Childhood & Early Life
Robert Altman was born on February 20, 1925, in Kansas City, Missouri to Helen and Bernard Clement Altman. He belonged to an upper-class Catholic family and his father worked as an insurance salesman.
Early on, Altman gained his education from Jesuit schools. Completing his high school studies from Rockhurst High School, he gained admission at Wentworth Military Academy, graduating from the same in 1943.
During World War II, Altman enrolled himself in the United States Army Air Force. He was a part of the crewman on a B-24 Liberator. He flew more than 50 bombing missions.
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Relieved off his military duties in 1946, Altman moved to California. It was during this time that Altman tried his hand at filmmaking. He sold a script that eventually turned into a hit film, ‘Bodyguard’. The initial success lured him to take up filmmaking professionally.
Motivated by his early success in scripting, Altman moved to New York City but failed to commence a career as a writer. He moved back to Kansas City in 1949 and took up a job of a director and writer of industrial films for the Calvin Company.
After making 65 industrial films and documentaries, Altman was finally offered to write and direct a feature film on juvenile delinquency. He came up with ‘The Delinquents’ which was bought for double the money in 1957. Same year, he co-directed a documentary ‘The James Dean Story’.
Having found success, Altman moved to California to try his luck. His early work earned him the attention of Alfred Hitchcock who hired him for his anthology television series ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’.
Interestingly, though Altman directed just two episodes of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ show due to differences with the producer, the show did give him the exposure that he needed. In the following decade, he directed successful TV shows including ‘Whirlybirds’, ‘The Millionaire’, ‘U.S. Marshal’, ‘The Troubleshooters’, and so on.
Altman’s stint in television and industrial films though gave him the experience that he needed, its application eluded him until ‘MASH’ was offered in 1969. Revolving around the Korean War era, the script was an adaptation from a novel. The movie was rejected by more than a dozen filmmakers before Altman accepted it.
‘MASH’ proved to be Altman’s breakthrough film of his career. Winning Palme d’Or at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival and five Academy Award nominations, it went on to become Altman’s highest grossing film. The film was widely appreciated by critics and hailed as a classic. Such was its success then that in 2000, it was preserved by the Academy Film Archives.
Following the superlative success of ‘MASH’ Altman had his hands full with creative projects. His next outing was for the 1971 film, ‘McCabe & Mrs Miller’. The film was a critical success. His streak of critically acclaimed films carried on with the 1973 film ‘The Long Goodbye’, the 1974 movie ‘Thieves on Us’ and the 1975 release ‘Nashville’.
The decade of 1970s had established Altman’s reputation as a first-rate director. He was widely acclaimed by the critics for each of his films but commercial success seemed far. However, that changed with the 1980 film, ‘Popeye’ based on a cartoon strip of the same name. Though critically panned, the film was widely appreciated by the audience and became the second highest grossing film of his career.
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The decade of 1980s saw the commencement of the new-Hollywood blockbuster era. Altman film career saw a steep decline due to his mercurial reputation and strong character. Unable to find funds for his projects, he started to direct literate dramatic properties on shoestring budgets for stage, home video, television, and limited theatrical release. He won the hearts of the critics with the mockumentary ‘Tanner 88’ which earned him Primetime Emmy Award as well.
In 1990, Altman came up with a biographical picture ‘Vincent & Theo’. It was based on the life of renowned painter Vincent van Gogh. It was released as a television miniseries in UK and as a theatrical film in the U.S. Altman received a thumbs-up from the critics for his directorial talent.
In 1992, Altman tasted widespread success with his film ‘The Player’. A satirical comedy, it revolved around a Hollywood film studio executive who murders an aspiring screenwriter assuming the latter to be extortionist. The movie became a huge hit and and earned three Academy Award nominations. Altman received Best Director award by Cannes Film Festival, BAFTA and New York Film Critics Circle.
Following the resounding success of ‘The Players’, he came up with an ambitious project ‘Short Cuts’. Inspired by nine short stories, the film had almost 22 principal characters which intertwined at various levels. Chance and luck played a central role in the film as did death and infidelity. The film included an ensemble cast. It earned him yet another Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
In 2001, he continued with his love for a large ensemble cast with his film, ‘Gosford Park’. Ranked as one amongst the ten best films of the year, the film revolved around a mysterious murder that happens post dinner at Gosford Park, an English country house where the characters have convened for a shooting weekend. The film earned seven Academy Award nomination including Best Director and Best Picture. Surpassing ‘Popeye’, it became Altman’s second highest grossing film of his career.
Altman achieved mainstream success in 1970 with the film ‘MASH’. Depicting the life of medical personnel stationed at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital at the backdrop of Korean War, the film was an adaption from Richard Hooker’s novel of the same name. ‘MASH’ was made on a budget of approximately $3 million and went to earn $81.5 million at the box office. It gained five Academy Award nominations, a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture, and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
During the last decade of his career, Altman came up with three extremely successful films including, ‘The Players’, ‘Short Cuts’ and ‘Gosford Park’. Each of them won him several Academy Award nominations. All the films had a trademark Altmanesque style to them – a large ensemble cast, overlapping dialogues and loose action. ‘Gosford Park’ became Altman’s second highest grossing film of his career.
Awards & Achievements
Altman’s stint in television was immortalized when he received the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Direction in a Drama Series for Tanner ‘88.
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In 1992, Altman received the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival for his film ‘The Players’
In 1993, Altman won the Best Director award from the British Academy Film Awards for his film ‘The Players’.
In 2002, his film ‘Gosford Park’ received a couple of awards including the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film and the Best Director at Golden Globe Awards
In 2006, Altman was felicitated with the prestigious Academy Honorary Award for his lifetime contribution in films.
He is one of the few directors to have won a Golden Bear at Berlin, the Golden Lion at Venice and the Golden Palmes at the Cannes Film Festival.
Personal Life & Legacy
Robert Altman married Kathyrn Reed in 1959. The couple had six children.
He died on November 20, 2006 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood, due to complications from leukemia, at the age of 81.
Posthumously, his wife, Kathryn, co-authored a book on Altman in 2014. She also served as a consultant and narrator or the 2014 documentary ‘Altman’.