director’s death left him with “a big void I’m feeling this morning.”

“I was just trying to write down briefly what it was,” Skerritt said by phone from Seattle, describing Altman as a mentor. “‘No one can match the sense of joy in filmmaking he gave. I’m sure others who’ve shared the Altman experience have longed for an experience the equal of what Bob gave us, that only Bob could give us.”’

“M*A*S*H” mattered, Skerritt said, because of “the timing, the anti-war sentiment,” when it came out in 1970. It took place during the Korean War, but clearly was an attack on U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

“He said to me, ‘This is a two-ticket film.’ I asked what he meant by that, I’d never heard that before. He said, ‘Well, make it really interesting the first time, give ’em a little humor, a little of the opposite and just blast through it and make it interesting enough for them to want to come back and buy a second ticket to pick up on what they missed the first time.’ He knew that about it and he was right. It was a second-, third-, fourth-ticket film.”

‘Somebody who embraced people’Born Feb. 20, 1925, Altman hung out in his teen years at the jazz clubs of Kansas City, Mo., where his father was an insurance salesman.

Altman was a bomber pilot in World War II and studied engineering at the University of Missouri in Columbia before taking a job making industrial films in Kansas City. He moved into features with “The Delinquents” in 1957, then worked largely in television through the mid-1960s, directing episodes of such series as “Bonanza” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Married three times, Altman is survived by his wife, Kathryn Reed Altman, and six children. He also had 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Although Altman was known for his independent streak, he was also a generous-spirited man, said Sally Kirkland, who appeared as herself in “The Player.”

“He was somebody who embraced people,” she said, “very warm, very approachable, so down-to-earth.”

“Short Cuts” co-star Bruce Davison recalls Altman’s insistence that the cast members join him in watching the rushes every day, and that he’d have wine and cheese waiting for them.

“The best directors I’ve found are those who are ensemble players, not those guys who have great vision and make everyone hammer into that mold. ... He wanted you to participate — we came up with a lot of dialogue on our own, it was that kind of collaboration.

“He was Buffalo Bill,” Davison added. “That’s who he was.”