Sad news today: Robert Altman, director of some of the greatest American movies of the past 40 years (among them M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, The Long Goodbye and even this year's joyful A Prairie Home Companion), died last night at a Hollywood hospital. He was 81. The cause of death hasn't been released; a release is expected later today.
Of course, followers of Altman's estimable career know he has a Dallas connection: his 2000 film Dr. T and the Women, starring Richard Gere as a Dallas gynecologist, Kate Hudson as a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and Tara Reid as an employee at the Conspiracy Museum in the West End--though it's perhaps best known for the scene in which Farrah Fawcett performs a crazed nude striptease in the NorthPark Center fountain. The movie, written by former Dallasite Anne Rapp, featured as one of its subplots a women's group that enlists Gere's Dr. T to help convince the city council to rename a highway after a woman, since all of Dallas' major thoroughfares are named for men. They offer three choices: former mayor Annette Strauss, cosmetics goddess Mary Kay Ash, and, for grins, Dallas-reared sex kitten Jayne Mansfield. The movie actually airs December 2 and 3 on the Oxygen Network, for those who missed it the first time around--and plenty of you did.
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When Altman was out promoting the movie, he stopped in Dallas (of course), staying at the Stoneleigh Hotel with his tolerant missus, Kathryn. One of my fondest memories is of sitting with him in his hotel room watching his beloved New York Jets; he was supposed to be getting dressed for the Dallas premiere of Dr. T, but couldn't tear himself away from the TV. "But I gotta tell ya, I enjoyed football more a couple of years ago," he said at the time. "I was betting more then. This year, I can't tell what to make of the NFL, so I pretty much leave it alone."
During our interview, which spanned the course of the entire game, Altman was amazingly open--not only about how hard it was for him to make movies during the final years of his career (he and Gere had to pony up the dough for Dr. T all by their lonesomes), but about his great films and his almost-great ones. You can read the entirety of the story here, but here's the quote that, at this very moment, resonates the loudest:
"If I were on a desert island with a great projection system and I could press a button and see any of my films I wanted at any time, I would never look at any of them," he says, grinning. "But if one stray cat walked along who showed interest, I would run it and watch every minute of it. You're looking at it through somebody else's eyes, which is what you made it for in the first place. The cartoonist Abner Dean once had this drawing of a knoll with a dead tree on it, and hanging from the tree was all kind of junk. Coming around the knoll was this endless line of people trudging these big boulders behind them. There was this young, lithe, naked man standing next to the tree, and he's trying to enlist their attention. He's saying, 'Look! I made this!' Man, that's the business I'm in. That's what I'm doing.
"Hollywood will want me when I die. Seriously. They will when I die. In the meantime, somebody has to say, 'Let's go with this,' and the general consensus is that my films don't make any money in a mass audience, and it's true. They don't. I have a cult following, and that's not enough people to make a minority."
During our interview, I mentioned to him what a fan I was of his HBO series Tanner '88, which was not then available on DVD. Altman wrote on an envelope his production company's phone number and the name of his assistant. He told me to call with my address and someone would send me the complete series on videotape. It arrived a week later--along with the unaired pilot he and Tanner '88 co-creator Garry Trudeau made called Killer App, about an Internet start-up. I still have the show and the envelope. --Robert Wilonsky