Robert Altman, the innovative and iconoclastic director whose five-decade Hollywood career encompassed hits from MASH to Gosford Park–died in Los Angeles Nov. 20 of complications of cancer. He was 81. Altman was known for his quirky anti-establishment comedies and dramas; star-studded ensemble casts; all-in-the family crews; and pioneering techniques like overlapping dialogue. He was nominated for the best director Oscar five times for MASH, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park; and twice for his role as producer for Nashville and Gosford Park. His one Academy Award was honorary, bestowed on him in 2006. He said in his acceptance speech: “No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have. 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.”
Altman was the recipient of the career achievement award from the Directors Guild of America in 1994. And when Film Independent‘s Spirit Awards nominations were announced in late November, Altman received a nod in the best directing category for his final film, A Prairie Home Companion, which was released last summer. Altman was born in Kansas City. He served in the Air Force, and afterward worked making industrial films. He came to Hollywood in 1955, when he pursued a lead and got a job directing an episode of TV’s Alfred Hitchcock Theater. Despite his large body of work stretching out more than 40 films and a long list of television dramas such as Maverick, Peter Gunn, Bonanza, Route 66 and HBO hit Tanner, he left many incipient films along the way.
“He made so many starts on so many projects. I’d say 50 percent of all his pictures didn’t get made,” observed Stephen Altman, who was production designer on many of his father’s movies, and one of four of the director’s children who ended up working in films, mostly below the line. Altman’s way with actors was complemented by his involvement behind the scenes. “He was always very hands-on with his crews,” noted his son. He added, “Even in the modern fimmaking days, he knew what everybody’s job was supposed to be. So he was able to relate to all those people completely one-on-one. In the art department, it never all went through me. He wanted to talk to the set decorator and the prop man and the special-effects person and everybody all the way up and down the line. He was one of those guys who would listen to any suggestion about what would better the film—not that he would take every one of them—but if it was a good idea and he liked it, it didn’t matter where it came from.”
Altman pursued a free style of directing. “He was such an inventive and talented director, and he always liked to improvise,” recalled cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who was his DP on McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Images and The Long Goodbye. “He did almost everything on the set. He always gave a chance for the spontaneous moment, not just with the actors, but with the production designers and the cinematographers. He did his best work when he improvised.”
Altman was also known for pushing advances in filmmaking. The use of simultaneous dialogue, which became a signature of his films, resulted from his early recognition of the potential of multitrack sound recording. “He innovated using 16-track recording,” declared Zsigmond, a member of the American Society of Cinematographers. “He recorded every actor separately, putting each on a separate track. When he was finalizing the movie, that’s when he decided which voice was to be louder than the other. With 16-track sound recording he could mix the overlapping dialogue. Some producers were scared of two actors talking at the same time. He’d say, ‘I know the studio hates it.'”
A particular technique Altman liked was to add zooms in moving shots. “He really loved zoom lenses, and taught me how to use them in the moving shots,” recalled the cinematographer. “When the camera moved and zoomed at the same time during a long shot, you don’t see it as a zoom. I learned that whole technique from him and have used it throughout the rest of my career.”
For film editor Maysie Hoy, “working for Bob was life-altering, it was a magical experience.” Her first encounter with Altman was in Vancouver, during the shooting of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, in which she had a small acting role. She subsequently worked as an apprentice in various departments while learning the editing craft, and was editor on The Player. “If you wanted to do something, you would be there and do it. If you fell on your face you would be gone. But I don’t know any other filmmaker who was so generous in giving people their break. I certainly owe everything to him.” Despite his reputation for enjoying a drink or a joint, Hoy says she never saw him intoxicated or high during a shoot. “I should know, because I was the one that brought him his Scotch after the wrap each day—that was another of my jobs.” One of the unique rituals of any Altman shoot was the group viewing of the dailies.
“It was the best part of the day, both a party and a celebration of moviemaking,” recalled Zsigmond. “I could hardly wait to sit down with him; the actors, extras and the guests. He invited everybody to see the dailies. Some directors don’t like that so much. But he was never afraid of people watching a movie in the making because he learned so much from that process, and so did we.”
Altman is survived by his wife Kathryn, and six children: daughters Christine and Connie; and sons Stephen; Robert, who is a camera operator; Matthew, a set dresser; and Michael, who co-wrote the theme song to MASH. In addition, there are 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.