During his half-century within the business, Altman directed over 30 feature films, which were only the tip of a filmography that included dozens of shorts, TV movies, documentaries, and miniseries. In 2002, after his Best Director nomination for "Gosford Park," he joined the exclusive no-Oscar club: along with Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese, no other director has been nominated for five Best Director Oscars without a single win.
Altman started his career in the 1950s and 1960s directing shorts and television shows, including eight episodes of "Bonanza" and two episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." His first feature, the obscure 1968 sci-fi epic "Countdown," starred James Caan and Robert Duvall.
In 1970, Altman jumped into the spotlight with the brilliant "M*A*S*H." Not only was it a critical darling (with 93 percent on the Tomatometer), it had given Altman his first Best Director nod and another for Best Picture), it was also his biggest box office hit.
"He was the last great American director in the tradition of John Ford," said Elliot Gould, whose role in "M*A*S*H" made him a star. "He was my friend and I’ll always be grateful to him for the experience and opportunities he gave me."
On the set, Altman was famously democratic. He allowed actors to stray from the script, improvise, and watch the dailies for their input and chance to change the direction of their movie.
"He loved the chaos of shooting and the sociability of the crew and actors — he adored actors — and he loved the editing room and he especially loved sitting in a screening room and watching the thing over and over with other people," said Garrison Keillor, who wrote Altman’s last movie, "A Prairie Home Companion." "He didn’t care for the money end of things, he didn’t mind doing publicity, but when he was working he was in heaven."
With "M*A*S*H" and 1975’s "Nashville" (an even bigger critical success with 94 percent on the Tomatometer, and again earning Altman Best Picture and Best Director nominations), the term "Altman-esque" to describe films of large ensemble casts and loose narratives was forever entrenched into the film buff vernacular.
Altman slipped into what some perceive as a dry spell after "Nashville," though his output never slowed. During the 1980s, he experimented with wildly different genres and sources, including theatrical one-man movies, ("Secret Honor"), comic strip adaptations ("Popeye"), and raunchy teen comedy ("O.C. and Stiggs").
In 1992, Altman staged a vital comeback in the form of "The Player," his first critical and commercial accomplishment in over a decade (which now sits at a 100% Tomatometer). Just one year after, Altman offered his most stunning and ambitious movie ever, "Short Cuts," a three-hour adaptation of several Raymond Carver stories. 1999’s "Magnolia" took heavy inspiration from "Short Cuts" and, in fact, "Magnolia" director P.T. Anderson was the back-up director for "Prairie Home Companion" if Altman was unable to finish it.
This past March, Altman received a Lifetime Achievement Oscar award for "a career that has repeatedly reinvented the art form and inspired filmmakers and audiences alike." During the ceremony, he revealed that he received a heart transplant ten years earlier but kept it a secret, afraid that it would prevent him from finding work.
To quote Keillor again: "He and I once talked about making a movie about a man coming back to Lake Wobegon to bury his father, and Mr. Altman said, ‘The death of an old man is not a tragedy.’ All of us who worked with him had the great privilege of seeing an 81-year-old guy doing what he loved to do. I’m sorry that our movie turned out to be his last, but I do know that he loved making it. It’s a great thing to be 81 and in love."
It’s been joked that Altman proffered the cinema of "People Standing Around Talking and Using Hand Gestures." Altman himself had a variety of ways to illustrate his natural, organic way of filming. With "Gosford Park," it was as though "throwing pearls onto a parquet floor — we would see who was going to bump into whom and how it would all fit together." And with 2003’s "The Company," the structure was "a clothesline to hang the dance and then the lives of the characters."
"No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have," Altman said while accepting the Lifetime Oscar in March. "I’m very fortunate in my career. I’ve never had to direct a film I didn’t choose or develop. My love for filmmaking has given me an entree to the world and to the human condition."