MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
For decades, he was one of Hollywood's most acclaimed filmmakers, known as a risk taker who directed such iconic hits as "M*A*S*H" and "Nashville." Last night, Robert Altman died in Los Angeles. He was 81.
Altman was nominated five times for Academy Awards and he finally received an Oscar for lifetime achievement earlier this year. In a few minutes, Michele will talk with actor Elliott Gould, who worked with Altman on several films.
First our critic, Bob Mondello, has this appreciation.
BOB MONDELLO: Huge casts throwing scripts to the wind and improvising, long tracking shots that would be insane to attempt even without actors who were improvising, the blackest of black comedy and everywhere dialogue overlapping and bleeding from one scene to the next. That was Robert Altman's signature from the first time anyone noticed him in 1970 with his irreverent wartime satire, "M*A*S*H." At a time when movie dialogue was all about clarity, Altman's opening scene is a declaration that things this time will be different.
(Soundbite of movie, "M*A*S*H")
Mr. ROGER BOWEN (Actor): (as Blake) Radar.
Mr. GARY BURGHOFF (Actor): (as Radar) Yes, sir.
Mr. BOWEN: I need to get ahold of Major Burns.
Mr. BURGHOFF: Call Major Burns.
Mr. BOWEN: Tell him I'm going to have to hold a couple of surgeons over from the day shift onto the night shift.
Mr. BURGHOFF: I'll put a call in to General Hammond in Seoul. I hope he sends us those two new surgeons. We're sure going to need them.
Unidentified Man: What was that, sir?
Mr. BOWEN: I gave everything to Radar.
Unidentified Man: What?
MONDELLO: "M*A*S*H" made Altman the grand old man of Hollywood's new wave. In his late forties, when the headline making Spielbergs and Scorseses were decades younger, he wasn't much interested in doing things the Hollywood way. He made a sort of anti-western called "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," which was all about whorehouse capitalists spreading corruption. He crossed up detective movie conventions in Raymond Chandler's "The Long Goodbye" with Elliott Gould.
And then in "Nashville," he made what is arguably his master work, setting the likes of Lily Tomlin and Keith Carradine to singing country songs in a film that more or less defines the term political satire.
(Soundbite of movie, "Nashville")
MONDELLO: Altman's work in the decades after Nashville was erratic as he leaped from intimate dramas to enormous ensemble films. His interlocking epic "Short Cuts" perfected that narrative style long before films like "Crash." His Hollywood mocking comedy "The Player" opens with a tracking shot that's both a joke and a tour de force, and if it sometimes seemed that he followed every successful film with one that was simply strange, he was, as he told NPR's Jackie Lyden six years ago, philosophical about how his films were received.
Mr. ROBERT ALTMAN (Filmmaker): You know, it's like your own children. All these films. I love them all and we tend to love our least successful children the most because they seem to need the most protection. But when they're finished, they're finished and they're disconnected from me. That cord is cut and all I can do is observe them and pray for them and hope that they succeed in happiness.
MONDELLO: Often they did, though Hollywood's moguls kept writing them off anyway. There was no love lost between Altman and the business world of film, but he had nothing but respect for actors, and the feeling was mutual. Tinseltown's biggest names clamored for even bit parts because he gave them a chance to discover and create and grow, so much so that as he told NPR's Lynn Neary on the set of "Prairie Home Companion" last year, they often got completely caught up in the moment, and so did he.
Mr. ALTMAN: I have to have somebody. I say how was that? Did they say everything? Did they leave something out? And many times they'll say that was great. And then the script girl will come to me and she says you know, they didn't say the part about killing the fish. I'll say well, what was that? She said, well that's the important part of the scene. That's the point of the scene. I say oh, we have to do that again and don't forget about killing the fish.
MONDELLO: "A Prairie Home Companion," a kind of showbiz elegy that was all about wrapping things up, was fated to be Altman's final film. When he received his Oscar for lifetime achievement earlier this year, he revealed that he'd had a heart transplant a decade ago and had never really expected to work again after it. Happily for audiences, he worked more or less constantly, crafting seven more films, earning a fifth Oscar nomination for best director and staying true to his fiercely independent ethos.
Mr. ALTMAN: There's not a filmmaker alive, nor has there ever been who's had a better shake than I have. In 40 years, I have never been without a job. I've never been without a project of my choosing. Now that doesn't mean I'm - I may be doing a picture for, you know, $8 million, $9 million today where if it were done under normal circumstances with a studio, they would have been $25 to $30. But it suits me fine.
MONDELLO: It suited audiences, too.
I'm Bob Mondello.