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Robert Altman: A fierce risk-taker

Director will be remembered as brave and defiant, which is the way he pursued his life’s work in an unforgiving and often nonsensical business.

One of my favorite television shows of all time is “Combat!,” the one-hour World War II drama that ran from 1962 to ’67. It bucked the mainstream trends of the time with a gritty, black-and-white, documentary-style look at the lives of a small group of GIs who, week to week, encountered harrowingly real human conflicts.

The acting was top-notch. The camera work was flawless. The stories were inventive and gripping.

Robert Altman directed 10 of the early episodes of “Combat!” While he wasn’t the show’s only director, and he wasn’t solely responsible for the texture and impact of the series, he put his imprint on it. But what was even more significant is where he went from there.

Rather than use “Combat!” as a calling card to Hollywood in order to work his way into the rotation of routine studio assignments, Altman took his singular vision honed on that show and elsewhere and imposed it on a stodgy industry. The result was some of the most important cinematic works of the 20th century and beyond.

When Altman died on Monday night in a Los Angeles hospital, many were left with an image of a man fragile of health but strong of will who stood proudly at the podium in March and accepted the Academy’s lifetime achievement Oscar, which was the only such statuette he would win after having been nominated a record-tying five times as best director. Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep doted on him like loving daughters, and engaged in a playful spate of overlapping dialogue to honor him, an Altman trademark.

But Altman will not be remembered as frail and humbled, but rather fierce and defiant, which is the way he pursued his life’s work in an unforgiving and often nonsensical business.

Inventing his own styleHis breakthrough came in 1970 with “M*A*S*H,” an anti-war comedy starring Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland that not only was a hit with audiences and critics alike, but it also helped to usher in a new wave of risk-taking filmmakers. Altman was hardly the first to encourage a naturalistic style rife with improvisation among his actors — Elia Kazan, among others, had made a career out of it in the ’50s — but his work contained more of a cynical edge that attracted hordes of admirers around the time when the country was becoming weary of Vietnam.

Bold filmmakers like Altman who dared to question American institutions of God and country were becoming the vogue. In an era of American cinema in the late ‘60s and ‘70s that would include works by Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah and many others, Altman was both a leader and an outcast. He was the standard bearer for the finest in independent films, but he also was so much his own man that he always stood outside of the movement in terms of style, approach and conceptualization.

Altman’s run through the ’70s did not produce the kind of box-office activity created by one Steven Spielberg or George Lucas blockbuster, but it still established landmarks. A picture like “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” in 1971, starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, had a jarring effect on Western conventions much like Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” did two years before, only with character development and mood rather than bullets. “The Long Goodbye,” his take on a Raymond Chandler whodunit, and “California Split,” the quirky gambling dramedy, also helped to further establish his esteemed chops in the creative community.

The masterpieceBut it was “Nashville,” his dark voyeuristic look at the world of country music in 1975, that will stand as the quintessential Altman film. With an impressive ensemble cast headed by Tomlin, Karen Black, Ned Beatty, Shelly Duvall, Henry Gibson and Keith Carradine, it featured interlocking storylines, snippets of dialogue layered upon one another, a heightened sense of realism and a subtle but insistent probing of its subject matter like something from a Maysles brothers documentary.

Actors had already been notified before “Nashville” that Altman was a director who not only valued their contributions but treated them as equals with the direction and writing. With “Nashville,” that message was underlined and bold-faced.

After “Nashville,” which snagged five Academy Award nominations including best picture and best director, Altman’s renegade cinematic onslaught hit a rough patch. Pictures like “3 Women” and “A Wedding” got mixed receptions from critics and little notice from audiences. And “Popeye” in 1980 was one of the earliest examples in the age of mass media when hype and speculation leading up to the release of the live-action film, starring Robin Williams in the title role and Duvall as Olive Oyl, killed its chances before it began to unspool in theaters. “Popeye” is regarded as Altman’s career nadir, even though now on a fresh viewing it isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation.

Altman worked fairly regularly through the ’80s but didn’t have another commercial and critical hit until “The Player” in 1992. It was fitting that a man who spent most of his career battling Hollywood suits would enjoy a career renaissance by skewering such men. The old Altman magic was spotted sporadically after that, especially on “Gosford Park” in 2001 and most recently “A Prairie Home Companion” earlier this year.

But what will be remembered most about Robert Altman is that he was a director who told unconventional stories in an unconventional manner and reveled in it. Hollywood will always be indebted to him for his warnings about the dangers of playing it safe and for his reminders about how rewarding it can be to take a risk.