“Filmmaking is a chance to live many lifetimes.”
If you have watched television in the past five decades, you have probably been influenced by the work of Kansas Citian Robert Altman. From big budget movies, to TV shows that are a part of television history like M*A*S*H, Altman is truly a legendary Missourian and an American icon.
THE EARLY YEARS
Robert Bernard Altman was born on February 20, 1925, in Kansas City. He was the first-born child of a well-to-do family, who allowed Robert to attend private schools for most of his life. He bounced around various Catholic schools before landing at the prestigious Rockhurst High School. He also spent time at Southwest High School and Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, where he remained through his first few years of college. After finishing his studies at Wentworth, Altman shipped off to become a B-24 pilot in the Air Force.
RISE TO FAME
Even at the age of twenty, Altman was writing stories and screenplays. His military service put his pursuit of a career in film on hold for a few years, but he was soon back in Kansas City working for the Calvin Film Company around 1950. The company was started by his grandfather, which provided Robert a training ground for which to develop his skills.
He left for California but then returned to Calvin Films numerous times throughout his life. While working in Kansas City, Altman directed a number of films for local companies and a few feature films as well. His first feature was The Delinquents, followed later the same year by The James Dean Story.
His next step in California was a big one when he was chosen by Alfred Hitchcock to direct a few episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. That opportunity opened more doors for the young director, including TV series like The Millionaire, Combat!, and Bonanza. He also started his own production firm in 1963. Altman was proving that he had a big career ahead of him.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
In 1969, Hollywood writers were circulating a movie script about a Korean War medical unit. More than a dozen directors had rejected the story, but the dark humor of the script interested Altman. He decided to take the project and turned the movie (which became known as M*A*S*H) into a huge box office success. The film won awards at the Cannes Film Festival, was nominated for five Academy Awards, and even won an Oscar. The film also spun off the hit TV show by the same name and was recognized as one of the one hundred greatest American films by the American Film Institute.
He followed the success of M*A*S*H with Brewster McCloud and a Western called McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Actors bought into his philosophy of directing, which earned him the reputation as an “actor’s director.” That reputation allowed him to assemble a large ensemble cast for his next commercially successful film, Nashville, in 1975. Nashville won two Oscars and was nominated for three others, including Best Director and Best Picture.
Altman produced nearly a dozen more movies for the big and small screens in the 1980s, but his legacy was again cemented in 1992, when he reached what some say is the pinnacle of his directing career. The Player took a critical look at Hollywood and the hypocrisy of the movie industry. It was a box office success and a big hit with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The movie was nominated for three Oscars, including yet another nod for Best Director.
During his more than five decades directing films, he has remained a maverick by doing things his own way. He went against the methods that directors had been using for years, while refining the way films are made and the way they are watched. Many of the techniques he perfected early in his career were seen as revolutionary but are now standard practice in many areas of filmmaking. His revolutionary approach to the genre not only makes Altman one of the most successful directors in American history, but also a true pioneer in America’s most popular form of entertainment. Altman died in 2007 from leukemia, with an amazing thirty-eight feature films under his direction.
*During World War II, Altman came up with the idea of dog tattooing, and even tattooed President Truman’s pet.
*The 1993 movie Short Cuts earned Altman his third Oscar nomination for Best Director.
*M*A*S*H and Nashville were selected for historic preservation by the United States National Film Registry.