Director Robert Altman Dies at 81
November 28, 2006 7:34pm CST
Robert Altman was battling the cancer that eventually killed him even as he directed "A Prairie Home Companion" a film he once succinctly described as "about death." Altman, a five-time Academy Award nominee for best director and one of the most distinctive, influential voices in American cinema, died of complications from cancer Monday at 81. He had worked with the disease for the last 18 months, the director's Sandcastle 5 Productions in New York said in a statement. The death was a surprise, Sandcastle said. Altman's vast filmography ranged from the dark war comedy "M-A-S-H" and the Hollywood farce "The Player" to the British murder mystery "Gosford Park." When he received a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2006, Altman revealed he'd had a heart transplant a decade earlier. "I didn't make a big secret out of it, but I thought nobody would hire me again," he said after the ceremony. "You know, there's such a stigma about heart transplants, and there's a lot of us out there." Altman was set to begin work on "Hands on a Hardbody," a fictionalized version of the documentary about a Texas contest in which people stand around a pickup truck with one hand on the vehicle, and whoever lasts the longest wins it. The film would have been vintage Altman. While he was famous for his outspokenness, which caused him to fall in and out of favor in Hollywood during his nearly six decades in the industry, he was perhaps even better known for his influential method of assembling large casts and weaving in and out of their story lines, using long tracking shots and intentionally having dialogue overlap. His most recent example of this technique, "A Prairie Home Companion," starred Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson, Kevin Kline and Lindsay Lohan. "This film is about death. Everybody dies," Altman said at the film's premiere in May. Garrison Keillor, whose radio show provided the basis for the movie, said Altman's love of film clearly came through on the set. "Mr. Altman loved making movies. He loved the chaos of shooting and the sociability of the crew and actors he adored actors and he loved the editing room and he especially loved sitting in a screening room and watching the thing over and over with other people," said Keillor, who also wrote and co-starred in the film. "He didn't care for the money end of things, he didn't mind doing publicity, but when he was working he was in heaven." "He was very good at letting actors think that they had more control than they actually did," said "Prairie Home Companion" co-star Tommy Lee Jones. Altman received best-director Oscar nominations for "M-A-S-H," "Nashville," "The Player," "Short Cuts" and "Gosford Park." No director ever got more nominations without winning a competitive Oscar, though four other men Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Clarence Brown and King Vidor tied with Altman at five. Tom Skerritt, who got his break from Altman on the 1960s TV series "Combat!" which led to his role in "M-A-S-H," said the director's death left him with "a big void." "M-A-S-H" mattered, Skerritt said, because of "the timing, the anti-war sentiment," when it came out in 1970. It took place during the Korean War, but clearly was an attack on U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Born Feb. 20, 1925, Altman hung out in his teen years at the jazz clubs of Kansas City, Mo., where his father was an insurance salesman. Altman was a bomber pilot in World War II and studied engineering at the University of Missouri in Columbia before taking a job making industrial films in Kansas City. He moved into features with "The Delinquents" in 1957, then worked largely in television through the mid-1960s, directing episodes of such series as "Bonanza" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Married three times, Altman is survived by his wife, Kathryn Reed Altman, and six children. He also had 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.