Groundbreaking filmmaker Robert Altman, long considered one of America’s most significant cinematic auteurs, passed away in Los Angeles on Monday night. Although Altman recently admitted to having undergone a heart transplant in the last decade, the cause of death was revealed to be complications from cancer. He was 81.
Perhaps best known for MASH and Nashville, Altman’s other critical successes included McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, The Player, Short Cuts and, most recently, Gosford Park. Highly influential, his main innovations were cinematographically favoring extended, unbroken tracking shots, creating a painterly effect, and allowing his actors a large degree of improvisation and spontaneity. The five-time Oscar nominee’s use of overlapping dialogue and plotlines, often with large ensembles, has also proved seminal.
Born on Feb. 20, 1925 in Kansas City, where he soaked in jazz and R&B as a youth, Altman attended Catholic schools before enlisting in the Air Force in 1945. After being discharged, Altman moved to Los Angeles and New York to break into the film scene but returned back to Kansas City, where he eventually began making industrial films for the Calvin Company. He finally made a permanent move to Hollywood, and directed his first film, The Delinquents, in 1957. After working on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and other television series, Altman directed the Robert Duvall-starring Countdown in 1968 and received his big break when offered the #MASH# script in 1969.
In 1996, Altman directed Kansas City and its companion documentary, Robert Altman’s Jazz ’34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing, featuring a band of modern musicians in period garb playing a dozen authentic pieces from 1934 Kansas City jazz.
Altman is survived by his third wife, Kathryn and their two sons, as well as a daughter and two other sons from two previous marriages.