Robert Altman


Director
Robert Altman

About

Also Known As
Robert Bernard Altman, Robert B. Altman
Birth Place
Kansas City, Missouri, USA
Born
February 20, 1925
Died
November 20, 2006

Biography

Long recognized as a true auteur in American cinema despite his rather confrontational on set demeanor, director Robert Altman brought an ironic and irreverent perspective to his films that often deconstructed classic film genres like Westerns, crime dramas, musicals and classic whodunits. His films were filled with unexpected quirks, overlapping dialogue - often improvised - and an acut...

Family & Companions

LaVonne Elmer
Wife
Married in 1947; divorced in 1949; was injured in a car accident before the wedding; deceased.
Lotus Corelli
Wife
Married in 1954; divorced c. 1957.
Kathryn Reed
Wife
Former showgirl. Met in 1957 on the set of the TV series "The Whirlybirds" when she was an extra; married in Mexico when their respective divorces became final; remarried a year later.

Bibliography

"The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman's Masterpiece"
Jan Stuart, Simon & Schuster (2001)
"Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff: A Biography of the Great American Director"
Patrick McGilligan (1989)
"Robert Altman"
Gerard Plecki, Twayne (1985)
"American Skeptic: Robert Altman's Genre-Commentary Films"
Norman Kagan, Pierian Press (1982)

Notes

Named a Knight of the Legion of Honor in 1996.

After "Popeye", which Altman still refuses to acknowledge was the failure critics labeled it, he changed his style. The master of the ensemble movie, he was often reduced to a cast of five, or two, or even--in the case of his extraordinary Richard Nixon monologue film, "Secret Honor"--just one. The blithe deconstructionist of screenplays, he stuck almost religiously to texts by David Rabe and Harold Pinter. The mixed celebrator/debunker of male camaraderie, he began to focus more on women and gay themes. He went from wide-screen to regular aspect ratio, foggy colors to sharp contours. The Altman of the 80s was often a very different director from the Altman of the 70s: arguably less inventive, but far more exacting, less of a virtuoso, more of a polished craftsman." --Michael Wilmington in Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1990.

Biography

Long recognized as a true auteur in American cinema despite his rather confrontational on set demeanor, director Robert Altman brought an ironic and irreverent perspective to his films that often deconstructed classic film genres like Westerns, crime dramas, musicals and classic whodunits. His films were filled with unexpected quirks, overlapping dialogue - often improvised - and an acutely iconoclastic point of view that was deftly used to skewer long-standing American values. Following a rather inauspicious entry into moviemaking by way of industrial films, Altman cut his teeth in television on shows like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (CBS/NBC, 1955-1965) before making his mark on American cinema with "M*A*S*H" (1970), a loose and irreverent look at a group of hedonistic army surgeons and nurses that tapped into the angst of the antiwar generation growing up under the shadow of the Vietnam War. Altman next turned his attention to revitalizing the Western with "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971), before earning the enmity of critics who blasted the director for his irreverent caricature of Philip Marlowe in "The Long Goodbye" (1973). But he earned back their admiration tenfold with "Nashville" (1975), a multi-layered satire that followed 24 main characters in numerous intersecting storylines that ably weaved a tapestry depicting the folly of pursuing fame in America. After that critical success, which was later widely considered to be his best film, Altman hit a long, slow slide that ended in the commercial and critical debacle known as "Popeye" (1980). The director spent the ensuing decade making interesting low-budget indies like "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" (1982), "Secret Honor" (1984) and "Vincent and Theo" (1990) before returning to the Hollywood fold with a biting satire, "The Player" (1992), which savaged the very industry that embraced his return. Altman helmed another multi-character piece, "Short Cuts" (1993), a darkly comic look at relationships surviving contemporary Los Angeles that recalled his efforts on "Nashville" two decades prior. Following another brief creative lull that saw "Ready to Wear (Pret-a-Porter)" (1994) and "Kansas City" (1996) added to his canon, the director earned high praise and fawning reverence for the comedy-of-manners wrapped around a country manor whodunit, "Gosford Park" (2001), which underscored arguably one of the most important cinematic careers of the late 20th century.

Born on Feb. 2, 1925 in Kansas City, MO, Altman was raised in an upper class home by his father, B.C., an expert insurance salesman fond of whiskey, women and poker, and his mother, Helen, a socialite who enjoyed the company of her sisters and friends. Despite his father's frequent descents into vice, Altman grew up in a strict Catholic home, while attending St. Peter's Catholic School and Rockhurst High School, a college preparatory school run by Jesuits. But the young lad was something of a hell raiser, which led his parent to ship him off to Wentworth Military Academy during his junior year of high school. Toward the end of World War II, Altman joined the Army Air Force and copiloted a B-24 bomber for missions in Borneo and other Japanese positions in the Pacific. During the war, he started thinking about a career in film, which led him to starting writing scripts for radio and film. Altman moved to Southern California after the war and helped launch a company that tattooed dogs for identification; he even went to the White House and tattooed the dog of President Harry S. Truman.

Once the dog tattooing business went belly up, Altman focused his attention on film once again, briefly trying his hand at acting - he was an extra in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1947) - before writing the script for the detective thriller "Bodyguard" (1948), starring notorious actor Lawrence Tierney. Emboldened by this initial success, Altman moved to New York City after tiring of life on the West Coast in pursuit of further writing glory. But he had little luck and returned to Kansas City, where he found work with the Calvin Company, a leading producer of industrial films. For the next several years, Altman worked as a designer, cinematographer, producer, director, writer and editor on over 60 industrial films, until he was contacted by a local theater owner interested in hiring him to director a juvenile delinquency film, a popular genre in the 1950s. Altman managed to raise $60,000 to make his first feature film, "The Delinquents" (1957), a teen exploitation film about a young man (Tom Laughlin), who becomes involved with a street gang and goes bad in short order. He followed with his first documentary, "The James Dean Story" (1957), which chronicled Dean's rise to fame and his tragic end, complete with clips from his films.

But it was "The Delinquents" that helped propel Altman's directing career. The master of suspense himself saw the film and hired Altman to direct episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (CBS/NBC, 1955-1965), which opened the door to directing on other shows like "Bonanza" (NBC, 1959-1973), "Peter Gunn" (NBC, 1958-1961), "Maverick" (ABC, 1957-1962) and "The Whirlybirds" (CBS, 1957-1960), the latter being where he met his third wife, Kathryn Reed, a former showgirl and extra on the show. Though working within the system, Altman displayed early on a resistance to conformity - a trait he continued throughout his career - which delayed his return to feature filmmaking for another decade. He finally did return with "Countdown" (1968), a rather conventional story about a NASA scientist (James Caan) chosen for a moon mission who discovers evidence that the Russians have been to the lunar surface before the Americans, only to have suffered a fatal demise. His next film exhibited a chilling claustrophobia in this story about a younger-than-she-looks spinster (Sandy Dennis) who has ulterior motives for taking in a quiet young stranger (Michael Burns). Too distant and emotionally cold, the film flopped with both critics and audiences.

Altman's career took a dramatic turn with "M*A*S*H" (1970), an anti-war satire in the vein of Catch-22, set during the Korean War where the absurdity of combat is reflected in the comic exploits of a group of hedonistic Army surgeons and the nurses they chase after. Altman's defining characteristics were already emerging: episodic structure, a penchant for black comedy, and adlibbed dialogue. Despite the culmination of these elements in the creation of a wholly unique film, they brought about intense confrontations between Altman and several cast members, including stars Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland, who reportedly tried on several occasions to have Altman removed from the film because of his unorthodox style. Altman had a particularly hostile clash with writer Ring Lardner, Jr., who wound up being the only participant to win an Academy Award for their efforts - something that angered the director to no end. Regardless of the behind-the-scenes trouble, "M*A*S*H" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and became a huge hit that touched a raw nerve in those turbulent times, thanks to its anti-authoritative tone, unabated reveling in decadence, and the underlying message that all war is futile. Meanwhile, Altman's son, Michael, was credited with writing the lyrics for the theme song, "Suicide is Painless," though the words were never used in the opening credits of the long-running and critically hailed television series that was spawned later in the decade.

The success of "M*A*S*H" led Altman to expand his own Lion's Gate production company - complete with state-of-the-art editing and sound recording facilities - where the creative process was once described as "controlled chaos." The director added to his reputation as an outsider working within the system with "Brewster McCloud" (1970), a satirical comedy about a nerdy young boy (Bud Cort) realizing his dream to fly by building a pair of human-sized wings. Considered too odd and weird for its own good, "Brewster" failed to connect with both critics and audiences, though it remained something of a curiosity for Altman fans in later years. Turning toward the Western, Altman directed "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971), a deconstruction of the genre while tapping into the time's mistrust of corrupt institutions to tell the story of a hustler (Warren Beatty), who partners with a madam (Julie Christie) to build a successful casino and brothel despite their animosity towards each other. Though audiences ignored it at the time of its release, the film gained importance and relevance throughout the ensuing decades to become a classic revisionist take on the well-worn genre.

After directing the long-forgotten psychological thriller "Images" (1972), Altman turned his attention toward deconstructing another popular genre, the film noir, with "The Long Goodbye" (1973). The film starred Elliott Gould as a contemporary Philip Marlowe, whose old-world moral code and overall passivity fall far out of place in 1970s Los Angeles. When first released, "The Long Goodbye" was blasted by critics, most of whom despised Altman's rather flippant portrayal of an iconic character. But as was the case with his most misunderstood films, it gained reverence as time wore on, though nothing changed the fact that it was a commercial disaster in theaters. He enhanced his reputation as a consummate artist with "Thieves Like Us" (1974), a lushly photographed 1930s gangster picture starring Shelley Duvall and Keith Carradine as two doomed criminal lovers on the run from the law. A lyrical, almost poetic look at the Depression-era South, "Thieves" was a remarkable achievement by the director that was once again largely overlooked by audiences. Regardless of the poor box office performance, the film developed a strong reputation as being one of Altman's finest efforts.

But with "Nashville" (1975), Altman managed to win back audiences and critics while being nominated for several Oscars, including one for Best Director. The loosely connected story depicted 24 different characters - aspiring singers, media personalities and desperate hangers-on - who make up the complex and layered city that serves as a microcosm of America's obsession with stardom. Possessing a breezy and layered narrative that effortless weaved in and out of the many characters, "Nashville" - which featured Ned Beatty, David Arkin, Barbara Harris, Jeff Goldblum, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine and Lily Tomlin - boasted numerous exquisite performances on its way to being hailed one of the best films of that year. Technically, the film was perhaps most remarkable for its dense, multi-track sound for its numerous musical performances, which enabled Altman to subtly merge a diverse and often savagely satirical group of stories set in the world of country music and contemporary politics. The accolades quickly stopped, however, with the often dismissed "Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson" (1976), Altman's Bicentennial film which explored the marketing of American history.

Altman debuted as a producer with "Welcome to L.A." (1976), directed by protégé Alan Rudolph, and "The Late Show" (1977), written by screenwriter Robert Benton; both films echoed his fondness for quirky characters and situations. Altman's own directorial style continued to evolve and diversify with "3 Women" (1977), a film very much influenced by European art cinema and which won Shelley Duvall the Best Actress prize at Cannes. He moved on to the underrated satire "A Wedding" (1978), starring Carol Burnett, Desi Arnaz, Jr. and Mia Farrow, and "Quintet" (1979), an obscurely poetic film set in a snowbound post-apocalyptic world that befuddled most anyone who watched the plodding film. The two comedies of this period - the offbeat romance "A Perfect Couple" (1979) and "Health" (1980), a send-up of America's health food craze - ran into distribution problems and were never widely seen. But it was his final Lion's Gate effort, "Popeye" (1980), that nearly put the final nail in his career coffin. Starring Robin Williams as the spinach-eating sailor with the oversized forearms and frequent star Shelley Duvall as the perfect Olive Oyl, "Popeye" the musical was a rather curious, but off-the-mark cartoon recreation that - like all Altman films - has its share of detractors and champions. The critical consensus, however, was hostile though the box office performance was acceptable. "Popeye" also marked Altman's last mainstream Hollywood feature for more than a decade.

In 1981, Altman sold Lion's Gate and turned his attention to the theater. He staged and subsequently filmed the drama "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" (1982), a low-budget dramedy set in 1975 about the reunion of a James Dean fan club, where an odd assortment of women (including Sandy Dennis, Cher and Karen Black) divulge revealing secrets of their lost innocence. Following "Streamers" (1983), a film version of David Rabe's play about stateside barracks life in the early days of the Vietnam War, Altman directed "Secret Honor" (1984), which focused on a disgraced former President Richard Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) delivering an 90-minute, rage-filled rant about all that went wrong during his time in the White House. Both films were dramatic departures from the freewheeling, relatively improvisational canvas films of the preceding decade; rigorous experiments that explored character in miniature with surprising fidelity to their theatrical sources. Paradoxically, Altman returned to carving a niche on the small screen, having worked on several made-for-television productions including "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial" (CBS, 1988) and the Gary Trudeau-penned political comedy "Tanner '88" (HBO, 1988), for which he won an Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series.

Treading water as a film director for much of the 1980s, Altman helmed such little-seen misfires like "Beyond Therapy" (1987) and "O.C. and Stiggs" (1987) before regaining critical attention with his handsomely filmed, quietly intense "Vincent and Theo" (1990). The film focused on the obsessive and erratic Vincent van Gogh (Tim Roth), a loner who manages to alienate all around him save for his dedicated and practical minded brother, Theo (Paul Rhys). Altman followed with his most acclaimed film in years and one of his most commercially successful ever, "The Player" (1992), a scathing look at Hollywood opportunism which reunited Altman's restless camera stylistics with his ironic take on popular culture. The film starred Tim Robbins as high-level studio executive, Griffin Mill, who begins receiving death threats from a disgruntled writer (Vincent D'Onofrio) while trying to fend off an up-and-coming executive (Peter Gallagher) looking to take his job. He soon finds himself embroiled in the accidental homicide of the frustrated writer, leading Mills to desperately search for his own happy ending. Featuring some 60-odd celebrity cameos, as well as a seven-minute opening tracking shot that referenced "Touch of Evil" (1958) and "Rope" (1948), "The Player" was a return to form for Altman, who received Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Director.

Undoubtedly reinvigorated by success, Altman followed up with "Short Cuts" (1993), a return to the collage of portraits from the "Nashville" era that marked one of his most critically hailed films since his 1975 masterpiece. Twenty-two actors - including Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Fred Ward, Andie McDowell and Jack Lemmon - in nine different stories enacted Altman's take on writer Raymond Carver's stories of families and marital problems in a darkly rendered vision of Southern California life. Both sprawling and intimate without ever being overcrowded, "Short Cuts" was the director's second consecutive film to earn critical kudos, marking a resurgence many thought was impossible. But as he usually did following success, Altman faltered with his next project. This time it was the lighter, but similarly panoramic "Ready to Wear (Pret-a-Porter)" (1994), in which another highly varied collection of stars and character players enact roles in a satirical look at the world of haute couture during Paris fashion shows. Unlike his two previous films, however, "Ready to Wear" failed to provide any insight into the subject matter and the characters portrayed on screen, leaving critics and audiences to reject the glitzy but shallow proceedings.

Having survived far worse career reversals, Altman continued to tackle new projects, beginning with "Kansas City" (1996), a period urban gangster film set in the era of his earlier rural "Thieves Like Us." Miranda Richardson, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Harry Belafonte starred in this tale of a telegraph operator who kidnaps the wife of a leading politician to secure her husband's release from death row. Short on plot, but full of wonderful jazz performances, "Kansas City" failed to fully connect with audiences. Meanwhile, Altman made a short-lived return to the small screen as the creator, executive producer and occasional director of "Gun" (ABC, 1997), an anthology series that followed individuals who came into contact with a high-powered, pearl-handled, semiautomatic weapon. Some critics were impressed, but audiences stayed away and only six episodes were aired. The following year, the director tackled "The Gingerbread Man" (1998), a legal thriller that marked the first original screenplay by author John Grisham. Grisham, however, objected to the changes made by Altman and removed his name from the final screenplay, while the releasing studio was reportedly unhappy with the director's ending and failed to support the movie upon its release. Despite receiving respectful reviews, the film was a box-office failure. Altman's next two films, the Southern Gothic "Cookie's Fortune" (1999), starring Glenn Close and Patricia Neal, and the satirical "Dr. T and the Women" (2000), starring Richard Gere as a wealthy gynecologist, were mildly praised by critics, but failed to spark much of a response with the movie-going public.

Altman had virtually tackled and inverted the conventions of nearly every genre in his long and distinguished career, save for the British whodunit. Longtime friend Bob Balaban proposed an idea for a murder mystery along the lines of an Agatha Christie novel and together they hammered out a sketchy outline. Then they hired actor Julian Fellowes - whose previous screenwriting credits had been for the small screen - to flesh out their outline of a shooting party at an English country house in 1932. The result, "Gosford Park" (2001), was Altman's most accessible and successful picture in years. The standard touches were all employed: an all-star ensemble representing the cream of British talent, including Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren, as well as rising talents like Clive Owen and Kelly Macdonald; a terrifically designed production with sets by the director's son, Stephen Altman; costumes by Oscar-winner Jenny Beavan; sweeping camera movements captured by director of photography Andrew Dunn; and a literate screenplay that was more an upstairs-downstairs class drama with the murder of the estates patriarch (Gambon) an afterthought. With critics hailing his effort and his stars lavishing praise, Altman arguably heard the most reverent accolades of his career on the way to "Gosford Park" earning seven Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director.

Altman's next film, "The Company" (2003), an ensemble drama focusing on a company of dancers at the Joffrey Ballet co-written by the film's lead, actress and former dancer Neve Campbell, was a vividly graceful and beautifully elegant film that unfortunately possessed a rather threadbare and uninspired story. After revisiting the story of the politician Jack Tanner for the sequel miniseries "Tanner on Tanner" (Sundance Channel, 2004), Altman was selected to receive an honorary Oscar at the 78th Academy Awards. In accepting his award, Altman gave a modest, almost humble speech, declaring several times how grateful he was to have the opportunities given him. He went on to quip about the heart transplant he received from a woman in her mid-30s, which by his estimation was destined to add another 40 years to his career. Not letting his advanced age slow him down, Altman released his next film, "A Prairie Home Companion" (2006), to good reviews. Starring an ensemble cast that included Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep, John C. Reilly, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson and Lindsay Lohan, "A Prairie Home Companion" was a fictional take on Garrison Keillor's popular Saturday evening radio program that showcased various musical acts and featured the host's 20-minute long musings on the made-up town of Lake Wobegon. But the 40 years predicted by Altman unfortunately failed to materialize. On Nov. 20, 2006, mere months after accepting his honorary Oscar, Altman died of complications from leukemia at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 81.

Filmography

 

Director (Feature Film)

A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
Director
The Company (2003)
Director
Gosford Park (2001)
Director
Dr. T and the Women (2000)
Director
Cookie's Fortune (1999)
Director
The Gingerbread Man (1998)
Director
Kansas City (1996)
Director
Ready to Wear (1994)
Director
Short Cuts (1993)
Director
The Player (1992)
Director
Vincent & Theo (1990)
Director
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1988)
Director
Aria (1988)
Director
O.C. And Stiggs (1987)
Director
Beyond Therapy (1987)
Director
Fool For Love (1985)
Director
Secret Honor (1984)
Director
Streamers (1983)
Director
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
Director
Popeye (1980)
Director
Health (1980)
Director
A Perfect Couple (1979)
Director
Quintet (1979)
Director
A Wedding (1978)
Director
3 Women (1977)
Director
Nashville (1975)
Director
Thieves Like Us (1974)
Director
California Split (1974)
Director
The Long Goodbye (1973)
Director
images (1972)
Director
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Director
M*A*S*H (1970)
Director
Brewster McCloud (1970)
Director
That Cold Day in the Park (1969)
Director
Countdown (1968)
Director
The James Dean Story (1957)
Director
The Delinquents (1957)
Director

Cast (Feature Film)

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (2018)
Words In Progress (2004)
Himself
Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004)
Frank Capra's American Dream (1997)
Himself
Hollywood Mavericks (1990)
Himself
Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema Of Edwin S. Porter (1982)
Voice
Events (1970)
Bob
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)
RAF pilot

Writer (Feature Film)

Gosford Park (2001)
Story By
Kansas City (1996)
Screenwriter
Ready to Wear (1994)
Screenwriter
Short Cuts (1993)
Screenwriter
Aria (1988)
Screenplay
Beyond Therapy (1987)
Screenplay
Health (1980)
Screenwriter
Quintet (1979)
From Story
Quintet (1979)
Screenwriter
A Perfect Couple (1979)
Screenplay
A Wedding (1978)
Screenwriter
A Wedding (1978)
From Story
A Wedding (1978)
Story By
3 Women (1977)
Screenwriter
Thieves Like Us (1974)
Screenplay
images (1972)
Writer
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Screenwriter
The Delinquents (1957)
Writer
Corn's-A-Poppin' (1956)
Screenwriter
Bodyguard (1948)
Story

Producer (Feature Film)

A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
Producer
Investigating Sex (2001)
Executive Producer
Gosford Park (2001)
Producer
Trixie (2000)
Producer
Roads and Bridges (2000)
Executive Producer
Dr. T and the Women (2000)
Producer
Cookie's Fortune (1999)
Producer
Afterglow (1997)
Producer
Kansas City (1996)
Producer
Ready to Wear (1994)
Producer
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)
Producer
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1988)
Producer
O.C. And Stiggs (1987)
Producer
Lily in Love (1985)
Associate Producer
Secret Honor (1984)
Producer
Streamers (1983)
Producer
Health (1980)
Producer
A Perfect Couple (1979)
Producer
Quintet (1979)
Producer
Rich Kids (1979)
Executive Producer
Remember My Name (1978)
Producer
A Wedding (1978)
Producer
3 Women (1977)
Producer
The Late Show (1977)
Producer
Welcome To L.A. (1976)
Producer
Nashville (1975)
Producer
California Split (1974)
Producer
The Delinquents (1957)
Producer
The James Dean Story (1957)
Producer

Music (Feature Film)

Gosford Park (2001)
Song
Nashville (1975)
Music
Nashville (1975)
Music Lyrics

Special Thanks (Feature Film)

Breakfast of Champions (1999)
Special Thanks To
Bob Roberts (1992)
Special Thanks To

Misc. Crew (Feature Film)

Gosford Park (2001)
Other
Hollywood Mavericks (1990)
Other
The Moderns (1988)
Assistant

Director (Special)

Robert Altman's Jazz '34 (1997)
Director
Black and Blue (1993)
Director
The Real McTeague: A Synthesis of Forms (1993)
Director
Tanner '88: The Dark Horse (1988)
Director
Tanner '88: Moonwalker and Bookbag (1988)
Director
Tanner '88: The Great Escape (1988)
Director
Tanner '88: Night of the Twinkies (1988)
Director
Tanner '88: Something Borrowed, Something New (1988)
Director
Tanner '88: The Boiler Room (1988)
Director
Tanner '88: The Reality Check (1988)
Director
Tanner '88: Child's Play (1988)
Director
Tanner '88: For Real (1988)
Director
Tanner '88: Bagels With Bruce (1988)
Director
Tanner '88: The Girlfriend Factor (1988)
Director
The Room (1987)
Director
The Dumb Waiter (1987)
Director
The Laundromat (1985)
Director
A Walk in the Night (1968)
Director
County General (1962)
Director
Sam Hill (1961)
Director

Cast (Special)

A Decade Under the Influence (2003)
Himself
Anatomy of a Scene: Gosford Park (2002)
Interviewee
Intimate Portrait: Lee Grant (2001)
History vs. Hollywood (2001)
Remembering MASH: The 30th Anniversary Cast and Crew Reunion (2001)
The 10th Annual IFP Gotham Awards (2000)
Performer
20th Century Fox: The Blockbuster Years (2000)
Robert Downey, Jr.: The E! True Hollywood Story (1998)
Freud's Interpretation of Dreams (1996)
The First 100 Years: A Celebration of American Movies (1995)
The 52nd Annual Golden Globe Awards (1995)
Presenter
Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country (1994)
Himself

Writer (Special)

A Walk in the Night (1968)
Story By
A Walk in the Night (1968)
From Story

Producer (Special)

Robert Altman's Jazz '34 (1997)
Producer
Tanner '88: The Girlfriend Factor (1988)
Executive Producer
Tanner '88: For Real (1988)
Producer
Tanner '88: Child's Play (1988)
Executive Producer
Tanner '88: The Reality Check (1988)
Executive Producer
Tanner '88: Moonwalker and Bookbag (1988)
Executive Producer
Tanner '88: Night of the Twinkies (1988)
Executive Producer
Tanner '88: Something Borrowed, Something New (1988)
Executive Producer
Tanner '88: The Dark Horse (1988)
Producer
Tanner '88: The Great Escape (1988)
Executive Producer
Tanner '88: Bagels With Bruce (1988)
Executive Producer
Tanner '88: The Boiler Room (1988)
Executive Producer
The Room (1987)
Producer
The Dumb Waiter (1987)
Producer
A Walk in the Night (1968)
Producer

Special Thanks (Special)

A Walk in the Night (1968)
Story By
A Walk in the Night (1968)
From Story

Misc. Crew (Special)

A Decade Under the Influence (2003)
Other
Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country (1994)
Other
The Real McTeague: A Synthesis of Forms (1993)
Other

Director (Short)

The Perfect Crime (1954)
Director

Writer (Short)

The Perfect Crime (1954)
Writer

Director (TV Mini-Series)

Tanner on Tanner (2004)
Director
Mata Hari (2002)
Director

Producer (TV Mini-Series)

Tanner on Tanner (2004)
Executive Producer
Mata Hari (2002)
Executive Producer

Life Events

1943

Joined the US Army at age 18; became a B24 pilot (dates approximate)

1948

First feature screen credit ("from story", co-written by George W George), "The Bodyguard", a crime film directed by Richard Fleisher

1955

Raised $63,000 to direct his first independently produced fiction feature, "The Delinquents" (acquired by United Artists for $150,000 and released in 1957)

1957

Co-produced and co-directed (with George W. George) first commercial documentary, "The James Dean Story"

1957

On the strength of "The James Dean Story", hired by Alfred Hitchcock to direct episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents"; made TV directing debut with episode entitled "The Young One"; also completed episode entitled "Together" before being fired in 1958

1963

Formed (with Ray Wagner) Lion's Gate Films (approximate date)

1964

Two-episode TV movie "Nightmare in Chicago"--made for "Kraft Mystery Theater"--edited together for feature release

1968

First studio-backed fiction feature, "Countdown" (Warner Bros.)

1970

Critical and popular breakthrough feature, "M*A*S*H"; earned first Best Director Academy Award nomination

1971

Helmed the revisionist western "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"

1973

Took on the detective genre with "The Long Goodbye"

1974

Buddy gambling picture "California Split" marked first credit for "Lion's Gate 8-Track Sound"; allowed Altman to record sound live from microphones planted on set or on location thereby eliminating the need for postdubbing while allowing the sound to be mixed or unmixed at will

1975

Earned second Best Director Oscar nomination for "Nashville", arguably his masterpiece

1976

Stumbled a bit with "Buffalo Bill and the Indians"

1977

Produced first film, "Welcome to L.A.", directed by Alan Rudolph; also produced "The Late Show", directed by Robert Benton

1978

Helmed the ensemble comedy-drama "A Wedding"

1980

Directed the fantasy musical "Popeye", starring Robin Williams

1981

Debut as stage director, "Precious Blood" and "Rattlesnake in a Cooler" in "Two By South", Actors Theatre, Los Angeles

1981

Sold Lion's Gate

1982

Directed Broadway production of "Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean"; filmed production and released movie in 1982

1983

Won acclaim for film adaptation of David Rabe's "Streamers"

1984

Helmed the one-man drama "Secret Honor", with Philip Baker Hall starring as Richard Nixon

1985

Directed the film adaptation of Sam Shepard's play "Fool for Love"

1985

Returned to TV work after 17 years as director of "The Laundromat" (HBO)

1987

Made another feature based on a play, "Beyond Therapy", adapted from Christopher Durang

1987

Produced and directed the ABC TV specials "The Dumb Waiter" and "The Room"

1988

Directed the CBS remake of "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial"

1988

Helmed the HBO series "Tanner '88", about a presidential candidate; won Emmy Award

1990

Earned praise for "Vincent & Theo", a biography of the Van Gogh brothers

1992

Staged William Bolcom's "McTeague" (libretto by Arnold Weinstein and Robert Altman), based on Frank Norris' 1899 novel of the same name, for the Lyric Opera of Chicago; the novel was the basis of Eric von Stroheim's "Greed"

1992

Earned critical praise for "The Player"; nominated for Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards

1993

Garnered fourth Oscar nomination as Best Director for "Short Cuts"; also co-wrote the screenplay adapted from short stories by Raymond Carver

1994

Had critical and box-office failure with "Ready to Wear (Pret-a-Porter)"

1994

Honored with a Gala Tribute by the Film Society of Lincoln Center

1996

Helmed the jazz-era set comedy-drama "Kansas City"

1997

Executive produced, created series and helmed episodes of the ABC series "Gun"

1997

Produced the Alan Rudolph-directed "Afterglow"

1998

Directed and co-scripted "The Gingerbread Man", a legal drama based on a screenplay by John Grisham; Grisham had his name removed from the final script which was rewritten by Altman; the onscreen credit was to the pseudonymous Al Hayes

1999

Returned to form with the comedy "Cookie's Fortune"

2000

Directed "Dr. T and the Women", with Richard Gere as a gynecologist

2002

Helmed "Gosford Park", a period mystery; earned Best Picture and Best Director Academy Award nominations

2003

Directed Neve Campbell, James Franco and Malcolm McDowell in the film "The Company," about a season in the life of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet company

2006

Directed the ensemble feature "A Prairie Home Companion," based on Garrison Keilor's long-running radio show; earned an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for Best Director

Videos

Movie Clip

Buffalo Bill And The Indians (1976) - Everything Historical Is Yours Amid the continuous rehearsal, first appearance by Burt Lancaster as Ned Buntline, Joel Grey as producer Salisbury, Geraldine Chaplin as Annie Oakley, John Considine her husband and manager, Harvey Keitel the nephew of the title character, Kevin McCarthy as Major Burke, and Paul Newman heard but not seen, in Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill And The Indians Or , Sitting Bull's History Lesson, 1976.
Countdown (1968) - Roger, Houston, Apollo 3 Opening scene from director Robert Altman’s first feature, Robert Duvall, James Caan and Michael Murphy the crew of an Apollo spacecraft, when they get an irritating order from Houston, in Countdown, 1968, from a novel by Henry Searls.
Countdown (1968) - An Emergency Backup To Apollo James Caan as scientist-astronaut Lee, joining Barbara Baxley, wife of his Apollo crew chief Chiz (Robert Duvall), who explains to him and colleague Rick (Michael Murphy) about what happened in training that day, and an emergency mission, in director Robert Altman’s first feature, Countdown, 1968.
Countdown (1968) - The Man In The Moon Is A Girl Shot at director Robert Altman’s home, from his first feature, Robert Ridgely the singing guest, Ted Knight a NASA administrator, James Caan as Lee, the astronaut host, Robert Duvall as Chiz, whom he’s been chosen to replace for a solo moon mission, with early-Altman overlapping dialogue, in Countdown, 1968.
Player, The (1992) -- Nice Boat You Got There A critical moment, Tim Robbins as studio exec Griffin Mill believes Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) is the screenwriter who’s been sending threatening post cards, offers again to buy him off, leading to a scuffle, director Robert Altman shooting outside the still-standing Rialto in South Pasadena, in The Player, 1992.
Player, The (1992) -- She's Booked For The Next Two Years Director Robert Altman dazzling, still in the opening scene at the studio, Griffin (Tim Robbins) visits exec Joel (Brion James), with side-man Walter (Fred Ward) and a hanger-on, then at a restaurant cameos for Anjelica Huston and John Cusack, and a better look at rival Larry (Peter Gallagher), early in The Player, 1992.
Long Goodbye, The (1973) - All The Tigers In India Director Robert Altman opens (the old song by Johnny Mercer, who also co-wrote the title song) with rumpled Elliott Gould as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, transported at least 20 years to contemporary LA, in The Long Goodbye, 1973, with Nina Van Pallandt and Sterling Hayden.
Long Goodbye, The (1973) - I've Been Working On Barbara Stanwyck Director Robert Altman drops two of many versions of the original title song by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, sung by Jack Sheldon then Clydie King, as we meet Lennox (MLB pitcher and author Jim Bouton) and Marlowe (Elliott Gould) shops for cat food, in The Long Goodbye, 1973.
Long Goodbye, The (1973) - You Don't Look Like A Secretary Elliott Gould as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe at the Malibu Colony, summoned by Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt, her first scene) who's both covering and looking for her wayward writer husband, the camera never still, in Robert Altman's updated version of The Long Goodbye, 1973.
Long Goodbye, The (1973) - You Got Your Friend Marlboro Marlowe (Elliott Gould) on his second visit to the Burbank detox joint where Doc Verringer (Henry Gibson) is squeezing boozy author patient Wade (Sterling Hayden, his first scene), and their return to his Malibu home and wife (Nina Van Pallandt), in Robert Altmans's The Long Goodbye, 1973.
Buffalo Bill And The Indians (1976) - Open, This Piece Of Our History Identified as a Robert Altman opening, though hardly necessary, with Alan Rudolph's 90% original script (with a nod to a play by Arthur Kopit), shooting at the Stoney Indian Reservation in Alberta, with narration by Humphrey Gratz who plays the "old soldier," from Buffalo Bill And The Indians Or, Sitting Bull's History Lesson, 1976, starring Paul Newman, cinematography by Paul Lohmann.
Buffalo Bill And The Indians (1976) - The Last Thing A Man Wants To Do Director Robert Altman, after nearly 15 minutes, finally shows his star and title character, Paul Newman, on camera, in rehearsal for his Wild West Show, introduced by producer Joel Grey, with Harvey Keitel as his nephew and secretary, Geraldine Chaplin as Annie Oakley, John Considine her husband, in Buffalo Bill And The Indians, 1976.

Trailer

Family

B C Altman
Father
Insurance salesman.
Helen Altman
Mother
Christine Altman Westphal
Daughter
Born c. 1947; mother, Lavonne Elmer.
Michael Altman
Son
Born c. 1954; mother, Lotus Corelli; wrote the lyrics to "Suicide Is Painless", the theme to "M*A*S*H", at age 14.
Stephen Altman
Son
Production designer. Born c. 1956; mother, Lotus Corelli began career as member of property department on father's "Buffalo Bill and the Indians"; served as father's production designer on "Perfect Couple", "Fool For Love", "Secret Honor", "Beyond Therapy" and "Vincent & Theo" and other films; received Oscar nomination for "Gosford Park" (2001).
Robert Altman
Son
Cameraman. Born c. 1959; mother, Kathryn Reed.
Matthew Altman
Son
Prop man. Born c. 1966; adopted by Altman and Reed.
Konnie Corriere
Step-Daughter
Born c. 1946.

Companions

LaVonne Elmer
Wife
Married in 1947; divorced in 1949; was injured in a car accident before the wedding; deceased.
Lotus Corelli
Wife
Married in 1954; divorced c. 1957.
Kathryn Reed
Wife
Former showgirl. Met in 1957 on the set of the TV series "The Whirlybirds" when she was an extra; married in Mexico when their respective divorces became final; remarried a year later.

Bibliography

"The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman's Masterpiece"
Jan Stuart, Simon & Schuster (2001)
"Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff: A Biography of the Great American Director"
Patrick McGilligan (1989)
"Robert Altman"
Gerard Plecki, Twayne (1985)
"American Skeptic: Robert Altman's Genre-Commentary Films"
Norman Kagan, Pierian Press (1982)
"The Films of Robert Altman"
Alan Karp, Scarecrow Press (1981)
"Robert Altman"
Jean-Loup Bourget, Edilig (1980)
"Persistance of Vision: Films of Robert Altman"
Neil Feineman, Ayer (1978)

Notes

Named a Knight of the Legion of Honor in 1996.

After "Popeye", which Altman still refuses to acknowledge was the failure critics labeled it, he changed his style. The master of the ensemble movie, he was often reduced to a cast of five, or two, or even--in the case of his extraordinary Richard Nixon monologue film, "Secret Honor"--just one. The blithe deconstructionist of screenplays, he stuck almost religiously to texts by David Rabe and Harold Pinter. The mixed celebrator/debunker of male camaraderie, he began to focus more on women and gay themes. He went from wide-screen to regular aspect ratio, foggy colors to sharp contours. The Altman of the 80s was often a very different director from the Altman of the 70s: arguably less inventive, but far more exacting, less of a virtuoso, more of a polished craftsman." --Michael Wilmington in Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1990.

"When you can direct great individual scenes, you can end up with some beautiful pearls. Then you can say, 'O.K., put them on a strand'. And you put them on a strand, and something is missing. It's just not a beautiful necklace. Altman is one of the few directors I've worked with who makes beautiful necklaces, not just the pearls." --Jack Lemmon on Altman's style of directing, from Interview, October 1993.

On Hollywood studio executives, Altman was quoted in The Hollywood Reporter (January 9, 2002): "I don't think I know any of their names. They make shoes, I make gloves."

"If there is any aspect of Robert Altman's work that fascinated me more than any other, it is his grasp of visual narrative. He has the eye of a choreographer grafted onto the brain of a dramatist, the heart of a dancer and the soul of a poet. So, he can steer the audience through incredibly complicated scenes, in which many different actors all have their own agenda and yet, somehow, and I don't know how, make it all perfectly clear on the screen. Part of this comes from a genuine love of, and respect for, actors. This is, believe me, rare among directors and as a result the cast all strive to do their best in the certain knowledge that their contribution is being appreciated (it really is) but, even so, how he can throw the camera at five or six different things going on at once without losing the thread of any of them must remain something of a sacred mystery." --"Gosford Park" screenwriter Julian Fellowes at OscarCentral.com.

"I try to give them [actors] confidence and try to earn their trust...and I won't let them make fools out of themselves. In other words, I will protect them so they are not afraid to go over the top."- Altman Entertainment Weekly 2002