Iconic Director Robert Altman Dead At 81

Director Robert Altman (right), on the set of "A Prairie Home Companion" with actors Kevin Kline and Maya Rudolph, July 27, 2005, in St. Paul, Minnesota
AP (file)
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."