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November 22, 2006

Director Robert Altman Dies

Emmy and Oscar Winner Was 81

Robert Altman

Robert Altman, the prolific, fervidly independent-minded director of dozens of acclaimed feature films and hundreds of hours of series television and made-for-TV movies, died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Altman, who was 81, had been battling cancer for the last 18 months, during which he completed what would be his final film, A Prairie Home Companion, which was released earlier this year.

A five-time Academy Award nominee for best director and one of the most distinctive, influential voices in American cinema, Altman received an honorary lifetime-achievement Oscar at this year’s ceremony.

At the time of his passing he was preparing to begin work on Hands on a Hardbody, a fictionalized version of the 1997 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.

On the big screen, Altman’s most notable hallmarks included the use of large ensemble casts, multi-stranded story lines, long tracking shots and overlapping dialogue. His filmography includes such renowned works as M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park, all of which earned him Oscar nominations. His other movies include McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, California Split, Three Women, A Wedding, Thieves Like Us, Prêt à Porter, Kansas City, Dr. T and the Women, Cookie’s Fortune and The Company.

Although best known for his feature films, Altman was enormously prolific in television. He threw himself into the medium after experiencing frustration in his initial attempts to direct features. The transition served him well, as he gained invaluable experience directing episodes of such series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Whirlybirds, Bonanza, The Roaring Twenties, Combat, Suspense Theater, Route 66 and Kraft Theater. In all, he compiled some 300 hours of television as a producer, writer and director.

By the time he broke into features at the relatively advanced age of 45, Altman was prepared to make his mark. But even as he achieved success in Hollywood—despite notorious battles with studio executives—he continued to return to television.

Following an acclaimed series of films in the mid 1970s, Altman fell out of favor on the big screen. His fortunes rebounded on the strength of Tanner ’88, the 1988 limited series for HBO that satirized the presidential election process. The project was written by cartoonist Garry Trudeau and starred frequent Altman cast member Michael Murphy in the title role. For his work, Altman received an Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series.

Altman was born February 20, 1925, In Kansas City, Missouri. He was educated in Jesuit schools before joining the Army in 1943. He flew 46 missions as a bomber pilot over Borneo and the Dutch East Indies during World War II. After his discharge he attended the University of Missouri and began making industrial films for the Calvin Co. in his hometown, after which he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a film career.

After many years of effort, he finally broke through with the 1970 release of M*A*S*H, the acclaimed black comedy set in a Korean War military hospital camp, which had been turned down by more than a dozen other directors. The film inspired the long-running CBS television comedy of the same name, although Altman was not involved in the series.

Altman is survived by his third wife, Kathryn, six children, 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Donations in his name may be made to the Cedars-Sinai Hospital Heart & Lung Transplant Unit.

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