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Robert Bernard Altman (February 20, 1925 – November 20, 2006) was an American 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 work with an Academy Honorary Award.
His films MASH and Nashville have been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
Additional recommended knowledge
Early life and career
Altman was born in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of wealthy insurance man/gambler Bernard Clement Altman, who came from an upper-class family, and Helen Mathews, a Mayflower descendant from Nebraska. 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 attended St. Peter's School for elementary school. He later attended high school at Rockhurst High School and Southwest High School in Kansas City, and was then sent to Wentworth Military Academy in nearby Lexington, Missouri, where he attended through junior college. In 1943, at the age of 18, Altman joined the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) and flew as a co-pilot on B-24 bombers during World War II. It was while training for the Army Air Corps in California that Altman had first seen the bright lights of Hollywood and became enamored of it. Upon his discharge in 1947, Altman began living in Los Angeles and tried out acting, writing and directing.
Altman tried acting briefly, appearing in a nightclub scene as an extra in the Danny Kaye vehicle The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He then wrote a vague storyline (uncredited) for the United Artists picture Christmas Eve, and sold to RKO the script for the 1948 motion picture Bodyguard, which he co-wrote with Richard Fleischer. This sudden success encouraged Altman to move to the New York area and forge a career as a writer. There, Altman found a collaborator in George W. George, with whom he wrote numerous published and unpublished screenplays, musicals, novels, and magazine articles. Altman was not as successful this trip, but back in Hollywood, he tried out one more big money-making scheme. His pet care company soon went bankrupt, and in 1950 Altman returned to his friends and family in Kansas City, broke and hungry for action, and itching for a second chance to get into movies.
Industrial film experience
To get experience as a filmmaker, in the absence of film schools, Altman joined the Calvin Company, the world's largest industrial film production company and 16mm film laboratory, headquartered in Kansas City. Altman, fascinated by the company and their equipment, started as a film writer, and within a few months began to direct films. This led to his employment at the Calvin Company as a film director for almost six years. Until 1955, Altman directed 60 to 65 industrial short films, earning $250 a week while simultaneously getting the necessary training and experience that he would need for a successful career in filmmaking. The ability to shoot rapidly on schedule and to work within the confines of both big and low budgets would serve him well later in his career. On the technical side, he learned all about "the tools of filmmaking": the camera, the boom mic, the lights, etc.
However, Altman soon tired of the industrial film format and sought more challenging projects. He occasionally went to Hollywood and tried to write scripts, but then returned months later, broke, to the Calvin Company. According to Altman, the Calvin people dropped him another notch in salary each time. The third time, the Calvin people declared at a staff meeting that if he left and came back one more time, they were not going to keep him.
First feature film
In 1955 Altman left the Calvin Company. He was soon hired by Elmer Rhoden Jr., a local Kansas City movie theater exhibitor, to write and direct a low-budget exploitation film on juvenile crime, titled The Delinquents, which would become his first feature film. Altman wrote the script in one week and filmed it with a budget of $63,000 on location in Kansas City in two weeks. Rhoden wanted the film to kick-start his career as a film producer. Altman wanted the film to be his ticket into the elusive Hollywood circles. The cast was made up of the local actors and actresses from community theater who also appeared in Calvin Company films, Altman family members, and three imported actors from Hollywood, including the future Billy Jack, Tom Laughlin. The crew was made up of Altman's former Calvin colleagues and friends with whom Altman planned to make his grand "Kansas City escape." In 1956, Altman and his assistant director Reza Badiyi left Kansas City for good to edit The Delinquents in Hollywood. The film was picked up for distribution for $150,000 by United Artists and released in 1957, grossing nearly $1,000,000.
The Delinquents was no runaway success, but it did catch the eye of Alfred Hitchcock, who was impressed and asked Altman to direct a few episodes of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series. From 1958 to 1964, Altman directed numerous episodes of television series, including Combat!, Bonanza, Whirlybirds and Route 66, and wrote and directed a 1961 episode of Maverick about a lynching called "Bolt From the Blue" featuring Roger Moore. One episode of Bus Stop which he directed was so controversial, due to an ending in which a killer is not apprehended or punished for his crime, that Congressional hearings were held, and the show was cancelled at the end of the season.
Altman co-composed the hit single "Black Sheep" by country music recording artist John Anderson.
Altman then struggled for several years after quarreling with Jack Warner, and it was during this time that he first formed his "anti-Hollywood" opinions and entered a new stage of filmmaking. He did a few more feature films without any success, until 1969 when he was offered the script for MASH, which had previously been rejected by dozens of other directors. Altman directed the film, and it was a huge success, both with critics and at the box office. It was given the Grand Prix for the Best Film at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival. It was Altman's highest grossing film. 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 (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 1976, he attempted to expand his artistic freedom by founding Lions Gate Films. The films he made for the company include A Wedding, 3 Women, and Quintet.
Later career and renaissance
In 1980, he attempted a musical, Popeye, based on the comic strip/cartoon of the same name, which starred Robin Williams in his big-screen debut. The film was seen as a failure by some critics, but it 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.
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 Festival, 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 1998, Altman made The Gingerbread Man, critically praised although a commercial failure, and in 1999 Cookie's Fortune, a critical success. In 2001, Altman's film Gosford Park gained a spot on many critics' lists of the ten best films of that year.
Working with independent studios such as Fine Line (now Picturehouse), Artisan (now Lions Gate, the studio Altman helped to found), 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.
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.
In the 1960s, Altman lived for nine years with his second wife in Mandeville Canyon in Brentwood, California, according to author Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (Touchstone Books, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1998). He then moved to Malibu 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."
He had claimed that he would move to Paris, France, if George W. Bush were elected, but he did not leave the United States after Bush was elected, saying later that he had actually meant Paris, Texas. 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 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. 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. 
TV movies and miniseries
Early independent projects
In the early Calvin years in Kansas City during the 1950s, Altman was as busy as he ever was in Hollywood, shooting hours and hours of footage each day, whether for Calvin or for the many independent film projects he pursued in Kansas City in attempts to break into Hollywood:
Selected Calvin industrial films
Out of approximately 65 industrial films directed by Altman for the Calvin Company, all less than 30 minutes long, eleven are notable for their relationship to the director's later work, or for garnering national or international festival awards:
|This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Robert_Altman". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.|