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Iconic Director Robert Altman Dead At 81

Either you were in awe of his style or found it maddening - the intricately woven story lines, the dizzyingly large ensemble casts, the plots that sometimes seemed defiantly plotless.

Regardless, Robert Altman was one of the most distinctive, influential voices in American cinema.

Altman, a five-time Academy Award nominee for best director whose vast, eclectic filmography ranged from the dark war comedy "M-A-S-H" to the Hollywood farce "The Player" and the British murder mystery "Gosford Park," has died of complications from cancer. He was 81.

He died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, surrounded by his wife and children.

"He had lived and worked with the disease for the last 18 months, a period that included the making of his film 'A Prairie Home Companion,"' the director's Sandcastle 5 Productions in New York said in a statement Tuesday. "His death was, nevertheless, a surprise: Altman was in pre-production on a film he had planned to start shooting in February."

The trail he left in Hollywood as a director and writer was long and wide, beginning with movies and TV classics in the 1950s and 1960s including "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Peter Gunn," "Whirlybirds," "Desilu Playhouse," "Maverick," "Bonanza," and "Route 66," before hitting it big on the silver screen.


See photos of Robert Altman's life and career
Robert Altman: A Filmography

Altman was famous for his outspokenness, which caused him to fall in and out of favor in Hollywood over his nearly six decades in the industry. But he was also appreciative of the many opportunities he was given.

"No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have," Altman once said. "I'm very fortunate in my career. I've never had to direct a film I didn't choose or develop."

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.

Altman had one of the most distinctive styles among modern filmmakers. He often employed huge ensemble casts, encouraged improvisation and overlapping dialogue and filmed scenes in long tracking shots that would flit from character to character.

"He's not mean, he just doesn't give a damn and he's almost arrogant in the way he refuses to spoonfeed his audience. You have to listen hard at his movies and find your own focus," CBS Sunday Morning film critic David Edelstein said of Altman prior to the 2006 Academy Awards.

Directors as diverse as Steven Soderbergh and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu all owe him a serious debt of gratitude; you can look at any ambitious, large-scale film with intertwined story lines - from "Traffic" and "Syriana" to this year's "Bobby" and "Babel" - and call it Altmanesque.

His most recent example of this technique, "A Prairie Home Companion," starred such varied performers as Garrison Keillor, Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson, Kevin Kline and Lindsay Lohan.

"This film is about death," Altman said at a May 3 news conference in St. Paul, Minn., attended by Keillor and many of the movie's stars.

Speaking with CBS News last June, Tomlin said Altman and Keillor were fascinated by "the whole range of humanity." She said it "delights them and intrigues them or makes them despair, all at once."

"I feel as if I've just had the wind knocked out of me and my heart aches," Lohan said Tuesday. "I learned so much from Altman and he was the closest thing to my father and grandfather that I really do believe I've had in several years."

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," Keillor, who also wrote and co-starred in the film, told The Associated Press. "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."

Altman held actors in the highest esteem and once joked that his role was mainly to turn the lights on and off for the performers.

The respect was mutual. Top name actors would clamor for even bit parts in his films. Altman generally worked on shoestring budgets, yet he continually landed marquee performers who signed on for a fraction of their normal salaries.

"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 I'm feeling."

"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.

"He said to me, 'This is a two-ticket film.' I asked what he meant by that; I'd never heard that before. He said, 'Well, make it really interesting the first time, give 'em a little humor, a little of the opposite and just blast through it and make it interesting enough for them to want to come back and buy a second ticket to pick up on what they missed the first time.' He knew that about it, and he was right. It was a second-, third-, fourth-ticket film."

He often took on Hollywood genres with a revisionist's eye, de-romanticizing the Western hero in 1971's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and 1976's "Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson," the film-noir gumshoe in 1973's "The Long Goodbye" and outlaw gangsters in "Thieves Like Us."

"M*A*S*H" was Altman's first big success after years of directing television, commercials, industrial films and generally unremarkable feature films. The film, set during the Korean War, was Altman's thinly veiled attack on U.S. involvement in Vietnam and audiences understood that only too well.

"That was my intention entirely. If you look at that film, there's no mention of what war it is," Altman said in an Associated Press interview in 2001, adding that the studio made him put a disclaimer at the beginning to identify the setting as Korea.

"Our mandate was bad taste. If anybody had a joke in the worst taste, it had a better chance of getting into the film, because nothing was in worse taste than that war itself," Altman said.

The film spawned the long-running TV sitcom starring Alan Alda, a show Altman would refer to with distaste as "that series." Unlike the social message of the film, the series was prompted by greed, Altman said.

"They made millions and millions of dollars by bringing an Asian war into Americans' homes every Sunday night," Altman said in 2001. "I thought that was the worst taste."

Altman never minced words. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he said Hollywood had served as a source of inspiration for the terrorists by making violent action movies that amounted to training films for such attacks.

"Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that unless they'd seen it in a movie," Altman said.

Despite his longevity and the many big name stars who've appeared in his films, Altman famously bucked the studio system and was often critical of its executives. One of his best-received films, "The Player," follows the travails of a studio executive being blackmailed by a writer.

But amid all those critical hits were several commercial duds, including "The Gingerbread Man" in 1998, "Cookie's Fortune" in 1999 and "Dr. T & the Women" in 2000. His reputation for arrogance and hard drinking - a habit he eventually gave up - hindered his efforts to raise money for his idiosyncratic films.

Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 2001's "Gosford Park," called the director "a force of nature."

"A lifelong rebel, he managed to make the movie industry do his bidding, and there are very, very few people who can claim that. He altered both my career and my perceptions, vastly for the better, and no matter how long I live, I will die grateful to him."

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.

Altman's love of actors came through over and over as Hollywood reacted to his death.

Elliot Gould, who starred in "M*A*S*H," said Altman's legacy will "nurture and inspire filmmakers and artists for generations to come."

"He was the last great American director in the tradition of John Ford," Gould said. "He was my friend and I'll always be grateful to him for the experience and opportunities he gave me."

"Short Cuts" co-star Bruce Davison recalls Altman's insistence that the cast members join him in watching the rushes every day, and that he'd have wine and cheese waiting for them.

"The best directors I've found are those who are ensemble players, not those guys who have great vision and make everyone hammer into that mold," said Davison. "He wanted you to participate - we came up with a lot of dialogue on our own, it was that kind of collaboration.

"He was Buffalo Bill," Davison added. "That's who he was."