Robert Altman

In Memoriam

NORML expresses its sincere condolences to the friends and family of Robert Altman.

Robert Altman was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on February 20, 1925, as the oldest son of a wealthy insurance salesman. At six, the Roman-catholic boy entered St. Peters Catholic school and spent a short time at a Catholic high school before he went to Rockhurst high school where he began to experiment with a tape recorder. Afterwards he went to Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, MO which he attended through Junior College. In 1945, he enlisted in the Air Force and became a copilot of a B-24. At 20, he wrote short stories and screenplay drafts.

After his discharge from military service, Robert Altman worked for the Calvin Company. There, in the 1950s, he began making industrial and sports documentary as well as employee training films and advertisements. He left the Calvin Company in 1955.

His debut as a director of a feature film came in Kansas City with the teenage gang drama The Delinquents. The same year, together with his friend George W. George, he co-directed the documentary feature The James Dean Story.

From 1956 to 1964, Robert Altman worked for several TV companies. Alfred Hitchcock gave him a chance as director of episodes of his television series Alfred Hitchcock\Presents. Robert Altman went on to direct other TV series such as The Millionaire and Bonanza. His 1964 episode of the Kraft Suspense Theatre series about a serial killer was expanded to the feature-length Nightmare in Chicago. In 1968, he directed the feature film Countdown, a taut space drama. A year later followed the enigmatic thriller That Cold Day in the Park. In 1963, he founded his own production company Lion’s Gate which he had to sell in 1981.

In 1969, Robert Altman was offered the script for the black comedy-drama about surgeons in a Korean War medical unit, M*A*S*H (1970). It was not only his breakthrough with a larger public and a global box office success, it also won him the Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival.

In 1970 followed his quirky fantasy Brewster McCloud and in 1971 his reinvention of the American Western genre with McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a film about the building of a frontier bordello.

In 1973 he explored film noir with his adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. It was followed a year later by Thieves Like Us, a film about the Depression and the communion of two male gamblers on a spree, California Split. Images (1972) and and 3 Women (1977) were haunting explorations of the interior lives of women. 1979 saw the release of a romantic comedy, A Perfect Coupleand a social satire, HEALTH. He also directed a comic-book adaptation, Popeye (1980).

Robert Altman’s second major commercial success came in 1975 with Nashville, a sprawling drama set in the world of country music in which he displayed his talent for working with large ensemble casts, a talent he also used in A Wedding (1978), Short Cuts (1993) and Gosford Park (2001). Nashville won him Oscar Nominations for Best Film and Best Director; awards for Best Film and Best Director came from the National Society of Film Critics.

In the 1980s, Robert Altman turned to the theater and theatrical adaptations with movies such as Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (play and film, 1982), Streamers (1983) and Fool for Love (1985). In 1987, he shot TV versions of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and The Room. A year later followed a television staging of Herman Wouk’s original play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.

Robert Altman’s five episode HBO series Tanner ’88 about a fictional candidate, shot among actual politicians in the real-life 1988 elections, won him an Emmy Award for directing.

He shot biopics such as Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) and Vincent and Theo (1990) about the painter Vincent Van Gogh and his brother. In 1984, Altman’s fictionalised private history of Richard Nixon, Secret Honor, was released.

In 1992, Robert Altman returned to popular and critical favor with The Player, a dark, comic and subtle film about the Hollywood movie scene. Another critical and comic film followed with Short Cuts (1994), a farce about the haute-couture fashion scene which was less convincing. By the way, Altman lived partly in Paris from 1985 to 1992.

Among his more recent films are the rather pale gangster-themed Kansas City (1996), its documentary companion film Robert Altman’s Jazz ’34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing (1997) and contemporary comedies of Southern manners, the ensemble piece Cookie’s Fortune (1997) and Dr. T and the Women (2000), and the film noir The Gingerbread Man (1998). Another masterpiece, probably his best film so far, came in 2001 with Gosford Park.

Robert Altman’s work goes against Hollywood conventions and methods. The independent maverick unmasked questionable aspects of American life and its glitter and glamour worlds in satirical, often quasi-documentary films. He favored parallel actions over linear narration and encouraged improvisation. He was a master in working with large ensemble casts.

Robert Altman also worked as a screenwriter and producer and successfully staged operas such as Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. He produced films such as Welcome to L.A. (1977), The Late Show (1977), Remember My Name (1978), Rich Kids (1979), Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), Afterglow (1997) and Trixie (2000).