We look at the life of the esteemed director of ''M*A*S*H,'' ''Nashville'' and ''The Player''

By Chris Nashawaty
November 24, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

Eleven years ago, Robert Altman returned home to film a love letter to his jazz-obsessed youth, Kansas City. The director, who had grown up on the south bank of the Missouri River, the son of an insurance salesman, always had a soft spot for the city he’d left behind. And now, back on his native soil, he was giddy. The city had embraced him as a conquering hometown hero. After all, in the five decades since he left, Altman, a maverick in every sense of the word, had bucked, bridled, and become a Hollywood legend on his own terms.

When I first approached Altman on the set, he asked if I’d like to watch some dailies with him. Thinking that I’d passed some secret initiation, I was surprised to find the room spilling over with the film’s entire cast and crew. Everyone was invited to see dailies on a Robert Altman movie. The screenings were raucous after-parties where opinions flew like shrapnel. Altman was an egalitarian who believed that a good idea could come from anywhere.

It’s impossible to quantify just how much the movies — and the people who love them — will miss Robert Altman. But we’ve had some time to prepare. Altman, who passed away on Nov. 20 in Los Angeles from complications due to cancer at the age of 81, had been on borrowed time for a while. When he received an honorary Oscar, his first, in March of 2006, Altman stunned the audience by admitting that he’d undergone a heart transplant 11 years earlier. ”I got the heart of, I think, a young woman who was about in her late 30s,” Altman said from the stage. ”And so, by that kind of calculation, you may be giving me this award too early. Because I think I’ve got about 40 years left on it. And I intend to use it.” Sadly, he never got the chance.

Beginning with 1970’s M*A*S*H, Altman went on a breathtaking run of acid satires and counterculture character studies that redefined and reinvigorated modern cinema. He received five Best Director Oscar nominations in all, but like another larger-than-life auteur, Alfred Hitchcock, he never won. With his signature style — an improvisational narrative technique that is relentlessly copied, but yet to be duplicated — Altman’s films cast a spell. Watching an Altman movie is like attending a dizzy cocktail party where dialogue overlaps, freewheeling ensembles cross paths by chance, and any member of the establishment unlucky enough to be in the room has a ”Kick Me” sign slapped on his ass.

Born on Feb. 20, 1925, into a socially prominent German-American family in Kansas City, Mo., Altman enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces at the age of 19. He co-piloted a B-24 bomber at the tail end of WWII, flying 46 missions. After the war, he sold insurance and landed a few blink-and-miss acting roles. But his initial run at Hollywood didn’t take, so he returned to Kansas City and was soon directing industrial films. Before long, he was writing and directing his first feature, 1957’s The Delinquents, a low-budget B movie that caught the attention of Hitchcock, who at the time was looking for young, cheap directors to work on his TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Altman toiled on the small screen for years, helming episodes of everything from Bonanza to Peter Gunn. But he was terrified of being pigeonholed as a TV director and risked a future of comfortable, steady paychecks to make 1968’s Countdown with the then-little-known Robert Duvall and James Caan. Two years later, when he was offered M*A*S*H — a film that 14 other directors had passed on — he hungrily accepted the job. It wound up making his career.

Ostensibly about a surgical unit in the Korean War, M*A*S*H couldn’t help but be an allegory for Vietnam. But it was Altman’s genius to understand just how much absurdity to add to the stew. The film won the Palme d’Or at the 1970 Cannes film festival and was named the best film of the year by the National Society of Film Critics. It also kicked off what was unquestionably Altman’s most fertile decade as a filmmaker. While a new generation of directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola were redrawing the motion-picture map, the slightly older Altman became an éminence grise of the New Hollywood. He followed M*A*S*H with the stoned, sepia-toned Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the hard-boiled hippie whodunit The Long Goodbye, and, of course, 1975’s Nashville, his sprawling, kaleidoscopic snapshot of a nation caught between the hangover of Watergate and the optimism of the impending Bicentennial.

The late 1970s — and virtually the entire ’80s — proved to be Altman’s lean years, marked by troubled big-budget productions like Popeye and puzzling obscurities like 3 Women and Quintet. Financing was never easy to come by, and Altman could be a tough customer, unaccustomed and unsuited to begging hat in hand. But he never got bitter. Looking back at his career, Altman remarked, ”I feel like I’ve gotten a great shake.”

In the early ’90s, the surprise success of his bruise-black Hollywood satire The Player thrust him back into vogue. Altman would half-joke that The Player marked his “fourth comeback” — but the film, which skewered Tinseltown suits with both the love and spleen that only one of its battered children could muster, was far more than that, earning Altman his third Oscar nomination for Best Director. And its cast, which included Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, and Susan Sarandon in cameo roles, was a testament to Altman’s catnip appeal to actors. They lined up to work with him, no matter how small the part. When asked why, the director simply said, ”I allow them to do what they became actors for in the first place.” Interviewed on the set of Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion, Lily Tomlin likened the director to ”a great benign patriarch who’s always looking out for you as an actor. You’re not afraid to take chances with him. You know it’s going to be an experience worth having.”

Tomlin, like all of the actors on Altman’s recent films, must have sensed that their benign patriarch was getting frail. On Prairie, 36-year-old director Paul Thomas Anderson was hired to shadow Altman (at the request of the movie’s insurers) in the event he didn’t make it to the end of the production. Still, even into his 80s, an age when most directors are unable to find anything relevant to say to today’s moviegoers, Altman crafted some of his best work. In the last decade of his life, he was making films at the pace of about one a year. Some were hits, some flops. But each one was uniquely Altman. They couldn’t have been made by anyone else. In fact, the director would refer to the 39 features on his résumé as ”one long film.” At a time when movies are more and more the products of a corporate committee or mere afterthoughts to marketing meetings, Altman’s legacy lives on for being thoughtful, fun, never dull, and, more than anything, one of a kind. A fitting tribute to a man who, until the very end, embodied that description to a tee.