The Gambler

Robert Altman: The Oral Biography

by Mitchell Zuckoff
Knopf, 560 pp., $35.00
Warner Bros./Photofest
Robert Altman directing McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

“I love him,” says Julianne Moore. “And he means more than anything to me.” Keith Carradine speaks of a lifelong “love affair with Robert Altman,” while Tom Skerritt “just loved the guy from the first.” “You’d always love him,” says Geraldine Chaplin; “You’ve got to love him,” adds Mark Rydell. “I loved Bob and…I’d do anything for Bob,” says Sally Kellerman, and it’s true: for Brewster McCloud, he filmed her prancing naked in a public fountain in Houston during the morning commute.

Actors may have swooned over Robert Altman, but his producers, for whom he lost vast amounts of money during his fifty-year filmmaking career, were less enchanted. “Bob called me ‘the Jew with the money,'” says Peter Newman, who produced O.C. and Stiggs, the least-celebrated bomb of Altman’s career. “He wished me dead,” says David Picker, a former head of Paramount. “I had a gall-bladder operation…. It wasn’t something I took lightly.” Altman was sued for slander after telling a newspaper reporter that the Dutch producer of Vincent & Theo was “a thief, liar and pimp” whom he hoped “would get cancer and die.” And woe to any studio executive who got too close to the lion’s cage. Lily Tomlin remembers a Columbia Pictures representative asking Altman to trim six minutes from California Split. Altman socked him, and the man splashed into a swimming pool.

The Hollywood outcast, in complete control of his art, fending off the pinstriped gorillas who would sacrifice artistic vision for commercial gain—this has long been Altman’s reputation. But the portrait of the man that emerges in Mitchell Zuckoff’s oral biography is often at odds with this legend of the aggrieved auteur. Altman, it quickly becomes clear, understood the value of myth. And like all great Hollywood directors, he knew how to exploit it.

Hucksterism was in his genes. The Altmans were a rich, prominent Kansas City clan of German Catholic descent; when Altman was a child there was even an Altman Building downtown, built by his grandfather, with its own movie theater. But Altman’s father, Bernard Clement, known as B.C., was the family scallywag: a gambler, womanizer, natty dresser, get-rich-quick entrepreneur, and small-time con man; the “salesman of the world,” as one of Altman’s cousins puts it. He made a living selling life insurance, often to men he chatted up at his country club, at bars, even in hospital waiting rooms while they waited for their wives to give birth.

B.C.’s eldest child and only son was born in 1925. The resemblance was clear from the start. At Catholic school, where Bob was a poor student, he put snakes in girls’ lockers and the eighty-year-old Sister Hildegard would chase him around the classroom with a stick. In high school he took courses in rhetoric, salesmanship, and weather. He drank heavily, gambled, and…

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