Robert Altman, director of the 1970 Oscar winning MASH film.
|Birthname:||Robert Bernard Altman|
|Born:||February 20, 1925|
|Birthplace:||Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.|
|Died||November 20, 2006(aged 81)|
|Death Location||Los Angeles, California, U.S.|
|Appeared on/Involved with:||1970 MASH film|
Robert Bernard Altman (February 20, 1925 – November 20, 2006) was an American film director and screenwriter 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 (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Millet (1971), and Nashville (film)|Nashvillr (1975) have been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
Early life and career[edit | edit source]
Altman was born 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 practice as a Catholic 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 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.
Television work[edit | edit source]
Alfred Hitchcock noticed Altman's first two features and 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. The exposure enabled him to begin a successful TV career; he directed series including Bonanza, Combat!, and the Kraft Television Theater. He also was a director of the DuMont Television Network drama series Pulse of the City (1953–1954).
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.
Two years later, Altman was hired to direct the low-budget space travel feature Countdown, but was fired within days of the project's conclusion because he had refused to edit the film to a manageable length. He did not direct another film until That Cold Day in the Park (1969), which was a critical and box-office disaster.
Mainstream success[edit | edit source]
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. The 1953 film "Battle Circus," starring Humphrey Bogart, may have influenced the novel and/or Altman's version of MASH. (Battle Circus' original title, "MASH" was rejected by the studio; it was felt that the public might think the film was about potatoes!) Production was sometimes so tumultuous that the leads Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland tried to have Altman fired over his unorthodox filming methods, but 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 six Academy Award nominations. It was Altman's highest-grossing film, released during a time of increasing anti-war sentiment in the United States.
Now recognized as a major talent, Altman had critical breakthroughs with McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), known for its gritty portrayal of the American frontier; The Long Goodbye (1973), a remake of a Raymond Chandler novel; Thieves Like Us (1974), and Nashville (1975). These made his distinctive, experimental, "Altman style" more well known.
Death and legacy[edit | edit source]
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 production designer of choice for many films), Connie Corriere, Robert Reed Altman, and Matthew Altman; 12 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. The film director Paul Thomas Anderson dedicated his 2007 film There Will Be Blood to Altman. Anderson had worked as a standby director on A Prairie Home Companion for insurance purposes, and in the event the ailing 80-year-old Altman was unable to finish shooting.
In 2009 the University of Michigan made the winning bid for the Altman archives: approximately 900 boxes of personal papers, scripts, legal, business and financial records, photographs, props and related material; the total collection measures over 1,000 linear feet. Altman had filmed Secret Honor at the university, as well as directed several operas there.
References[edit | edit source]
- Robert Altman, page 2, Salon.com, by Stephen Lemons, accessed November 22, 2006.
- Robert Altman, 81, Mercurial Director of Masterworks and Flops, The New York Sun, November 22, 2006 accessed November 22, 2006.
- The Religious Affiliation of Robert Altman, Adherents.com, July 28, 2005 accessed November 22, 2006.
- "Interview: Robert Altman", The (UK) Guardian, May 1, 2004, accessed September 17, 2012.
- Spotlight: Catholics at the Movies http://www.catholichistory.net/Spotlights/SpotlightMovies.htm
- [Finally, An Attitude Adjustment: Hollywood's Establishment Now Embraces Rebel Director Altman, by Robert W. Butler for The Kansas City Star, page 5, March 5, 2006, first accessedate November 25, 2011.]
- Famous B-24/PB4Y Crew Members, B-24 Best Web (b24bestweb.com), accessed July 25, 2011.
- USA Today (March 14, 2012)
- Forbes (March 13, 2012).
- Director Robert Altman dies at 81 – More news and other features – MSNBC.com, November 22, 2006, accessed September 17, 2011.
- International Film Guide: The Definitive Annual Review of World Cinema|page=316, by Ian Haydn Smith, ISBN 978-1-905674-61-9, 2008, London, England, Wallflower Press Publishers, first accessed May 11, 2010.
- KC native Altman's papers heading for Michigan, not KC – Kansascity.com – April 21, 2009 (dead link date=September 2011)