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New York Times: November 21, 2006 Robert Altman, Iconoclastic Director, Dies at 81 By RICK LYMANRobert Altman, one of the most adventurous and influential American directors of the late 20th century, a filmmaker whose iconoclastic career spanned more than five decades but whose stamp was felt most forcefully in one, the 1970s, died Monday in Los Angeles. He was 81. His death, at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, was caused by complications of cancer, his company in New York, Sandcastle 5 Productions, announced. A spokesman said Mr. Altman had learned that he had cancer 18 months ago but continued to work, shooting his final film, “A Prairie Home Companion,”which was released in June, and most recently completing pre-production on a new film that he intended to begin shooting in February. Mr. Altman had a heart transplant in the mid-1990s, a fact he publicly revealed for the first time last March while accepting an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony. A risk taker with a tendency toward mischief, Mr. Altman put together something of a late-career comeback capped in 2001 by “Gosford Park,”a multiple Oscar nominee. But he may be best remembered for a run of masterly films — six in five years — that propelled him to the forefront of American directors and culminated in 1975 with what many regard as his greatest film, “Nashville,”a complex, character-filled drama told against the backdrop of a presidential primary. They were free-wheeling, genre-bending films that captured the jaded disillusionment of the ’70s. The best known was “MASH,”the 1970 comedy that was set in a field hospital during the Korean war but that was clearly aimed at antiwar sentiments engendered by Vietnam. Its success, both critically and at the box office, opened the way for Mr. Altman to pursue his ambitions. In 1971 he took on the Western, making “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”with Warren Beattyand Julie Christie. In 1972, he dramatized a woman’s psychological disintegration in “Images,”starring Susannah York. In 1973, he tackled the private-eye genre with a somewhat loopy adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye,”with the laid-back Elliott Gouldplaying Philip Marlowe as a ’70s retro-hipster. And in 1974 he released two films, exploring gambling addiction in “California Split”and riffing on the Dust Bowl gangster saga with “Thieves Like Us.”
Unlike most directors whose flames burned brightest in the early 1970s — and frequently flickered out — Mr. Altman did not come to Hollywood from critical journals and newfangled film schools. He had had a long career in industrial films and television. In an era that celebrated fresh voices steeped in film history — young directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovichand Martin Scorsese— Mr. Altman was like their bohemian uncle, matching the young rebels in their skeptical disdain for the staid conventions of mainstream filmmaking and the establishment that supported it.