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“MASH” Director Robert Altman Dead of Complications from Cancer

November 21, 2006 at 6:50 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Altman’s career in filmmaking spanned more than 50 years and 40 pictures. His signature style — using large, ensemble casts, intricately enmeshed in complex dramas — was first seen in two 1970s classics: “MASH” and “Nashville.”

Ann Hornaday is a film critic for the Washington Post.

ANN HORNADAY, Washington Post Film Critic: “MASH” really came out of the gate as one of those bellwether films. It was set in the Korean War, but it was an allegory for the Vietnam War.

So the subject matter was edgy and confrontational, but it was really Altman’s filming style, the ensemble of actors, the overlapping dialogue. He would record people on Lavalier mics, much like this one, and then edit the sound to create overlapping dialogue. And it was a revolutionary stylistic innovation that he hewed to for the rest of his career.

ACTOR IN “MASH”: We need some suction.

ACTOR IN “MASH”: Yes, it’s fine.

ACTOR IN “MASH”: Can I pick up…

ANN HORNADAY: “Nashville,” very much the same. I mean, I think it took the style one bit further. That came out in the mid-’70s and dealt with the country music scene in Nashville and was one of the great inside dramas of great inside showbiz dramas still.

It still stands as a classic and also stands as an example of his some would say maddening and others would say innovative approach to narrative, which isn’t always necessarily very linear. He was more of a tone-setter and mood-setter.

Altman's career

JEFFREY BROWN: Not all his pictures were such critical and box office successes. But after a fallow stretch in the 1980s, Altman returned to the fore with "The Player" in 1992, a savage satire of the Hollywood filmmaking system...

ACTRESS IN "THE PLAYER": I loved it. I thought it was wonderful, and I think you're perfect for Ariel.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... and later, in 2001, "Gosford Park," a murder mystery set in the English countryside that also highlighted class distinctions in Britain.

Robert Altman was born in Kansas City in 1925 and served as a bomber pilot in World War II before moving back to the Midwest to begin a career in industrial films. He eventually migrated to television, directing both commercials and programs, including "Bonanza," before moving to dramatic filmmaking in the mid-1960s.

By many accounts, Altman had often strained relationships with the Hollywood studios, but he was revered by the actors who worked with him. His last film, "A Prairie Home Companion," starred Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, and an ensemble of familiar faces.

ANN HORNADAY: You'd just see the stars that would flock to his productions, just because I think he provided them with so much artistic latitude. And even though we do see his imitators, I think he was probably sui generis when it came to the atmosphere on the set and the results of the work there.

ROBERT ALTMAN, Filmmaker: All right. Let's do a rehearsal of this...

JEFFREY BROWN: Altman worked on the small screen, as well, and spoke to the NewsHour's Terence Smith at the 2004 Democratic convention, where he was updating "Tanner '88," his 1988 collaboration with "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau.

The HBO television series dealt with a fictitious presidential candidate, but much of the show was shot on the real campaign trail and among real politicians, who were prone to bouts of unusual candor amid the fictitious backdrop.

ROBERT ALTMAN: We do tend to disarm the people we interview or that we pick up, but they seem to go a little bit further. We kind of seem to break down that wall between formality. And when it becomes kind of ragged and informal, we tend to get more sense of truthfulness out of it.

I've got a lot to say, and they've got a clock on me.

The actor's achievements

JEFFREY BROWN: Altman received five Academy Award nominations for best director but never won. Earlier this year, he was finally honored with a lifetime achievement Oscar.

ROBERT ALTMAN: Now I look at it as a nod to all of my films, because to me I've just made one, long film.

No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have. I'm very fortunate in my career. I've never had to direct a film I didn't choose or develop. I love filmmaking. It has given me entree to the world and to the human condition. And, for that, I'm forever grateful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Altman died last night in Los Angeles. The cause of death was not disclosed. He was 81 years old.