He created a unique and wonderful world on his sets, . . . where the mischievous dad unleashed the "children actors" to play. Where your imagination was encouraged, nurtured, laughed at, embraced and Altman-ized. A sweet anarchy that many of us hadn't felt since the schoolyard, unleashed by Bob's wild heart.
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Altman was born on February 20, 1925, in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of Helen (née Matthews), a Mayflower descendant from Nebraska, and Bernard Clement Altman, a wealthy insurance salesman and amateur gambler, who came from an upper-class family. Altman's ancestry was German, English and Irish; his paternal grandfather, Frank Altman, Sr., anglicized the spelling of the family name from "Altmann" to "Altman". Altman had a Catholic upbringing, but he did not continue to follow or practice the religion as an adult, although he has been referred to as "a sort of Catholic" and a Catholic Director. He was educated at Jesuit schools, including Rockhurst High School, in Kansas City. He graduated from Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri in 1943.
In 1943 Altman joined the United States Army Air Forces at the age of 18. During World War II, Altman flew more than 50 bombing missions as a crewman on a B-24 Liberator with the 307th Bomb Group in Borneo and the Dutch East Indies.
Upon his discharge in 1946, Altman moved to California. He worked in publicity for a company that had invented a tattooing machine to identify dogs. He entered filmmaking on a whim, selling a script to RKO for the 1948 picture Bodyguard, which he co-wrote with George W. George. Altman's immediate success encouraged him to move to New York City, where he attempted to forge a career as a Writer. Having enjoyed little success, in 1949 he returned to Kansas City, where he accepted a job as a Director and Writer of industrial films for the Calvin Company. In February 2012, an early Calvin film directed by Altman, Modern Football (1951), was found by filmmaker Gary Huggins.
Altman's first forays into TV directing were on the DuMont drama series Pulse of the City (1953–1954), and an episode of the 1956 western series The Sheriff of Cochise. After Alfred Hitchcock saw Altman's early features The Delinquents and The James Dean Story, he hired him as a Director for his CBS anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. After just two episodes, Altman resigned due to differences with a Producer, but this exposure enabled him to forge a successful TV career. Over the next decade Altman worked prolifically in television (and almost exclusively in series dramas) directing multiple episodes of Whirlybirds, The Millionaire, U.S. Marshal, The Troubleshooters, The Roaring 20s, Bonanza, Bus Stop, Kraft Mystery Theater, Combat!, and Kraft Suspense Theatre, as well as single episodes of several other notable series including Hawaiian Eye, Maverick, Lawman, Surfside 6, Peter Gunn, and Route 66.
Altman directed some 65 industrial films and documentaries before being hired by a local businessman in 1956 to write and direct a feature film in Kansas City on Juvenile delinquency. The film, titled The Delinquents, made for $60,000, was purchased by United Artists for $150,000, and released in 1957. While primitive, this teen exploitation film contained the foundations of Altman's later work in its use of Casual, naturalistic dialogue. With its success, Altman moved from Kansas City to California for the last time. He co-directed The James Dean Story (1957), a documentary rushed into theaters to capitalize on the actor's recent death and marketed to his emerging cult following.
Altman was survived by his wife, Kathryn Reed Altman; six children or step-children: Christine Westphal, Michael Altman, Stephen Altman (his production designer of choice for many films), Konni Reed Corriere, Robert Reed Altman, and Matthew Altman; 12 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. The Altmans had married in 1959. Kathryn Altman, who died in 2016, co-authored a book about Altman that was published in 2014. She had served as a consultant and narrator for the 2014 documentary Altman, and had spoken at many retrospective screenings of her husband's films.
In the 1960s, Altman lived for years in Mandeville Canyon in Brentwood, California. He resided in Malibu throughout the 1970s, but sold that home and the Lion's Gate production company in 1981. "I had no choice", he told the New York Times. "Nobody was answering the phone" after the flop of Popeye. He moved his family and Business headquarters to New York City, but eventually moved back to Malibu, where he lived until his death. Altman despised the phenomenally popular television series MASH which followed his popular 1970 film, citing it as being the antithesis of what his movie was about, and citing its anti-war messages as being "racist." He stated very clearly in the 2001 DVD commentary of MASH his disapproval and the reasons why for the series.
Through this early work on industrial films and TV series, Altman experimented with narrative technique and developed his characteristic use of overlapping dialogue. He also learned to work quickly and efficiently on a limited budget. During his TV period, though frequently fired for refusing to conform to network mandates, as well as insisting on expressing political subtexts and antiwar sentiments during the Vietnam years, Altman always was able to gain assignments. In 1964, the producers decided to expand "Once Upon a Savage Night", one of his episodes of Kraft Suspense Theatre, for theatrical release under the name, Nightmare in Chicago.
In 1969, Altman was offered the script for MASH, an adaptation of a little-known Korean War-era novel satirizing life in the armed services; more than a dozen other filmmakers had passed on it. Altman had been hesitant to take the production, and the shoot was so tumultuous that Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland tried to have Altman fired over his unorthodox filming methods. Nevertheless, MASH was widely hailed as an immediate classic upon its 1970 release. It won the Palme d'Or at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival and netted five Academy Award nominations. It was Altman's highest-grossing film, released during a time of increasing anti-war sentiment in the United States. The Academy Film Archive preserved MASH in 2000.
Thomson later recognized those aspects as being part of Altman's style, beginning with MASH (1970): "MASH began to develop the crucial Altman style of overlapping, blurred sound and images so slippery with zoom that there was no sense of composition. That is what makes Nashville so absorbing." Altman explained that to him such overlapping dialogue in his films was closer to reality, especially with large groups: "If you've got fourteen people at a dinner table, it seems to me it's pretty unlikely that only two of them are going to be talking." Pauline Kael writes that Altman, "the master of large ensembles, loose action, and overlapping voices, demonstrates that . . . he can make film fireworks out of next to nothing."
When using music in his films, Altman was known to be highly selective, often choosing music that he personally liked. Director Paul Thomas Anderson, who worked with him, notes that "Altman's use of music is always important, adding, "Bob loved his music, didn't he? My God, he loved his music". Since he was a "great fan" of Leonard Cohen's music, for Example, saying he would "just get stoned and play that stuff" all the time he used three of his songs in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), and another for the final scene in A Wedding (1978).
For Nashville (1975), Altman had numerous new country music songs written by his cast to create a realistic atmosphere. He incorporated a "hauntingly repeated melody" in The Long Goodbye (1973), and employed Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks to score Popeye (1980).
In 1980, he directed the musical film Popeye. Produced by Robert Evans and written by Jules Feiffer, the film was based on the comic strip/cartoon of the same name and starred the Comedian Robin Williams in his film debut. Designed as a vehicle to increase Altman's commercial clout following a series of critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful low-budget films in the late 1970s (including 3 Women, A Wedding and Quintet), the production (filmed on location in Malta) was beleaguered by heavy drug and alcohol use among most of the cast and crew, including the director; Altman reportedly clashed with Evans, Williams (who threatened to leave the film) and Songwriter Harry Nilsson (who departed midway through the shoot, leaving Van Dyke Parks to finish the orchestrations). Though the film grossed $60 million worldwide on a $20 million budget and was the second highest-grossing film Altman had directed to that point, it was far from the gross the studios had expected and was considered a box office disappointment.
In 1981, the Director sold Lion's Gate to Producer Jonathan Taplin after his political satire Health (shot in early 1979 for a Christmas release) was shelved by longtime distributor 20th Century Fox following tepid test and festival screenings throughout 1980. The departure of avowed Altman partisan Alan Ladd, Jr. from Fox played a decisive role in forestalling the release of the film. Unable to secure major financing in the post-New Hollywood blockbuster era because of his mercurial reputation and the particularly tumultuous events surrounding the production of Popeye, Altman began to "direct literate dramatic properties on shoestring budgets for stage, home video, television, and limited theatrical release," including the acclaimed Secret Honor and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, an adaptation of a play that Altman had directed on Broadway. An abortive return to Hollywood filmmaking, the buddy film O.C. and Stiggs was shelved by MGM for nearly two years and received a belated limited commercial release in 1987. He also garnered a good deal of acclaim for his TV "mockumentary" Tanner '88, based on a presidential campaign, for which he earned a Primetime Emmy Award and regained critical favor. Still, widespread popularity with audiences continued to elude him. Altman also co-wrote John Anderson's 1983 hit single "Black Sheep".
His reputation among actors is quite different, however. With them, his independence sometimes extended to his choice of actors, often going against consensus. Cher, for instance, credits him for launching her career with both the stage play and film, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982). "Without Bob I would have never had a film career. Everyone told him not to cast me. Everyone. . . . Nobody would give me a break. I am convinced that Bob was the only one who was brave enough to do it." Others, like Julianne Moore, describes working with him:
In 1990 Altman directed Vincent & Theo, a biographical picture about the famous Painter Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) that was intended as a television miniseries for broadcast in the United Kingdom. A theatrical version of the film was a modest success in the US; Altman had reclaimed his darling status with critics, at least.
He then revitalized his career with The Player (1992), a satire of Hollywood. Co-produced by the influential David Brown (The Sting, Jaws, Cocoon), the film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Director. While he did not win the Oscar, he was awarded Best Director by the Cannes Film Festival, BAFTA, and the New York Film Critics Circle.
A number of music experts have written about Altman's use of music, including Richard R. Ness, who wrote about the scores for many of Altman's films in an article, considered to be a valuable resource for understanding Altman's filmmaking technique. Similarly, cinema studies professor Krin Gabbard wrote an analysis of Altman's use of Jazz music in Short Cuts (1993), noting that few critics have considered the "importance of the music" in the film.
Jazz was also significant in Kansas City (1996). In that film, the music is considered to be the basis of the story. Altman states that "the whole idea was not to be too specific about the story," but to have the film itself be "rather a sort of jazz." Altman's technique of making the theme of a film a form of music, was considered "an experiment nobody has tried before," with Altman admitting it was risky. "I didn't know if it would work. . . . If people 'get it,' then they really tend to like it."
In November 2000, he claimed that he would move to Paris if George W. Bush were elected, but joked that he had meant Paris, Texas when it came to pass. He noted that "the state would be better off if he (Bush) is out of it." Altman was an outspoken marijuana user, and served as a member of the NORML advisory board. He was also an atheist and an anti-war Activist. He was one of numerous notable public figures, including the Linguist Noam Chomsky and the Actress Susan Sarandon, who signed the "Not in Our Name" declaration opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Julian Fellowes believes that Altman's anti-war and anti-Bush stance cost him the Best Director Oscar for Gosford Park.
Altman directed Gosford Park (2001), and his portrayal of a large-cast, British country house mystery was included on many critics' lists of the ten best films of that year. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (Julian Fellowes) plus six more nominations, including two for Altman, as Best Director and Best Picture.
Altman died on November 20, 2006, at age 81 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. According to his production company in New York, Sandcastle 5 Productions, he died of complications from leukemia.
In Nashville, Altman used sets with noticeable colors of reds, whites and blues. For The Long Goodbye, he insisted that Zsigmond keep the camera mobile by mounting it to moving objects. Zsigmond states that Altman "wanted to do something different" in this film, and told him he "wanted the camera to move—all the time. Up. down. In and out. Side to side." Cinematographer Roger Deakins, discussing his use of zoom lenses, commented, "I would find it quite exciting to shoot a film with a zoom lens if it was that observational, roving kind of look that Robert Altman was known for. He'd put the camera on a jib arm and float across the scene and pick out these shots as he went along – quite a nice way of working."