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Robert Altman: The Oral Biography

Robert Altman: The Oral Biography

by Mitchell Zuckoff

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Robert Altman—visionary director, hard-partying hedonist, eccentric family man, Hollywood legend—comes roaring to life in this rollicking oral biography.  After an all-American boyhood in Kansas City, a stint flying bombers in World War II, and jobs ranging from dog tattoo entrepreneur to television director, Robert Altman burst onto the scene in


Robert Altman—visionary director, hard-partying hedonist, eccentric family man, Hollywood legend—comes roaring to life in this rollicking oral biography.  After an all-American boyhood in Kansas City, a stint flying bombers in World War II, and jobs ranging from dog tattoo entrepreneur to television director, Robert Altman burst onto the scene in 1970 with M*A*S*H. He reinvented American filmmaking, and went on to produce such masterpieces as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. In Robert Altman, Mitchell Zuckoff has woven together Altman’s final interviews; an incredible cast of voices including Meryl Streep, Warren Beatty, Paul Newman, among scores of others; and contemporary reviews and news accounts into a riveting tale of an extraordinary life.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Mark Harris
It takes more than 150 pages for Mitchell Zuckoff's oral biography of Robert Altman to get to "M*A*S*H"…But the long windup to Altman's arrival proves essential to understanding the filmmaker he became, and one of the many accomplishments of this scrupulously intelligent and entertaining biography is that by the time "M*A*S*H" opens, we've come to learn a great deal about how the director's life shaped the art that followed…As a form of Hollywood storytelling, oral history has its drawbacks—too often, testimony substitutes for authorial perspective, and those unwilling or unable to speak for themselves can be short-shrifted in favor of defensive or self-aggrandizing anecdotes from grudge holders or oversharers. But Zuckoff's approach works, not just because the form he has chosen mimics so elegantly the boisterous cacophony of a really good Altman movie, but because he lets the contradictions, reconsiderations and regrets play across his pages with no agenda other than to clarify and illuminate the up-and-down-and-up career of a brilliant, erratic film artist.
—The New York Times Book Review
Janet Maslin
Very late in his life the irascible yet cannily reputation-burnishing Altman began cooperating on a biography with Mitchell Zuckoff…[who] continued after Altman's death. He wound up interviewing 200 Altman collaborators, as well as exhuming the voices of journalistic critics and camp followers. He has spun all this material into a big, comprehensive, flesh-and-blood account of Altman's persona and exploits…Above all, this book is fair.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In this fitting tribute to one of Hollywood's greatest directors, journalist Zuckoff (Ponzi's Scheme) chronicles Altman's remarkable life both in and out of the spotlight. Though it's arranged roughly chronologically, Zuckoff wisely chooses to reflect the director's nonlinear approach to storytelling in crafting the biography. Interspersed with Altman's own words—from interviews with Zuckoff near the end of his life—are memories from his large family and extended circle of cinematic collaborators, and excerpts from critics' reviews of his almost 40 films. More interested in character than traditional stories, Altman put his own spin on everything from war films with 1970's M*A*S*H—which Pauline Kael dubbed the “best American war comedy since sound came in”—westerns with 1971's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and English murder mysteries with 2001's Gosford Park. Despite his artistic achievements, Altman's personal life was often rocky, with philandering and a penchant for alcohol, aspects that Zuckoff's interview subjects confront with refreshing frankness. The myriad stars who worked with Altman and share their reflections with Zuckoff include Lauren Bacall (Prêt-à-Porter), Julie Christie (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), Paul Newman (Buffalo Bill and the Indians) and Robin Williams (Popeye). A rebel to the end, Altman's spirit is perfectly captured in this fascinating read. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
The expansive oral biography a great American director. Zuckoff (Journalism/Univ. of Boston; Ponzi's Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend, 2005, etc.) begins with Altman's childhood in Kansas City, his first two brief marriages and his struggle to become established in Hollywood. Recollections from his sisters and ex-wives paint the director as a hard-living, immensely likable character with grand ambition. During his many years directing television, Altman met his third wife and lifelong companion, Kathryn Reed Altman, whose contributions to this volume are substantial and forthright. Altman directed a wide variety of films in his long career, and each theatrical picture is represented here by at least one substantial passage or archived review. The major works-M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Nashville (1975), The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993)-receive their own chapters, which chronicle the beginnings, production and reception of each film. Nearly all of this material is of great interest to movie buffs, but certain passages stand out-the disagreements between Altman and Warren Beatty over McCabe; the production fiasco of Popeye (1980) on the island of Malta; the director's critical rebirth with The Player, told from the perspective of its star, Tim Robbins. Altman was known as a director beloved by his actors, and an abundance of rhapsodic anecdotes from the likes of Paul Newman, Elliot Gould and Cher reinforce this reputation. Conversely, an often-neglected family and a litany of wronged producers and screenwriters amply represent his cruel side. Due to the sheer number of contributors, several of these accounts, particularly those regarding the director'sfinancial problems, bear marked similarities that can become tiresome. But Zuckoff's portrait is multifaceted and fully realized, giving the reader a clear view into Altman's firebrand persona. An engrossing, comprehensive book that gives invaluable insight into the life and work of a truly original artist. First printing of 60,000. Author tour to Ann Arbor, Mich., Boston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York. Agent: Richard Abate/ICM
From the Publisher
“Scrupulously intelligent and entertaining. . . . Noisy, funny, slightly ill considered, a bit chaotic, and wholly believeable.  In short, Altmanesque.” —The New York Times Book Review

“[Zuckoff] uses a light editorial hand, allowing a wide range of contributors to have their say. . . . A comprehensive, 360-degree look at a complicated subject.” —Wall Street Journal

“[There are] many surprising and revealing comments that Zuckoff has assembled in his fittingly rambling book. . . . Life is complicated, often messy—as Altman showed us—and his life, as seen in Zuckoff’s book, was no exception.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“A brilliantly researched, near-cinematic evocation. . . . Altman never gave up creating his cinematic portraits of people on the margins—con artists, prostitutes, gamblers, theives, clowns, movie executives—if only to shed light on the falsity behind his country’s seemingly indefatigable, desperate pursuit of success.” —The New Yorker
“[Zuckoff] doesn’t try to resolve the many contradictions surrounding Altman’s life and work, but lets them stand awkwardly beside one another for the reader to sort out. . . . As a form, the oral biography is well suited to a director who loved the sound of noisy conversation.” —The New York Review of Books
“Splendidly well-assembled. . . . Altman made amazing films, which Zuckoff’s far-reaching interviews illuminate, and by all the included accounts, he led an amazing life.” —The Morning News
“Like Altman’s signature soundtracks, this babel of transcripts offers a panoramic portrait.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“[A] marvelous, epic, tapestry-like life-scape of Robert Altman. . . . Witness by witness, Zuckoff constructs an exemplary and cautionary American life, and with the funny, tragic, and compelling tales they tell, he has made something like a print version of the Last Great Robert Altman movie.” —Directors Guild Quarterly
“A positively ‘Altmanesque’ treatment. . . . [Altman] made a great Western, a great anti-war movie, a great period piece, a great detective picture, a great ballet movie and the how-Hollywood-works movie. And Zuckoff . . . is an apt choice to corner an old fast-talker like Altman. Put this oral biography on your book list.” —Orlando Sentinel
“A fun read, more like a cocktail-party remembrance than a scholarly study. . . . Recollections of movies that strike a chord are so entertaining you’ll think about adding them to your Netflix queue to see them again.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Zuckoff’s biography is like his subject’s movies, filled with a multiplicity of voices and averse to defining ‘meaning.’  Yet in the end, readers understand Altman’s stubborn vision, his refusal to compromise with commerce, and his hard-earned, eccentric genius.” —The Boston Globe
“I just now put [Robert Altman] down feeling heartbroken but happily and deeply inspired. . . . Wonderful.” —Wes Anderson

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Read an Excerpt



M*A*S*H (1970)

Pauline Kael, review inThe New Yorker, January 24, 1970: M*A*S*H is a marvelously unstable comedy, a tough, funny, and sophisticated burlesque of military attitudes that is at the same time a tale of chivalry. It's a sick joke, but it's also generous and romantic—an erratic episodic film, full of the pleasures of the unexpected. . . . It's a modern kid's dream of glory: Holden Caulfield would, I think, approve of [the heroes played by Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould]. They're great surgeons, athletes, dashing men of the world, sexy, full of noblesse oblige, but ruthless to those with pretensions and lethal to hypocrites. . . . I think M*A*S*H is the best American war comedy since sound came in, and the sanest American movie of recent years.

* * *

From the M*A*S*H theme song, "Suicide Is Painless," lyrics by Michael Altman:

A brave man once requested me,
to answer questions that are key.
Is it to be or not to be?
And I replied, "Oh, why ask me?"

[Refrain] Suicide is painless. It brings on many changes,
and I can take or leave it if I please.

Memo titled "Synopsis of M*A*S*H " from James Denton, director of publicity, Twentieth Century Fox, July 16, 1969:
Soon after Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) and Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould) join the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH), Col. Henry Blake (Roger Bowen) ruefully realizes how placid his Korean War command had been before. The three surgeons have two things in common: They are the best in the Far East and they are hell- raising lunatics who make a shambles of army bureaucracy.

Michael Murphy: George Litto was an unsung hero of this movie. As brilliant as Bob was, studios worried about him because he was really an artist and he was rebellious and he wouldn't do it the way they wanted it. That's where George came in.

George Litto: The way it started was my client, Ring Lardner, Jr., was asked to review the book M*A*S*H for The New York Times. You know Ring's story? He was one of the blacklisted guys from the Hollywood 10, a brave guy who went to jail not to name names. I'm not a Communist. If anything I'm a capitalist—if anything I'm a royalist [laughs]. But I was very sympathetic to the fact that the blacklist was unfair. People have the right to disagree, they didn't do anything in my mind illegal; you know, believing in something that's not popular is not a crime. They have their First Amendment right. And they were treated terribly.

Anyway, he called me and said, "George, I think it would make a terrific movie." Well, Ingo Preminger was Ring's agent before me, and we were very friendly, and he was moving into producing. So I called up Ingo, and I said, "Ingo, your ex- client just sent me a terrific book. I read the book and I think it would make a wonderful movie. But one condition: If you like it and you buy it, you've got to hire Ring to write it." He said, "No problem."

Richard Zanuck (studio executive and producer): Ingo Preminger came into my office one day—he had a big literary agency—and he came in and he said, "I've read a book I'd like you to read over the weekend. If you like it I'll sell the agency if you let me produce it." I said, "Jesus, Ingo." He had substantial clients. It was a thriving agency. Ingo was much more civil than his brother Otto, who was an arrogant prick. Well, I read it, and I called him up and I said, "I have your office ready."

George Litto: I had a house in Benedict Canyon. We had a poker game there on Sundays with a lot of people in the industry—writers, directors, producers—and Bob came to the poker game, and at the end of the poker game he said, "George, I read M*A*S*H. I think it's great. Do you think you can get me this movie?" I said, "I don't really think so, but I'm going to try."

So Ingo and Ring wanted to have a meeting. "George, who should direct this movie?" And I said, "Stanley Kubrick." They say, "Yeah, that's a good idea." So I say, "How could you get him? You can't. Or, Bob Altman." And Ring said, "Who's Bob Altman?" Ingo said, "George, we can never get Bob Altman this job." I said, "I'm telling you right now, you want to know who can direct this movie? Stanley Kubrick or Bob Altman. That's all I got to say. You know everybody in town, Ingo. But I'm telling you who can make this a terrific movie."

Ingo says, "George, I can't get him the job." So, dissolve. Ingo and Ring called me up some days later. They said, "George, we got a problem. Practically every meaningful director in Hollywood has turned down the script." Fifteen, sixteen top directors turned it down. I learned later that many directors turned down M*A*S*H because it had a group of characters, but it was a series of vignettes, and they were used to the traditional beginning, middle, and end. You have to have a motor to get you to the middle and a motor to get you to the end. And this series of vignettes didn't seem to have a motor. The way Bob fixed that was brilliant, but that comes later.

So Ingo said, "George, if we go to Fox with another turndown, they're going to cancel this project. We need a director who won't turn us down." I said, "Well, you know Kubrick probably will turn you down." He said, "George, stop being a smart- ass." I said, "But Bob Altman won't turn you down." That was the only lie I ever told Ingo. Because, you know, he did turn it down [laughs].

Ingo Preminger, from "Remembering M*A*S*H: The 30th Anniversary Cast and Crew Reunion": To get rid of George Litto, I went and met his client Robert Altman. And at that time he played a little film for me that dealt with the smoking of pot. It was short, it was sweet, and I loved it. I called Richard Zanuck and said, "We found the guy." He said, "You're crazy."

Richard Zanuck: Ingo said, "Look, this guy has done some talented work. Not much, but good work." That's when we ran the
Cold Day in the Park and something like fifteen episodes of Combat! He came in and we talked about his concept and how he would shoot it and all the rest. It was a gamble 'cause he really hadn't done anything quite like this.

David Brown (producer): We were absolutely bowled over by the book, but not by Altman. Ingo convinced us to go with Altman. Well, we weren't convinced, but we supported the producer.

George Litto: So I call up Bob, I tell him, "You won't believe this, but I got an offer from Ingo Preminger for you to direct M*A*S*H." It was like a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars and five percent of the picture profits, but Ingo had two other options for more pictures. So that was the deal I made with him. Ingo was a good, smart guy. So Bob agrees and great, fine, I make the deal. Dissolve.

A few days go by. I get a call from Owen McLean, who was head of business affairs for Fox. He said, "George, we got a problem." He said, "Ingo did not have the authority to make a deal with you for Bob Altman. We're canceling that deal unless you agree to our terms." He said seventy-five thousand, flat, no profits. That's it, take it or leave it. I said, "You know, you're a big shit, Owen." He said, "George, are you leaving it? I guess you're leaving it." And you wonder why Bob had such an attitude about studios? I said, "Hey, Owen, I'm just a humble agent. I can only deliver your message. I cannot accept or reject your proposal" [laughs]. He said, "There's not a fucking thing that's humble about you" [laughs].

Richard Zanuck: When I made Jaws with Spielberg, he didn't have points and he had done a lot more work. He got no points and that was much later than Bob. In those days points weren't thrown around unless you were Bob Wise or Willie Wyler or somebody like that.

George Litto: So I called Bob and every profane word you can think of he uttered through the telephone about Owen and Fox, because he had a bad experience there. I don't know if you know this. He was doing a television show with a singer from Philadelphia, Fabian. Yeah, the Bus Stop thing.

So I said, "Bob, do you really want to fuck them?" He said, "Yeah, I'd love to fuck them." I said, "Take the deal." He said, "What?" I said, "Take the deal. You think it'll be a great movie. If it's a great movie, after that I'll get you anything you want. Any picture you want to make. I'll get you the biggest salary in Hollywood. Just take the deal." So I called Owen and I said, "Owen, I got bad news for you. Bob's taking the deal."

Richard Zanuck: When he was gearing up he came in and said, "I want to go scout Korea." I said, "Why? We're not going to Korea. We're going to the studio ranch in Malibu." He said, "This is ridiculous." I said, "Go out and look. I'll show you pictures of mountains in Korea. They match perfectly with what's out at the studio ranch." It was probably more Korea than had we gone to Korea. Nobody knows what Korea looks like, anyway. That's what I said to him and he got very angry.

He said, "We're going to shoot that golf scene in Tokyo." I said, "No we're not. We're going across the street to Rancho Park. There's a golf course. All you have to do is get a couple of Japanese girls and dress them up and they're caddies." One golf course looks like another. Why would we ever do that?

In those exchanges, Bob was a guy who didn't like authority. He was a real rebel. I always felt that underneath that anger there was kind of a playboy. I would see the way he would dress, in the Paris airport, with the hat, the flashy white suit. I think there was a rogue element about that.

George Litto: Now he's doing the picture. He's working with Ingo and Ring. They're doing the rewrite. They're planning the movie and talking to the production department. There's a guy by the name of Doc Berman that's like their executive in charge of physical production. Bob calls me up one day. He says, "I fucking hate Doc Berman. I'm planning a shot and they said, 'Well, you can cut it off here and you don't have to finish it now, you can finish it next week.' They're telling me how to make the movie. I'm sick of this shit. I don't want this shit. I don't want to do the picture." I said, "Come on, Bob. I'll have Ingo talk to Doc Berman. It'll be okay." Ingo talks to Bob, to Doc. Dissolve.

I think everything is okay. My phone rings about six o'clock in the morning. It's Kathryn. She says, "George, I'm very upset. Bob couldn't sleep all night. He's on his way to see you. He's not going to do the picture. He's going to walk out on the picture." I said, "Don't worry about it." She said, "What do you mean, don't worry?" I said, "Don't worry about it. You've told me he's going to walk out of the picture, you've told me he's on his way. I am up, I will have the coffee on, I will talk to him, and he'll do the picture." She said, "Why are you so sure?" I said, "Because he owes me so much fucking money" [laughs].

So Bob comes in, he said, "George, we got to talk. I don't want to do this movie." I said, "You want some coffee?" He said, "George, I'm serious." "I know you're serious, Bob, but come on, you like those eggs I make with sausages? You want some eggs and sausages?" "George, stop fucking with me. I'm telling you, I don't want to do it." I said, "I hear you. Can we have a little breakfast? I got to eat alone? Just take it easy. You're not going to do the movie. If you got good reasons, I won't be able to change your mind." We eat.

I say, "Okay, now tell me the reasons you don't want to do this picture." And he gives me a whole thing about, "I can't pick my own editor, I can't pick my own cameraman. . . ." He gives me a whole list. I said, "Okay, here's what I think. I think you're right. You should be able to pick these people. They shouldn't be telling you what to do. I'm going to call Ingo Preminger, and I'm going to tell him that you have problems about making this movie and you're very upset about it, and he has to resolve it for you to continue with this picture. And I'm going to ask him if he could see you this morning and you can go right from my house to his house"—which was in Brentwood.

So I call up Ingo and I said, "Ingo, you got a pencil and paper?" And I read him the list. He said, "George, I got to get all this?" I said, "What the fuck is the difference? Just go get it for him. Somebody's got to make the decisions. Say it was your decision." Bob went to see him, they worked it out.

Robert Reed Altman: My mom's desk had a piece of glass on it, and under the glass was a little piece of paper with my dad's writing on it. I said, "What's this?" And she said, "That's from when your dad decided that he would make the movie M*A*S*H." The note said, "Oh fuck it, I'll do it."

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Mitchell Zuckoff is a professor of journalism at Boston University. He is the author of three previous books, most recently Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of A Financial Legend. As a reporter with The Boston Globe, he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and the recipient of numerous national writing awards.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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