Altman Remembered

When word reached me this morning that Bob was gone, I was shocked. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. His health has been an issue (and a topic of discussion) for a very long time. Back when I was at Fine Line and we were working on the release of “Short Cuts,” Bob would come to office looking so thin, so gaunt; everyone commented on the fact that he looked liked he was on his deathbed. Bob laughed and said he’d been told by his doctor to go on a diet, and he was proud of how much weight he had lost. We all took him at his word, only to find out more than a decade later that he had had a heart transplant. Bob somehow seemed indestructible.

Bob at Ira's 40th birthday party

I have so many memories…so many feelings. I can’t set them all out here… but I feel the need to spill some of it while the feelings are fresh.

I first met Bob when I was just out of college. I took a trip to Los Angeles to try and find work, and someone recommended that I look up a guy named Mike Kaplan, who was the marketing person at Altman’s production company. The company was called Lion’s Gate, but was not related to the current company of that name. I got an appointment, and while waiting in the reception area, could see and hear Bob talking on the phone in his office. He was describing a film he’d just finished shooting in Canada…a film called “Quintet.” I couldn’t have been more thrilled as Altman was already one of my idols, and this was my first close encounter with someone of his stature.

Several years later, my wife was taking a bus down Broadway when she recognized an actor that I had worked with on a film. The actor, Guy Boyd, invited us to come see him in a play that was opening that night…an off-Broadway play that was directed by Robert Altman. The play was “Two by South” and I believe it was also the debut of an actress by the name of Alfre Woodard. After the play, we went backstage to see Guy and got ourselves invited to the after-party at Altman’s office on 57th Street. That was my first taste of Bob’s world.

I picked up the vibe quickly. Bob loved to surround himself with people. He demanded to be the center of attention, and he demanded your loyalty, which most people willingly obliged. I re-introduced myself, and we had a chat about independent distribution. Bob was already outside the studio system and was all ears about what alternatives might be out there. He was warm and gracious, and introduced me around. I met some of his inner circle for the first time…Scotty Bushnell, Alan Nichols, and other faces that were familiar to me from brief appearances in his films. What an experience!

Once you were in Bob’s orbit, it was hard to break away.

It wasn’t long afterward that I got a call from Bob, following up on our conversation about distribution.  He had just finished a film called “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean” and was based on a Broadway play that Bob had directed that had been skewered by the New York critics. The film was financed by Showtime and was intended to be a TV premiere. But in Bob’s mind, he had always intended to get it into theaters. He asked me to come see the film, and I was blown away. I have no idea why the critics had hated the play so much, but the film was astonishingly fluid and, if anything, it was an object lesson in making stage bound material cinematic without “opening it up.”Ira & Bob at the Jimmy Dean premiere

My company at that time, Cinecom, had not yet released a film. But that didn’t faze Bob. We were a vehicle to prove everyone wrong–the major studios, Showtime, the New York theater critics, everyone. The film opened in New York to terrible reviews, but on the same day, it opened at the Beverly Center in L.A. and with critical support, it played for almost a year. It eventually racked up over $2 million at the box office and put Cinecom on the map. It also was considered Bob’s first of many comebacks.

Once in Bob’s orbit, it’s hard to break away.

Bob came to Cinecom with several projects that he wanted to make. They were things he had been developing on his own for awhile, but wanted to get going now that his stock was up again. When asked what the budget was for any of the projects, Bob would answer “What do you want it to be?” And he was serious; he could make any given movie for any amount of money. It wouldn’t necessarily be the same movie, but he would get it done.

We announced a three-picture deal, but before anything came through, Bob found a private financier to put up the money to make “Streamers.” We were disappointed that he was making the film without us, but understood that Bob wasn’t happy unless he was working. He arrived in Texas to begin shooting, only to find out that the so-called financiers didn’t actually have any money. To keep production moving forward, Bob put up his house in Malibu as collateral for a loan. In the meantime, he asked me to help him find some additional financing. The assumption was that Cinecom would distribute the film.

Eventually he found a guy from Cleveland who had made a fortune in some other business and was looking to invest in a film. Bob asked me to meet with him several times to convince this guy to put up the cash. After one meeting in Cleveland and another in L.A., he finally committed. On Bob’s behalf, I called up Richard Roud from the New York Film Festival and pitched him on “Streamers” for the closing night film. Roud agreed and I called to congratulate Bob. Unfortunately the guy from Cleveland decided that such a showcase demanded that he sell the film to the highest bidder, and thus the film went to U.A. Classics.

Once in Bob’s orbit, it’s hard to break away.

A number of years passed, during which I had fleeting encounters with Bob. He was always cordial, and always had a project or two he was looking to finance. None of his films had done all that well since “Five and Dime,” but he never stopped working–even if it was for British TV.

I was now running Fine Line. One day I was invited to a screening in L.A. of a film that was looking for distribution. It had been financed by Avenue Pictures, but they were going broke and decided they had to sell the film rather than distribute it themselves. The film was “The Player.” I was there with a large contingent of fellow New Liners and Fine Liners. The consensus after the screening was that we should go for it.

There were many bidders. Bob sensed that this was a film that could really break through for him. Just on the basis of a few screenings, the buzz was already building. Having worked with me before, Bob took the lead in convincing the various parties that I was the guy who could bring this film home. When we announced the acquisition, it was big news. It was even bigger news when the film opened to huge numbers.

On the opening day, I got out of a taxicab in front of the Beekman Theater. There is no greater feeling than looking at a line around the block, waiting for the box office to open. Another taxi pulled up. It was Bob and his wife Kathryn. Bob was beaming. He pulled me off to the side and told me, “I’ve got to share something with you.” He proceeded to tell me in hushed tones about the fact that he’d been feeling some discomfort the last few weeks when he was walking. He couldn’t figure out what it was, because this particular pair of shoes had always been so comfortable. He said he knew that today was going to be his lucky day because he had figured out the problem. At that point, he pulled a joint out of his pocket…it was smashed completely flat. He said,” This is what was in my shoe,” and proceeded to light it up. So, at 11:30 in the morning on a Friday afternoon in front of the Beekman, Bob & I shared a very flat joint.

Once in Bob’s orbit, it’s hard to break away.

Kathryn & Bob at the Venice Film FestivalThe euphoria over the success of “The Player” led to Fine Line financing Bob’s next film “Short Cuts” and also to us co-financing Alan Rudolph’s film “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.” I was now in the “inner circle.” My wife & I spent a lot of time with Bob and Kathryn…at their home, ours, a week at the Venice Film Festival, many parties and many after-parties at Elaine’s. Through Bob, I met many of my idols…Harry Belafonte, Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, Annie Ross, and many more.

But in Bob’s mind, I was still a “suit.” I had one particularly telling argument with him over something that frankly, I can’t even remember. All I know is that he was mad because of something having to do with a print of “The Player.” Over the phone, he was yelling at me and began his sentence with “they’re always doing this to me…” to which I replied, “Bob, there is no ‘they.'” “There is only me.” Bob started again,” no you don’t understand, they…” “No Bob, I am responsible. There is no ‘they.'” He hung up on me. Bob needed a ‘they.’

Once in Bob’s orbit, it’s hard to break away–unless you piss him off, in which case, the party and dinner invitations stop…just like that.

Bob and I had a falling out. It started with a misunderstanding about an Alan Rudolph film we were both trying to get financed. He also decided I was disloyal to him by becoming partners with Peter Newman, who had produced “Five and Dime” and become one of my closest friends. Peter had done something to piss Bob off a long time ago, and it never wore off. I stopped hearing from him.

My last encounter with him was at the premiere of his recent “Tanner” sequel. I said hello and he was his usual gracious self. Kathryn seemed genuinely pleased to see my wife and me, and invited us to sit at their table in the V.I.P. section. I was a little uncomfortable at first, but after it became clear that Bob was welcoming us, I relaxed and it was a bit like old times.

There are so many more stories. So many thoughts racing through my mind. My relationship with Bob was possibly the most important one I’ve had in my career, and it certainly is the one that has had the biggest impact on me personally.

Bob could be infuriating, but unlike any number of directors I’ve worked with, I felt like he had earned it. In recent years, he most definitely mellowed, but he never lost his urge for mischief. There was this disarmingly sly smile that came after he said something naughty or came up with an idea for something that was clearly outrageous. He relished being an outsider.

His body of work speaks for itself. But as great as Bob’s directing was, his truly great gift was producing. In all those years, when his films would be greeted with anything from accolades to distain, and even in the years in which he had no box office success, he never stopped working. There was no one more resourceful in getting his vision on the screen. And he extended that gift to help his loyal friends to get their films made as well…the most notable being Alan Rudolph, who he continually supported.

Today, upon hearing of his death, my son asked me now that Altman is gone, who is the most important living American director? I couldn’t answer. Bob is irreplaceable.

13 thoughts on “Altman Remembered”

  1. Ira, that was a wonderful rememberance. Although I’d never had the pleasure of meeting or working with Robert, it’s most apparent he was not only an artist, but a man to hold in memory for as long as we can. Thanks.

  2. ira-thanks for bringing all of us along with your memories of robert altman. your tale felt like a story told between friends in a back of a cab. we all make certain folks into “stars” and then to have them shown to be simply human is a rare view. your sense of robert altman was so touchingly real that it speaks as much about you as it does about him. now we all know both of you to be more real, more human. and what greater praise can be shared than to be human? be well-rob

  3. ira,

    my boyfriend is a student of yours at columbia university. he sent me this link today. i was fortunate enough to work with bob once…in the opera version of his film “a wedding.” as a young actress, it was extremely inspiring to be around a legend, and one of my idols. to get to know him and katherine even a little was a seminal experience for me. i will never forget his spirit. i was very sad to learn of his passing away. i appreciated reading your reminiscenes of him.


  4. I’ve never met him, and I will never get to. I love his films though and its good to know that you the worth of the time you did spend with him. How many people can we think of that helped write the language of cinema…

  5. Ira,

    That was the best piece I saw written about Altman. It captured what was inspiring– and revolutionary– about the man without trying to whitewash his flaws (sort of like Altman did with people in his better movies).


  6. Hi Ira,
    Just read your remembrance of Bob, and yes, you really did a grand job of capturing the man’s essence. If I’m not mistaken, the last time I saw you was when we were seated at the “Mrs. Parker” table for the Independent Spirit Awards. Still appreciate all you did to for the film. I trust you’re still a Cubs fan, too. All best wishes, and a hello to Peter, too. (I’m sure his falling out with Bob had SOMETHING to do with “O.C. & Stiggs,” yes?)
    Randy Sue

  7. Ira,
    I happened accross this rememberance and thought it quite wonderful. A strange word to be using in association with such a strange time, the passing of an icon…the one who wasn’t supposed to go!
    Sorry I did not get to talk much to you at the memorial, but I was distracted by many thoughts memories and questions…I still am.
    Hopefully I’ll run into you sometime soon.


  8. 4/15/08
    Your wonderful piece just crossed my desk. Really good Ira and so honest!! I think you “Nailed” him! Love to Beth – Kathryn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.