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Obituary: Robert Altman
Robert Altman
Robert Altman received an honorary Oscar in 2006
Mercurial, rebellious and fearlessly eccentric, Robert Altman never really fitted into the slick, PR-led world that is contemporary Hollywood.

His film credits alone serve as a roll-call of classic contemporary US cinema: MASH, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, The Player, McCabe and Mrs Miller and the resolutely British Gosford Park.

But the man himself never danced to Hollywood's tune, preferring to work with his own, extended, repertory cast and, later in his career, to run his own independent production company.

Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1925, the son of a wealthy insurance salesman, Altman served as a bomber pilot in the US Army Air Force during the latter days of World War II.

Worked with Hitchcock

Moving to Hollywood in 1946, he was a bit-part actor before making his mark two years later as the writer, with Richard Fleischer, of the The Bodyguard, which was made into a movie.

But this early success proved hard to replicate and, by the 1950s, Altman was putting all his efforts into developing an ultimately unsuccessful dog identification tattoo.

His second attempt at breaking into the movie business proved to be far more successful. Altman was hired by the Calvin Company, the world's premier producer of films for industry.

During six years with Calvin, Altman honed his scriptwriting skills, directed scores of films, including a feature on how a self-service petrol station works, and absorbed all the creative and technical skills he could.

The success of his first film as director, a low budget exploitation flick, titled The Delinquents, caught the eye of no less a figure than Alfred Hitchcock. Soon Altman was directing episodes of the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Shelley Duvall and Robert Altman
Altman directed Shelley Duvall in Thieves Like Us in 1974
Other TV series followed, most notably Whirlybirds and Bonanza. But Altman still yearned to direct for the silver screen.

But everything changed at the end of the 1960s. His first hit movie, MASH, filmed on a shoestring budget with virtual unknowns like Donald Sutherland and Robert Duvall as stars, captured the spirit of the age.

Though ostensibly about a medical unit in the Korean war, MASH was a timely, biting, satire on the conflict in Vietnam featuring a resolutely anti-war message. It made $40m worldwide, launched the hugely popular spin-off television series and established its director as a major Hollywood player.

The film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and an Academy Award for best screenplay. But Altman failed to win the Oscar for best director, the first of five unsuccessful nominations, though he was the recipient of an honorary Oscar in 2006.

"Epic vision"

Altman's frequent run-ins with studios, which began with MASH - a movie of which he later said "it wasn't released, it escaped" - became a familiar feature of his career.

But the controversy had little initial effect on Altman's rise. The success of MASH led to further employment.

Films like McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye, a Western and a detective story respectively, were handled competently enough, but it was Nashville (1975) which saw Altman at the top of his game.

Nashville, a sprawling, character-filled film of dashed hopes, political manoeuvring and strained relationships, has been hailed by some critics as Altman's "birthday card to America" on the occasion of the bicentennial celebrations.

The New Yorker's legendary film critic, Pauline Kael, called Nashville "the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen".

But it was also elegiac, a summation of Altman's view of the US after Vietnam and Watergate.

Following up the success of Nashville with three quality films: 3 Women, A Wedding and A Perfect couple, Altman also directed Popeye, starring Robin Williams.

Robert Altman
Altman was often at odds with Hollywood studio chiefs
But, despite high points like the extraordinary examination of Richard Nixon, Secret Honor, Robert Altman had to wait until the early 1990s to score another critical and box office success.

The Player, a meticulous examination of the making of a Hollywood movie, was as biting a satire as anything he had ever directed.

Altman called The Player "an easy indictment. I mean, what happens in Hollywood is much, much, much uglier than what happened in The Player".

He also drew great acclaim for Short Cuts, a series of short stories by Raymond Carver which Altman adapted for the big screen.

Then, in 2001, came perhaps his most unexpected hit. Gosford Park, with a starring cast of 20, including Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon and Alan Bates, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Emily Watson. Ostensibly a country house whodunnit, Gosford Park was an examination of class, family and relationships.

As with many of his films, much of the dialogue was improvised by cast members. Unlike his mentor, Alfred Hitchcock, who said he treated his casts like cattle, Robert Altman was known as "the actors' friend".

And, receiving his honorary Oscar in 2006, Robert Altman revealed that he had received a heart transplant some 10 years earlier but had kept the matter secret, fearing it would affect his career.

It was a typically unconventional move by one of the film industry's most inventive, and individualistic, greats.


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