Surrounded by his family, the director died Monday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles from complications of cancer. He had been dealing with the disease for the past 18 months, even as he completed his last film, A Prairie Home Companion, and readied his next movie, a typically Altmanesque-sounding project about a Texas endurance contest where the locals compete to win a Nissan Hardbody.
Altman was Oscar-nominated as best director five times without winning -- he also earned two best picture noms for Nashville and Gosford Park. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences remedied that oversight this year at the 78th Annual Academy Awards, where he was presented with an honorary Oscar.
Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, who appear together as a singing sister act in Prairie, introduced the director with a bravura demonstration of the overlapping dialogue and free-floating humor that characterized his films.
"No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have," Altman said in accepting the award. "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." In a sense, he had become America's answer to France's Jean Renoir, whose 1939 The Rules of the Game, with its indulgent view of human foibles, could have served as a gentle template for Altman's more raucous take on the absurdities of life.
In the warmth of the moment, Altman, often depicted as a cantankerous maverick, chose to overlook the obstacles that Hollywood sometimes threw in his path -- and which he somehow managed to overcome, bucking the odds as his career just kept rolling along.
Even after more than 30 subsequent movies, his most commercially successful film remained the anti-war comedy MASH, which rocketed him to success in 1970 as it grossed $81.6 million, eventually spinning off the hit TV series that Altman himself couldn't abide.
But even though the movie, which won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, pushed him into the company of a new generation of Hollywood filmmakers who were shaking up the studio status quo, Altman, who was 45 by the time of his breakthrough film, had taken a surprisingly conventional route. He learned his craft by turning out such industrial films as How to Run a Filling Station before moving on to such episodic TV fare as The Millionaire, Bonanza and Combat.
For Altman could be as hard to categorize as the best of his films, which turned established genres inside out. With 1971's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, he reimagined the Western as a muddy opium dream in which pioneering individualism is pitted against corporate business interests. In 1973's The Long Goodbye, he cast a shambling Elliott Gould as a modern-day Philip Marlowe -- instead of Raymond Chandler's mean streets of Los Angeles, Gould must find his way through the laid-back Los Angeles smog. And in 1974's Thieves Like Us, he drained the romantic glamour out of period tales of lovers on the run such as Bonnie and Clyde or They Live by Night by having a vulnerable Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall play the awkward fugitives.
"Bob embodied the directors' ideal: a fiercely independent voice that was always challenging convention," DGA president Michael Apted said. "In doing so, he created a body of work of breathtaking diversity."
In 1975, Altman's groundbreaking experiments -- with dialogue seemingly overheard on the fly and a constantly prowling camera that can't resist poking around corners -- found an exuberant canvas in Nashville. The film, full of music, much of which was penned by its sprawling cast of actors, was a celebration of America in all its craziness as it tossed together country singers, lonely housewives, preening politicians, clueless reporters and an ominous assassin.
Related story: Critic Kirk Honeycutt's appreciation
Columnist Martin Grove: Altman's final Oscar shot