Director Robert Altman Dies at 81 Iconoclastic film director Robert Altman has died at the age of 81. The Oscar-nominated director, famous for his ensemble productions, was responsible for The Player, Nashville, and M.A.S.H..

Director Robert Altman Dies at 81

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Finally, some sad news. Filmmaker Robert Altman died last night here in Los Angeles after a distinguished career as one of the movie industry's most innovative directors. He was, as many of the people who worked with him can attest, an actor's director. Just listen to Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin listing Altman's credits when the director received the Lifetime Achievement Oscar this year.

(Soundbite of Coverage from the 2006 Academy Awards Presentation)

Ms. MERYL STREEP (Actress): "M*A*S*H," "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "Kansas City."

Ms. LILY TOMLIN (Actress): "Nashville."

Ms. STREEP: "Long Goodbye," "Thieves Like Us."

Ms. TOMLIN: "Short Cuts."

Ms. STREEP: "Gosford Park," "California Split."

Ms. TOMLIN: "The Player."

Ms. STREEP: "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" - so many, so many others, and television. He does plays, he does operas.

Ms. TOMLIN: Operas, and you know, did I say "Nashville?"

Ms. STREEP: Yes.

Ms. TOMLIN: It bears repeating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

BRAND: NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this remembrance.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Filmmaker Robert Altman liked to say he became enamored of movies because he loved the sound radio made: the creak of a door opening, the gush of water from a spigot, footsteps on a hardwood floor, the things left unsaid in a conversation.

Mr. ROBERT ALTMAN (Filmmaker): If you do not hear a complete conversation from an actor, as an audience you tend to say oh, I think he said - what did - so you're actively doing this. So the sound is very important to me, and what people say is not important to me.

BATES: Despite that, Altman had an ear for dialogue and an uncanny ability to replicate how people talk to each other in real life. In this clip from The Player, Altman used dialogue to lampoon his own industry, with which he was both enamored and frustrated.

(Soundbite of film, "The Player")

Mr. BUCK HENRY (Actor): (As Buck Henry) Here it is. "The Graduate," Part II.

Mr. TIM ROBBINS (Actor): (As Griffin Mill) Oh good.

Mr. HENRY: (As Buck Henry) Now listen. The three principals are still with us: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katherine Ross. Twenty-five years later, Ben and Elaine are married. Still, they live in a big, old spooky house up in Northern California somewhere, and Mrs. Robinson lives with them.

BATES: No actor was ever a star in an Altman movie; the cast was the star. He was famous for his ensemble productions. "M*A*S*H" established his ability to coalesce a number of characters with different stories into a cohesive whole. "Nashville," "Shortcuts," "Gosford Park," "A Prairie Home Companion" all required him to sit back and let his actors develop their characters on camera. In fact, as he told Jacki Lyden in an earlier NPR Interview, he resisted giving them too much direction, even when they asked.

Mr. ALTMAN: What I want to see is something I've never seen before. So I can't explain to anybody what that is.

BATES: Altman liked to say that he loved all his movies, but perhaps his least successful movies were his favorites. They're like children, he told NPR. We tend to love our least successful children because they seem to need the most protection. But when they're finished, they're finished, and they're disconnected, and they're disconnected from me. All I can do is observe them and pray for them and hope that they succeed in happiness. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of song, "Suicide is Painless")

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Through early morning fog I see visions of the things to be, the things that are withheld for me I realize and I can see that suicide is painless...

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.