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Robert Bernard Altman (February 20, 1925 – November 20, 2006) was an Americanmarker film director known for making films that are highly naturalistic, but with a stylized perspective. In 2006, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized his body of work with an Academy Honorary Award.

His films MASH and Nashville have been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

Early life and career

Altman was born in Kansas City, Missourimarker, the son of Helen (née Matthews), a Mayflower descendant from Nebraskamarker, and Bernard Clement Altman, a wealthy insurance man/gambler who came from an upper-class family. Altman's ancestry was German, English and Irish; his paternal grandfather, Frank Altman, Sr., changed the family name from "Altmann" to "Altman". Altman had a strong Catholic upbringing. He was educated in Jesuit schools prior to joining the Army at the age of 18; over the course of World War II, Altman flew over 50 bombing missions in Borneomarker and the Dutch East Indiesmarker. Upon his discharge in 1946, Altman moved to Californiamarker and worked in publicity for a company that had invented a tattooing machine designed for the identification of dogs. He entered filmmaking only as a whim, selling to RKO the script for the 1948 picture Bodyguard, which he co-wrote with George W. George. Altman's immediate success encouraged him to move to New York Citymarker, where he attempted to forge a career as a writer; he enjoyed little luck, however, and in 1949 he returned to Kansas City, accepting a job as a director and writer of industrial films for the Calvin Company. Here he had his first experiences working with film technology, as well as with actors.

After helming some 65 industrial films and documentaries, in 1956 Altman was hired by a local businessman to write and direct a feature film in Kansas City on juvenile delinquency. The finished product, titled The Delinquents, made for $60,000, was purchased by United Artists for $150,000, and released in 1957. While primitive, this teen exploitation movie contained the foundations of Altman's later work in its use of casual, naturalistic dialogue. This success prompted Altman to move from Kansas City to California for the last time. Altman next co-produced 1957's The James Dean Story, a documentary rushed into theaters to capitalize on the actor's recent death and marketed to the cult following emerging in the wake of the tragedy.

Television work

Altman's first two features brought him to the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, who tapped 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 the exposure enabled him to mount a successful TV career in series including Bonanza, Combat!, and the Kraft Television Theater. Altman's early work on industrial films in Kansas City and television series in California allowed him the chance to experiment with narrative technique as well as develop his trademark overlapping dialogue, all the while learning to work with speed and effiency on a limited budget. During his TV period, though he was frequently fired for his refusal to conform to network mandates as well as his insistence upon injecting his material with political subtexts and antiwar sentiments, Altman never lacked assignments in an industry desperate for experienced talent. In 1964, one of his episodes for the Kraft Television Theatre was expanded for commercial release under the name Nightmare in Chicago. Two years later he accepted the invitation to direct the low-budget space travel feature Countdown, but was fired within days of the project's conclusion because of his refusal to edit the film down to a manageable length. Altman did not direct another movie until 1969's That Cold Day in the Park, a critical and box-office disaster.

Mainstream success

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, which had already been passed over by over a dozen other filmmakers. Altman agreed to direct the project, and though production was so tumultuous that stars Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland even attempted to have Altman fired over his unorthodox filming methods, MASH was widely hailed as an immediate classic upon its 1970 release. It won the Grand Prix for the Best Film at the 1970 Cannes Film Festivalmarker and netted six Academy Award nominations. It was also Altman's highest grossing film. Now recognized as a major talent, Altman's career took firm hold with the success of MASH, and he followed it with other critical breakthroughs such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Thieves Like Us (1974) and Nashville (1975), which made the distinctive, experimental "Altman style" well known.

As a director, Altman favored stories showing the interrelationships between several characters; he stated that he was more interested in character motivation than in intricate plots. As such, he tended to sketch out only a basic plot for the film, referring to the screenplay as a "blueprint" for action, and allowed his actors to improvise dialogue. This is one of the reasons Altman was known as an "actor's director", a reputation that helped him work with large casts of well-known actors.

He frequently allowed the characters to talk over each other in such a way that it is difficult to make out what each of them is saying. He noted on the DVD commentary of McCabe & Mrs. Miller that he lets the dialogue overlap, as well as leaving some things in the plot for the audience to infer, because he wants the audience to pay attention. He uses a headset to make sure everything pertinent comes through without attention being drawn to it. Similarly, he tried to have his films rated R (by the MPAA rating system) so as to keep children out of his audience – he did not believe children have the patience his films require. This sometimes spawned conflict with movie studios, who do want children in the audience for increased revenues.

Altman made films that no other filmmaker and/or studio would. He was reluctant to make the original 1970 Korean War comedy MASH because of the pressures involved in filming it, but it still became a critical success. It would later inspire the long-running TV series of the same name. In 1975, Altman made Nashville, which had a strong political theme set against the world of country music. The stars of the film wrote their own songs; Keith Carradine won an Academy Award for the song "I'm Easy".

The way Altman made his films initially didn't sit well with audiences. In 1970, following the release of MASH, he attempted to expand his artistic freedom by founding Lion's Gate Films (not to be confused with the current, unrelated Canada-based entertainment company Lionsgate). The films he made for the company include Brewster McCloud, A Wedding, 3 Women, and Quintet.

Later career and renaissance

In 1980, he directed the musical Popeye, based on the comic strip/cartoon of the same name, which starred Robin Williams in his big-screen debut. Though seen as a failure by some critics, the film did make money, and was in fact the second highest grossing film Altman directed to that point (Gosford Park is now the second highest). During the 1980s, Altman did a series of films, some well-received (Secret Honor) and some critically panned (O.C. & Stiggs). He also garnered a good deal of acclaim for his presidential campaign "mockumentary" Tanner '88, for which he earned an Emmy Award and regained critical favor. Still, popularity with audiences continued to elude him.

In 1981, finding Hollywood increasingly uninterested in funding and distributing the films he wanted to make, Altman sold his Lion's Gate studio and production facility to producer Jonathan Taplin.

Altman's career was revitalized when he directed 1992's The Player, a satire of Hollywood, which was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Director, though Altman did not win. He was, however, awarded Best Director by the Cannes Film Festivalmarker, BAFTA, and the New York Film Critics Circle, and the film reminded Hollywood (which had shunned him for a decade) that Altman was as creative as ever.

After the success of The Player, Altman directed 1993's Short Cuts, an ambitious adaptation of several short stories by Raymond Carver, which portrayed the lives of various citizens of the city of Los Angeles over the course of several days. The film's large cast and intertwining of many different storylines harkened back to his 1970s heyday and won Altman the Golden Lion at the 1993 Venice International Film Festival and earned another Oscar nomination for Best Director. In 1996, Altman directed Kansas City, which intertwined his love of 1930s jazz with a complicated kidnapping story.

In 2001, Altman's film Gosford Park gained a spot on many critics' lists of the ten best films of that year. It also won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (Julian Fellowes) plus six more nominations, including two for Altman as Best Director and Best Picture.

Working with independent studios such as the now-shuttered Fine Line, Artisan (which was absorbed into today's Lionsgate), and USA Films (now Focus Features), gave Altman the edge in making the kinds of films he has always wanted to make without outside studio interference. A movie version of Garrison Keillor's public radio series A Prairie Home Companion was released in June 2006. Altman was still developing new projects up until his death (Including a film based on 1997's Hands on a Hard Body: The Documentary).

After five Oscar nominations for Best Director and no wins, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Altman an Academy Honorary Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2006. During his acceptance speech for this award, Altman revealed that he had received a heart transplant approximately ten or eleven years earlier. The director then quipped that perhaps the Academy had acted prematurely in recognizing the body of his work, as he felt like he might have four more decades of life ahead of him.

Personal life

In the 1960s, Altman lived for nine years with his second wife in Mandeville Canyon in Brentwood, Californiamarker, according to author Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (Touchstone Books, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1998). He then moved to Malibumarker 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, but eventually moved back to Malibu where he lived until his death.

City Councilmember Sharon Barovsky, who lives down the street from the Altman home on Malibu Road, remembered the director as a friend and neighbor. "He was salty... but with a great generosity of spirit", she said. Barovsky added that Malibu had a special place in the director's heart. "He loved Malibu", she said. "This is where he came to decompress."

In November 2000, he claimed that he would move to Paris if George W. Bush were elected, but joked that he had actually meant Paris, Texasmarker, when Bush was re-elected. He noted that "the state would be better off if he (Bush) is out of it." Altman was an outspoken marijuana user, even serving as a member of the NORML advisory board. Altman was one of several famous people (along with individuals such as Noam Chomsky and Susan Sarandon) who signed the Not In My Name declaration opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraqmarker.


Altman died on November 20, 2006 at age 81 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in Los Angelesmarker. According to his production company in New York, Sandcastle 5 Productions, he died of complications from leukemia. Altman is survived by his wife, Kathryn Reed Altman; six children, Christine Westphal, Michael Altman, Stephen Altman (his set decorator of choice for many films), Connie Corriere, Robert Reed Altman, and Matthew Altman; 12 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Paul Thomas Anderson dedicated his 2007 film There Will Be Blood to Altman.

In 2009 the University of Michiganmarker made the winning bid to archive 900 boxes of his papers, scripts and business records; the total collection measures over 1,000 linear feet. Altman had filmed Secret Honor as well as directed several operas at the school.


Motion pictures

Television work

TV films and miniseries

Television episodes

  • Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1957–58)
    • ep. 3-9: "The Young One" (air-date December 1, 1957)
    • ep. 3-15: "Together" (a.d. January 12, 1958)
  • M Squad (1958) ep. 1-21: "Lover's Lane Killing" (a.d. February 14, 1958)
  • The Millionaire aka If You Had A Million (1958–59)
  • : directed by Altman
    • ep #148 / 5-14: "Pete Hopper: Afraid of the Dark" (a.d. December 10, 1958)
    • ep #162 / 5-28: "Henry Banning: The Show Off" (a.d. April 1, 1959)
    • ep #185 / 6-14: "Jackson Greene: The Beatnik" (a.d. December 22, 1959)
  • : written by Altman
    • ep #160 / 5-26: "Alicia Osante: Beauty and the Sailor" (a.d. March 18, 1959)
    • ep #174 / 6-3: "Lorraine Dagget: The Beach Story" [story] (a.d. September 29, 1959)
    • ep #183 / 6-12: "Andrew C. Cooley: Andy and Clara" (a.d. December 8, 1959)
  • Whirlybirds (1958–59)
    • ep. #71 / 2-32: "The Midnight Show" (a.d. December 8, 1958)
    • ep. #79 / 3-1: "Guilty of Old Age" (a.d. April 13, 1959)
    • ep. #80 / 3-2: "A Matter of Trust" (a.d. April 6, 1959)
    • ep. #81 / 3-3: "Christmas in June" (a.d. April 20, 1959)
    • ep. #82 / 3-4: "Til Death Do Us Part" (unknown air-date, probably April 27, 1959)
    • ep. #83 / 3-5: "Time Limit" (a.d. May 4, 1959)
    • ep. #84 / 3-6: "Experiment X-74" (a.d. May 11, 1959)
    • ep. #87 / 3-9: "The Challenge" (a.d. June 1, 1959)
    • ep. #88 / 3-10: "The Big Lie" (a.d. June 8, 1959)
    • ep. #91 / 3-13: "The Perfect Crime" (a.d. June 29, 1959)
    • ep. #92 / 3-14: "The Unknown Soldier" (a.d. July 6, 1959)
    • ep. #93 / 3-15: "Two of a Kind" (a.d. July 13, 1959)
    • ep. #94 / 3-16: "In Ways Mysterious" (a.d. July 20, 1959)
    • ep. #97 / 3-19: "The Black Maria" (a.d. August 10, 1959)
    • ep. #98 / 3-20: "The Sitting Duck" (a.d. August 17, 1959)
  • U.S. Marshal (original title: Sheriff of Cochise) (1959)
  • : verified
    • ep. 4-17: "The Triple Cross"
    • ep. 4-23: "Shortcut to Hell"
    • ep. 4-25: "R.I.P." (a.d. June 6, 1959)
  • : uncertain; some sources cite Altman on these episodes; no known source cites anybody else
    • ep. 4-18: "The Third Miracle"
    • ep. 4-31: "Kill or Be Killed"
    • ep. 4-32: "Backfire"
    • ep. "Tapes For Murder"
    • ep. "Special Delivery"
    • ep. "Paper Bullets"
    • ep. "Tarnished Star"
  • Troubleshooters (1959) (13 episodes)
  • Hawaiian Eye (1959) ep. 8: "Three Tickets to Lani" (a.d. November 25, 1959)
  • Sugarfoot (1959–60)
    • ep. #47 / 3-7: "Apollo With A Gun" (a.d. December 8, 1959)
    • ep. #50 / 3-10: "The Highbinder" (a.d. January 19, 1960)
  • Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse (1960)
    • ep. "The Sound of Murder" (a.d. January 1, 1960)
    • ep. "Death of a Dream"
  • The Gale Storm Show aka Oh! Susanna (1960) ep. #125 / 4-25: "It's Magic" (a.d. March 17, 1960)
  • Bronco (1960) ep #41 / 3-1: "The Mustangers" (a.d. October 17, 1960)
  • Maverick (1960) ep. #90: "Bolt From the Blue" (a.d. November 27, 1960)
  • The Roaring '20s (1960–61)
    • ep. 1-5: "The Prairie Flower" (a.d. November 12, 1960)
    • ep. 1-6: "Brother's Keeper" (a.d. November 19, 1960)
    • ep. 1-8: "White Carnation" (a.d. December 3, 1960)
    • ep. 1-12: "Dance Marathon" (a.d. January 14, 1961)
    • ep. 1-15: "Two a Day" (a.d. February 4, 1961)
    • ep. 1-28&29: "Right Off the Boat" Parts 1 & 2 (a.d. May 13/20, 1961)
    • ep. 1-31: "Royal Tour" (a.d. June 3, 1961)
    • ep. 2-4: "Standing Room Only" (a.d. October 28, 1961)
  • Bonanza (1960–61)
    • ep. 2-13: "Silent Thunder" (a.d. December 10, 1960)
    • ep. 2-19: "Bank Run" (a.d. January 28, 1961)
    • ep. 2-25: "The Duke" (a.d. March 11, 1961)
    • ep. 2-28: "The Rival" (a.d. April 15, 1961)
    • ep. 2-31: "The Secret" (a.d. May 6, 1961)
    • ep. 2-32 "The Dream Riders" (a.d. May 20, 1961)
    • ep. 2-34: "Sam Hill" (a.d. June 3, 1961)
    • ep. 3-7: "The Many Faces of Gideon Finch" (a.d. November 5, 1961)
  • Lawman (1961) ep. #92 / 3-16: "The Robbery" (a.d. January 1, 1961)
  • Surfside 6 (1961) ep. 1-18: "Thieves Among Honor" (a.d. Jan 30, 1961)
  • Peter Gunn (1958) ep. 3-28: "The Murder Bond" (a.d. April 24, 1961)
  • Bus Stop (1961–62)
    • ep. 4: "The Covering Darkness" (a.d. October 22, 1961)
    • ep. 5: "Portrait of a Hero" (a.d. October 29, 1961)
    • ep. 8: "Accessory By Consent" (a.d. November 19, 1961)
    • ep. 10: "A Lion Walks Among Us" (a.d. December 3, 1961)
    • ep. 12: "... And the Pursuit of Evil" (a.d. December 17, 1961)
    • ep. 15: "Summer Lightning" (a.d. January 7, 1962)
    • ep. 23: "Door Without a Key" (a.d. March 4, 1962)
    • ep. 25: "County General" [possibly failed pilot] (a.d. March 18, 1962)
  • Route 66 (1961)
    • ep. #40/2-10: "Some of the People, Some of the Time' (a.d. December 1, 61)
    • ep. 3-17: "A Gift For A Warrior" (a.d. January 18, 1963) - often incorrectly cited, Altman did not direct this
  • The Gallant Men (1962) pilot: "Battle Zone" (a.d. October 5, 1962)
  • Combat! (1962–63)
    • ep. 1-1: "Forgotten Front" (a.d. October 2, 1962)
    • ep. 1-2: "Rear Echelon Commandos" (a.d. October 9, 1962)
    • ep. 1-4: "Any Second Now" (a.d. October 23, 1962)
    • ep. 1-7: "Escape to Nowhere" (a.d. December 20, 1962)
    • ep. 1-9: "Cat and Mouse" (a.d. December 4, 1962)
    • ep. 1-10: "I Swear By Apollo" (a.d. December 11, 1962)
    • ep. 1-12: "The Prisoner" (a.d. December 25, 1962)
    • ep. 1-16: "The Volunteer" (a.d. January 22, 1963)
    • ep. 1-20: "Off Limits" (a.d. February 19, 1963)
    • ep. 1-23: "Survival" (a.d. March 12, 1963)
  • Kraft Suspense Theatre (1963)
    • ep 1-8: "The Long Lost Life of Edward Smalley" (also writer) (a.d. December 12, 1963)
    • ep 1-9: "The Hunt" (also writer) (a.d. December 19, 1963)
    • ep 1-21: "Once Upon a Savage Night"
    • : released as TV-Movie Nightmare in Chicago in 1964
  • The Long Hot Summer (1965) pilot
  • Nightwatch (1968) pilot: "The Suitcase"
  • Premiere (1968) ep. "Walk in the Sky" (a.d. July 15 1968)
  • Saturday Night Live (1977) ep. #39 / 2-16 "h: Sissy Spacek", seg. "Sissy's Roles" (a.d. March 12, 1977)
  • Gun (aka Robert Altman's Gun) (1997) ep. 4: "All the President's Women" (a.d. May 10 1997)
  • : this episode, along with another, was released on DVD as Gun: Fatal Betrayal; subsequently, the entire six-episode series was released


"Sometimes I feel like Little Eva, running across the ice .. with the dogs yapping at my ass. Maybe the reason I'm doing all this is so I can get a lot done before they catch up with me." --1976 (Altman here confusing two female characters from Uncle Tom's Cabin)

See also


Additional resources

  • The director's commentary on the McCabe & Mrs. Miller DVD, while focusing on that film, also to some degree covers Altman's general methodology as a director.
  • Judith M. Kass. Robert Altman: American Innovator early (1978) assessment of the director's work and his interest in gambling. Part of Leonard Maltin's Popular Library filmmaker series.
  • The English band Maxïmo Park have a song named "Robert Altman", a b-side to their single "Our Velocity"
  • The Criterion Collection has released several of Altman's films on DVD (Short Cuts, 3 Women, Tanner '88, Secret Honor) which include audio commentary and video interviews with him that shed light on his directing style.
The novel Name Your Poison: A Max Mitchum Mystery, written by Lucas Stensland, is dedicated to Robert Altman. His work, The Long Goodbye, in particular, inspired the author:


  1. Robert Altman Has A Hard Body
  3. The Birmingham News (June 3, 2005) 20 Questions, 2 Choices. Volume 118; Section: Lifestyle; Page 12.
  4. Interview: Robert Altman | Interviews | Film
  5. NORML Advisory Board - NORML
  6. Director Robert Altman dies at 81 - More news and other features -
  7. [1]
  8. KC native Altman's papers heading for Michigan, not KC - - April 21, 2009

External links


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