I Remember Altman: Inclusive, Imposing American Dreamer

It seemed, on that hot, hazy spring day in 1974, as though the entire population of Nashville had turned out to watch Robert Altman shoot the finale of his epic film about the country-music business. The location was Centennial Park in the heart of the city. The scene was a political rally for a mysteriously popular independent Presidential candidate. And the dénouement was an assassination—not of the candidate, but of an accident-prone country singer who was making the last of her many comebacks.

Altman, a tall, burly figure wearing a headset, a white goatee and rumpled khakis, was in his element, instructing a prop man to make the red-white-and-blue bunting a little more disheveled and issuing orders for the actors to take their places in front of Nashville’s famous plaster replica of the Parthenon, wonderfully Altmanesque in its faux-grandeur.

I was standing at his right elbow, reporter’s notebook at the ready for a Newsweek cover story I was writing about the arch-maverick among American filmmakers. Suddenly, I noticed that my fiancée Diana, a photographer who had never been on a movie set, was in the shot, roaming among the players with her Nikon.

“Sorry, Bob,” I said. “She doesn’t know she’s not supposed to be there.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “I put her there. Do you want to be in the shot, too?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Go stand next to Ned Beatty [who was playing the candidate’s advance man]. And pretend you’re a reporter.”

The death of my old friend Robert Altman, at 81, marked the passing of the most inclusive American artist that any medium—film, theater, music, literature, art—has known.

He was 45, a battle-scarred veteran of industrial films, TV episodes and low-budget features, when he captured the lunacy of Americans in foreign combat with his first hit movie, M*A*S*H, in 1970. From then on, in the 42 feature films that followed, he upended every genre—the western, the private-eye flick, the romantic comedy, the musical, the English drawing-room murder mystery, the documentary—for his own comic (and resolutely idiosyncratic) purposes. In the process, he overlooked nobody who hankered for a slice of the American Pie. Working at the margins of a system whose reliance on formula he loathed, he was Hollywood’s Whitman—hearing America not only singing, but loving, screwing, celebrating, cheating, praying, hustling and, above all, dreaming. In this world, he was the biggest dreamer of all.

Like all big dreamers, he was a great seducer—perhaps unrivaled in the history of the movies for his ability to attract the services of stars who would drop everything to work with him for next to nothing, unconcerned about the film’s chances of box-office success. What made Altman players of everyone from Bacall to Tomlin, Beatty to Newman was, first of all, a sense of comfort, as I discovered the first time I met him.

Entranced by his 1974 film Thieves Like Us, I’d arranged to interview him at his suite in the Pierre. His imposing size was belied by a light, musical speaking voice and a delicate, easygoing manner that put me so immediately at ease that I unthinkingly took my shoes off the moment I sat down. Altman looked at my empty loafers.

“Is that an interviewing technique?” he said. I struggled to get my feet back into the loafers.

“Don’t bother,” he said. “I’ll take off mine.”

Interviewing Altman had nothing to do with asking conventional questions and getting conventional answers. It was, in the true sense, a conversation—one that, like a meandering stream, somehow found its own course and yielded revelations about the man and his working tics that I hadn’t remotely suspected.

“I really prefer Hollywood actors to New York actors,” he once told me. “Those over-trained East Coast types always want to know why they should do something, instead of just doing it without having the foggiest notion of what they’re up to. You have to be a little dumb to show who you really are.”

I always came away from him feeling intellectually refreshed. After I compared his freewheeling, open-ended approach to moviemaking to that of an “action painter,” he called me up.

“That was the best thing I’ve ever been called—thank you,” he said. “But I don’t want you to write about me any more. I’d rather have you as a friend.”

And so I became part of what everyone who worked with Altman became part of—a great extended family. Altman had an uncanny ability to make the often-tedious process of shooting a film at once fun and serious. He was the first one on the set in the morning and the last one to go home. I never heard him say more than a few mildly suggestive words to an actor before a scene, but somehow he said just enough for the actor to understand the particular character nuance that Altman wanted. Conviviality prevailed from top to bottom; “star behavior” was unthinkable on an Altman set. Yet, when we all got together to watch the day’s rushes, it was clear that a whole, deeply grounded world was in the making; the telling details were adding up; another “Altman film” was being born.

Afterward, the extended family, beckoned by Altman’s second wife Kathryn, a dazzling, irreverent Irish beauty (Altman called her “Red”), gathered in the best local restaurant. There, the increasingly bemused paterfamilias, fueled by Cutty Sark, gradually shut himself down to prepare for the next day’s shoot.

Perhaps the secret of Altman’s magnetism was his sheer love of filmmaking. Although he was a lightning rod for both critical praise and critical assault, he never, within my earshot, basked in the adulation or expressed anger over a negative review. He simply shrugged, raised both eyebrows and plunged into the next film. Nor did he seem to care about oeuvre-building: He took on whatever happened to catch his fancy or, as in the case of 3 Women, filmed a screenplay that he had transcribed one morning from a dream he’d had the night before. Even when the whole of an Altman film seemed considerably less than its parts, there was a buoyancy at the heart of the matter.

Every artist of Altman’s extraordinary range and stamina carries a healthy quotient of rage. He could erupt explosively out of a sense of loyalty let down (as he once did to me when I arrived late for a screening). Having grown up in Kansas City, he had what I think of as a Midwestern sense of what is good and proper. He despised the M*A*S*H series on television, whose long-running success he had inadvertently launched and in which he shared not a dime. To him, the show was an immoral promotion of war for the sake of corporate profit.

But underlying that rage was a certain innocence—an almost childlike wonderment, bordering on helplessness, at the world’s (and particularly America’s) follies. One of my truest moments with this complicated, charismatic man occurred during a game of family charades in the early 1980’s. I don’t remember the title that Altman had drawn to act out, but the word “chicken” was part of it.

What I do remember is the children screaming at him to do something as the seconds ticked by and he just stood there, unable to come up with an impersonation of the damnable fowl. When the three-minute time limit had passed, someone jumped up and demonstrated the art of acting by squatting and flapping his elbows. The great director grinned sheepishly and said, “So that’s how you do a chicken. I never thought of it.”

I Remember Altman: Inclusive, Imposing American Dreamer