Robert Altman, the renowned filmmaker behind M*A*S*H* and The Player, as well as countless TV episodes, died of undisclosed causes Monday night in a Los Angeles hospital, according to his production company, Sandcastle 5 Productions. He was 81.
Altman was born February 20, 1925, the son of a Kansas City insurance salesman. As a young man, he became enamored of the Kansas City jazz scene, a setting he later documented in the film Kansas City.
During WWII, Altman was a bomber pilot. Upon returning from the war, he began making industrial films, and eventually moved on to TV, directing episodes of classic 1960s TV shows such as Bonanza and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
He achieved acclaim with the antiwar black comedy M*A*S*H*. After the film became a smash hit, a highly successful TV series was made, which Altman derided.
"They made millions and millions of dollars by bringing an Asian war into Americans' homes every Sunday night," Altman told reporters in 2001. "I thought that was the worst taste."
Altman's long and varied career saw many ups and downs.
The 1975 political musical drama Nashville remains one of the director's most beloved works, while the 1979 Paul Newman science fiction film Quintet, about a second ice age, confounded critics and fans of the genre. The 1980 film adaptation of Popeye, starring Robin Williams in his first move role, was a big budget flop. In 1992, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert called The Player, starring Tim Robbins as a ruthless Hollywood studio executive, "hilarious and heartless in about equal measure, and often at the same time."
Altman was nominated for his fifth Academy Award for 2001's Gosford Park. However, the director never won an Oscar until 2006, when he accepted a Lifetime Achievement award.
"No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have," a thoughtful Altman said during his acceptance speech. "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."