Robert Altman (1925-2006) was a cool American film director known for making movies that felt real but had a special flair.
Critics loved him, and so did many actors. Some of his movies even made big bucks at the box office. But here’s the twist: Altman wasn’t your typical Hollywood director. He was a bit of a rebel, not following the usual rules. His films were different, shaking up the mainstream and giving Hollywood a run for its money.
Altman worked in Hollywood, but he was never totally in sync with it. His movies had this unique style that went against the Hollywood grain. They stood out from the crowd, making you think, “This isn’t your usual Hollywood stuff.” Altman’s films were a breath of fresh air, challenging the norm and leaving their mark.
Table of Contents
|Robert Bernard Altman
|Date of Birth
|February 20, 1925
|Date of Death
|November 20, 2006
|Highly naturalistic with a stylized perspective
|Favorable reviews from critics and admired by actors
|Box Office Success
|Some films highly successful, but not a mainstream director
|Relationship with Hollywood
|Worked in Hollywood, but rebellious and irreverent
|Challenging and subverting mainstream Hollywood
|Worked in Hollywood but not entirely part of it
|Left a distinctive mark on filmmaking with unique style
Early life and career
Altman grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, with a wealthy dad who liked gambling. His family had German, English, and Irish roots. He had a strict Catholic upbringing and went to different schools in Kansas City. Then, he got sent to a military academy.
When World War II hit, Altman joined the army at 18 and flew planes. While training in California, he got a taste of Hollywood and loved it. After leaving the army in 1947, he moved to Los Angeles to try acting, writing, and directing.
Altman’s first success was co-writing a movie called Bodyguard in 1948. Inspired, he moved to New York to write with a guy named George W. George. They worked on various projects, but not everything took off. Altman even tried running a pet care company, but it went bankrupt.
In 1950, broke and looking for a fresh start, Altman went back to Kansas City. But the movie bug hadn’t left him. He wanted another shot in Hollywood. So, he headed back to L.A., where he eventually became a big deal in the movie world. Altman’s journey—from Kansas City to Hollywood, with detours through war and different careers—mirrored the unique stories he later brought to the big screen.
Industrial film experience
Altman’s journey into filmmaking kicked off in an unexpected place: the Calvin Company, a giant in industrial film production and 16mm film processing, right there in his hometown of Kansas City. Without film schools around, Altman saw this as his film school. Intrigued by the company’s gadgets and gizmos, he jumped in as a film writer and quickly moved on to directing.
For nearly six years, Altman stayed with the Calvin Company, directing around 60 to 65 industrial short films. Despite earning a modest $250 a week, he saw it as a hands-on crash course in filmmaking. Altman became a pro at shooting on tight schedules and navigating both big and small budgets—a skill set that would later define his success in Hollywood. He got to know the nitty-gritty of filmmaking tools like cameras, boom mics, and lights.
However, the routine of industrial films wore thin, and Altman hungered for more exciting projects. He’d occasionally venture to Hollywood to try his hand at scriptwriting, but each time he came back, Calvin Company dropped his salary a notch. On the third go-around, they warned him: leave and return once more, and he’d be out for good. Altman’s thirst for creative challenges and Hollywood dreams were pushing him to the edge of a career leap.
First feature film
In 1955, Altman made a bold move, leaving the Calvin Company to dive into a whole new adventure. Elmer Rhoden Jr., a local movie theater owner in Kansas City, hired him to create a low-budget film about juvenile crime called “The Delinquents.” This was Altman’s chance to break into the big leagues, and Rhoden Jr. hoped it would kick-start his own producing career.
Altman worked at lightning speed, writing the script in just one week. With a shoestring budget of $63,000, he filmed the movie in two weeks right there in Kansas City. The cast included local actors from community theater, Altman’s family members, and three Hollywood imports, including Tom Laughlin, who would later become famous as Billy Jack.
The crew consisted of Altman’s buddies from the Calvin Company, and together, they planned their grand “Kansas City escape.” In 1956, Altman and his assistant director, Reza Badiyi, left Kansas City for good to edit “The Delinquents” in Hollywood. United Artists liked what they saw and picked up the film for distribution, paying $150,000. Released in 1957, “The Delinquents” hit the jackpot, grossing nearly $1,000,000. Altman’s Hollywood dream was starting to come true, one low-budget success at a time.
After “The Delinquents,” Altman didn’t hit the big leagues right away, but Alfred Hitchcock noticed his talent. Impressed, Hitchcock asked Altman to direct episodes of his TV series, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” From 1958 to 1964, Altman dabbled in various TV series like Combat!, Bonanza, Whirlybirds, and Route 66. He even wrote and directed an episode of Maverick, starring Roger Moore, that tackled a lynching incident titled “Bolt From the Blue.”
Altman’s touch was so bold that one episode of Bus Stop, directed by him, stirred up quite a storm. The controversial ending, where a killer goes unpunished, led to Congressional hearings, and the show got axed at the end of the season.
In the midst of his TV work, Altman showed his musical side, co-composing the hit single “Black Sheep” for country artist John Anderson. Altman was building his name, one suspenseful TV episode and catchy country tune at a time, setting the stage for his future leaps in the world of filmmaking.
After a rough patch and a falling-out with Jack Warner, Altman dove into a new phase of filmmaking, driven by his “anti-Hollywood” stance. Struggling through a few unsuccessful features, his big break came in 1969 with the script for MASH, turned down by many directors before him. Altman took the reins, and MASH hit the jackpot, becoming his highest-grossing film and setting the stage for a solid career.
Altman’s distinctive “Altman style” emerged, marked by stories delving into the web of relationships between characters. He cared more about character motivation than intricate plots, often sketching just a basic blueprint for the film and letting actors improvise dialogue. Known as an “actor’s director,” he thrived on working with large casts of well-known actors.
Dialogue in Altman’s films often overlapped, making it a challenge to catch every word. He liked it that way, using it to keep the audience engaged, and even using a headset to ensure important things didn’t get lost in the mix. Altman pushed for R ratings, aiming to keep kids out of the audience, believing his films demanded patience not common in children.
Altman crafted films that stood out, often going against the grain of mainstream expectations. Despite initial hesitations, MASH became a critical hit, inspiring a long-running TV series. In 1975, he tackled politics in Nashville, a film where the stars wrote their own songs, earning Keith Carradine an Oscar.
His unconventional approach met resistance, and in 1976, Altman ventured into founding Lions Gate Films for more artistic freedom. Films like A Wedding, 3 Women, and Quintet followed, showcasing Altman’s unique vision in a landscape not always ready for his brand of storytelling.
Later career and renaissance
In 1980, Altman took a swing at a musical with “Popeye,” starring Robin Williams in his big-screen debut. While some critics labeled it a failure, it actually made money and became Altman’s second-highest-grossing film up to that point. The ’80s saw a mix of hits and misses for Altman, with notable works like the Nixon drama “Secret Honor” and the less well-received “O.C. & Stiggs.” His “mockumentary” “Tanner ’88” won him an Emmy, but widespread popularity remained elusive.
A turning point came with 1992’s “The Player,” a Hollywood satire that earned Altman accolades, including the Best Director award at Cannes. This success reminded Hollywood that Altman was still a creative force to be reckoned with. He followed it up with the ambitious “Short Cuts” in 1993, drawing praise for its portrayal of interconnected lives in Los Angeles. Altman considered it among his most creative works, along with “Tanner ’88” and “Brewster McCloud.”
Altman continued to navigate the independent film scene, collaborating with studios like Fine Line, Artisan, and USA Films. In 2006, “A Prairie Home Companion,” a movie version of Garrison Keillor’s radio series, marked another venture for Altman.
Despite five Oscar nominations for Best Director without a win, the Academy honored Altman with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. During his acceptance speech, he humorously mentioned having received a heart transplant a decade earlier and joked about potentially having four more decades ahead.
Altman’s personal life saw him move from Mandeville Canyon to Malibu in the ’60s, then to New York after the “Popeye” setback, before returning to Malibu until his passing. A quirky promise to move to Paris if George W. Bush won turned out to be about Paris, Texas, and Altman remained an interesting, spirited figure in the eyes of his neighbors and friends in Malibu.
On November 20, 2006, at the age of 81, Altman bid farewell at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. His production company, Sandcastle 5 Productions, stated that complications from leukemia led to his passing. Altman left behind a legacy survived by his wife, Kathryn Reed Altman, and a vibrant family—six children, including Christine, Michael, Stephen (his go-to set decorator), Connie, Robert Reed, and Matthew. The Altman clan extended to 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
His final resting place is at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles, marking the end of a cinematic journey that forever shaped the landscape of storytelling in film.
Some Altman movies
MASH (1970): Altman’s breakthrough film, “MASH,” set in a Korean War field hospital, cleverly doubles as an anti-Vietnam War statement. The black comedy, rebellious spirit, and satirical tone changed the landscape of American filmmaking. Altman skillfully mocks the glorification of war while portraying the competence of his characters—Captain Hawkeye, Trapper John, and Duke—who navigate the absurdity of their situation with studied cynicism and dark humor.
Brewster McCloud (1971): This whimsical film tells the tale of a boy who yearns to be a bird, living in the Houston Astrodome under the guidance of a guardian angel. With crazy lectures on birds and an assortment of madness, “Brewster McCloud” might seem to be about everything and nothing at the same time. It’s a piece of inspired moviemaking that defies conventional narrative.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971): Often hailed as the best anti-Western, this film stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in a tale set in the Pacific Northwest. A story of life more than death, it follows McCabe’s attempt to build a whorehouse and the complex characters inhabiting the town.
Thieves Like Us (1974): A subtle gangster film with a love story at its core, Altman treats the lives of thieves as ordinary people navigating crime as if it were any other job. Against the backdrop of a Romeo and Juliet radio show, Altman weaves a unique narrative.
Nashville (1975): Considered Altman’s masterpiece, “Nashville” explores the lives of over 35 characters against the backdrop of the country music scene. A mix of improvisation and satire, Altman’s signature style shines, with Lily Tomlin making her breakthrough appearance.
A Wedding (1978): Altman presents a wedding that spirals into farce, revealing the hidden flaws and human qualities of over 40 characters. Beyond the chaos, Altman delivers a poignant commentary on the downside of social institutions.
Short Cuts (1993): Based on Raymond Carver’s short stories, “Short Cuts” depicts disconnected lives and small interactions, showcasing the messiness and harshness of middle-class existence. Altman explores the inconclusiveness of life with a touch of black comedy.
Gosford Park (2001): Altman delves into the English class system in this film set in 1932. A mix of Upstairs Downstairs and crime caper, it explores the intertwined dramas of both the wealthy upstairs and the servants downstairs during a weekend shooting party. Altman’s characteristic style of interwoven characters, black comedy, and cynicism about human foibles shines through. Considered one of his best, “Gosford Park” offers a satirical exploration of the human condition.