Robert Altman, a five-time Academy Award nominee for best director whose vast, eclectic filmography ranged from the dark war comedy MASH to the Hollywood farce The Player to the British murder mystery Gosford Park, has died of complications from cancer. He was 81.
"He had lived and worked with the disease for the last 18 months, a period that included the making of his film A Prairie Home Companion," the director's Sandcastle 5 Productions in New York said in a statement on Tuesday. "His death was, nevertheless, a surprise: Altman was in pre-production on a film he had planned to start shooting in February."
He died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, surrounded by his wife and children.
When he received a lifetime achievement Oscar this year, Altman revealed he had had a heart transplant a decade earlier.
"I didn't make a big secret out of it, but I thought nobody would hire me again," he said after the ceremony. "You know, there's such a stigma about heart transplants, and there's a lot of us out there."
While he was famous for his outspokenness, which caused him to fall in and out of favor in Hollywood over his nearly six decades in the industry, he was perhaps even better known for his influential method of assembling large casts and weaving in and out of their story lines, using long tracking shots and intentionally having dialogue overlap.
His most recent example of this technique, this year's A Prairie Home Companion, starred such varied performers as Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson and Kevin Kline. It was based on the long-running radio show from Garrison Keillor, who said Altman's love of film clearly came through on the set.
"Mr. Altman loved making movies. 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 Keillor, who also wrote and co-starred in the film. "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."
Altman received best-director Oscar nominations for MASH, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park. No director ever got more nominations without winning a competitive Oscar, though four others -- Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Clarence Brown and King Vidor -- tied with Altman at five.
Born Feb. 20, 1925, Altman hung out in his teen years at the jazz clubs of Kansas City, Missouri, where his father was an insurance salesman.
He was a bomber pilot in World War II and studied engineering at the University of Missouri in Columbia before taking a job making industrial films in Kansas City. He moved into features with The Delinquents in 1957, then worked largely in TV through the mid-1960s.