Oscar-nominated filmmaker Robert Altman in 1983.
In 1955, a 30-year-old aspiring director named Robert Altman headed to Hollywood. He would have to wait 15 years for his big break.
Born on Feb. 20, 1925, in Kansas City, Mo., Robert Altman was the son of a successful insurance salesman. After attending Catholic schools and the Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Mo., Altman joined the Air Force in 1945. Becoming a co-pilot on a B-24 wasn't Altman's only achievement during this time; he invented "Identi-code," a method for tattooing numbers on household pets that would help identify them if they were lost or stolen. One of the dogs tattooed belonged to President Harry S. Truman.
Upon returning to civilian life, Altman took a job with the Kansas City-based film company the Calvin Company. The future Oscar-nominated filmmaker was responsible for making training films, advertisements and documentaries for industrial clients. Harboring Hollywood ambitions, Altman received his first screen credit for co-writing the 1948 B-movie Bodyguard. Seven years later, he was offered a job directing an episode of the television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents and headed West. Altman spent the next decade directing dozens of episodes of shows including Maverick, Bonanza and Kraft Suspense Theater.
1968's Countdown, which starred Robert Duvall and James Caan, gave Altman his first opportunity to direct prominent actors in a Hollywood movie. The following year, he directed the psychological thriller The Cold Day in the Park. In 1970, Altman directed Brewster McCloud, the story of a nerdy young man who dreams of building his own flying machine and soaring around the Houston Astrodome.
But it was another 1970 movie that proved to be Altman's breakthrough: MASH. The comedy set in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War hadn't exactly been a hot project - 15 directors declined the job before Altman accepted it - but spoke to audiences disenfranchised with the Vietnam War. Altman's most commercially successful movie, MASH won the 1970 Cannes Film Festival's top prize, the Golden Palm, and was named the year's best picture by the National Society of Film Critics. It received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, but only won a statue for Ring Lardner Jr.'s screenplay. Besides the awards, MASH had a cultural impact. More than 35 years after its release, Time magazine's Richard Corliss credited it with practically creating the "modern concept of hipness" that could be seen in the comedy styles of National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live and David Letterman, among others.
Altman was unhappy that MASH's only Oscar went to Lardner, whose work he openly disliked. The feud that developed between them was a common occurrence in Altman's career. Although most of his actors loved him and his improvisational directing style, he had many bitter fights with studio executives and screenwriters. In later years, Altman would downplay MASH's importance, saying it was no better or more significant than any of his other films.
Whatever Altman's personal thoughts about MASH, it was the first of six films he directed in a five-year span that made him one of America's most prominent filmmakers. During his heyday, Altman was acclaimed for his cutting-edge use of multilayer soundtracks. 1975's Nashville, the final movie in that streak, told the interconnected stories of 24 characters during the final days of a fictional presidential primary and is widely considered his best work. In addition to directing, Altman produced the Best Picture Oscar nominee.
Despite directing 14 films during the 1970s, Altman's career declined after Nashville. His movies did poorly both critically and commercially. He hit bottom with 1980's Popeye, a big-budget musical based on the cartoon, which had disappointing ticket sales and was almost universally panned by critics. Altman reinvented himself during the '80s by directing 10 stage plays on film and videotape. He also returned to television after roughly two decades away.
With a new decade came a new chapter in Altman's career. In the early '90s, he earned his third and fourth Best Director Oscar nominations for the Hollywood satire The Player and the episodic drama Short Cuts. Altman received Oscar nominations for both producing and directing the 2001 murder mystery Gosford Park. His loss tied him with Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Clarence Brown and King Vidor for most Best Director nominations, five, without a win.
Altman's statue finally came in March 2006 when he received an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony. Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep introduced him by delivering a double monologue that would have been at home in one of his movies. During his acceptance speech, he revealed that he had received a heart transplant in the mid-1990s. He didn't reveal that he had been diagnosed with cancer in 2005.
Altman's 42nd and final film, A Prairie Home Companion, was based on Garrison Keillor's popular radio show and released in June 2006. He died of complications of cancer on Nov. 20, 2006, at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Despite his illness, Altman had planned to begin shooting a new film the following February.