Giving Thanks for Hollywood Heavyweight Robert Altman

By 8 p.m. Tuesday, the whole Robert Altman gang — or as many as could be rounded up with little notice — took over several tables at Elaine’s.

Among them: Bob Balaban, who created and acted in "Gosford Park," and his writer wife, Lynn; Dona Granata, the costume designer for "Kansas City," "Cookie’s Fortune," "The Gingerbread Man" and "Dr. T and the Women"; soprano Lauren Flanigan, who played Tulip in the Chicago opera production of "A Wedding" and famed choreographer Pat Birch, who also worked with Altman on the opera; jazz singer Annie Ross, who appeared in "Short Cuts"; not to mention the nurse practitioner who’d been at his side the last 18 months, plus former Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham, PR vet Bobby Zarem, Broadway producer Judy Gordon, the journalist Carl Bernstein and of course, Elaine Kaufman herself.

There were toasts, and a lot of talk about the last two dinners Altman attended at the legendary eatery. One was about a week and a half ago. The other was on Oct. 31, right after Altman and Garrison Keillor did a Q&A for "A Prairie Home Companion" at the Museum of Television and Radio. This was just three weeks ago.

Altman held court at a table where I was lucky to sit with him, and he talked about everything: his career, how his films were made, that Keillor hogged too much of the stage that night. It was vintage Altman and a night long overdue.

He’d spent most of the year in Los Angeles since receiving his honorary Oscar back in March. Friends knew his health was failing. But as I reported in the Nov. 1 column, Altman was planning his next film anyway with a start date of Feb. 12.

The new film, alas, was not to be. Altman passed away in the middle of the night — Sunday night — after a heart transplant, two kinds of cancer and numerous related illnesses and hospitalizations. He was 81, and his devoted wife of 47 years, Kathryn, was by his side.

To the crowd at Elaine’s, this seems impossible. It was the kind of event everyone anticipated but no one wanted to own up to.

Johnnie Planco, who’d been Altman’s agent for 20 years at William Morris, came uptown with me after a screening of Phil Donahue’s riveting new work-in-progress documentary, "Body of War."

"There were no agents as characters in 'The Player,'" Planco recalled. "When someone asked Bob why, he replied ‘I didn’t think they were important enough.’"

Johnnie told me a story about how Altman and director John Cassavetes had developed a terrible feud. It had something to do with their time together as roommates and a female friend who’d committed suicide. There was bad blood, and the two men vowed never to speak to each other again.

"One night I went out with Cassavetes, and it was a late night of partying. At some point, Cassavetes pushed me out of a cab. The next morning I called Bob and asked him if he knew how to reach Cassavetes. Altman said, ‘I should, he slept on my couch last night.’ Apparently it was late and Cassavetes didn’t know who else to call, so he called Bob. I was shocked. I said, ‘What about all that ‘I’ll never talk to him again’ stuff?’ And Bob said, ‘I thought ‘never’ was up.’"

Altman had many feuds, but he had twice as many friendships. He was fiercely loyal but uncompromising in his creativity.

One studio executive, upon learning of Altman’s death yesterday, launched right into a 15-year-old debate he’d had with the director over cutting a film as if it had happened that day.

This was nothing new. Over the years there had been loud, passionate arguments over the length of "Short Cuts," over the distribution of "The Gingerbread Man," over what to do with "Pret-a-Porter (Ready to Wear)" or the unreleased satire called "Health."

But there had been just as many, actually more, kudos for "Nashville," "M*A*S*H," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Brewster McCloud," "The Player," "Gosford Park," the HBO series "Tanner" and this year for "Prairie Home Companion."

The man who’d invented overlapping dialogue, huge ensemble casts, satire mixed with music and carefully worded scripts that seemed improvised had proved to be hugely influential.

Paul Thomas Anderson mimicked him in "Magnolia," Tim Robbins did with "Bob Roberts," Emilio Estevez has just tried it in "Bobby."

Everyone thinks they can make an Altman movie. They all find out it’s not so easy. When those frogs came pouring down in "Magnolia," everyone went "ooh" and "ahh" — until they realized it was just like the pigeon doo at the end of "Brewster."

Over the years, Altman really created a lot of careers. Character actors like Bert Remsen and Henry Gibson appear over and over in his films. He discovered Shelley Duvall and put Keith Carradine on the map. They are all his creations.

Duvall, he told me, he found in Texas selling her boyfriend’s drawings. He put her in "Thieves Like Us," and the rest is history. "I didn’t believe her," he said, with a laugh. "I didn’t believe anyone could be that way."

On set, Altman was king and captain. Everyone listened to him. Famously, he tangled with Warren Beatty when he hired him for "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," his beautiful Western that’s become a classic.

"Warren and I don’t like each other very much," Altman told me over lunch in 2002. "I think he’s certainly a good actor. He was great in 'McCabe.' But I wouldn’t go through that again. It’s no fun. Warren will never do the first take. He has to be hands-on and doesn’t trust people. He’s very suspicious of everybody."

There are lots more stories about Altman films, some of which we heard last night. Planco remembered that Altman started shooting "M*A*S*H" in 1969 before the execs at 20th Century Fox found out he’d begun.

"That film wasn't released — it escaped," Altman liked to say.

Later, when the movie won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy, producer Ingo Preminger (brother of famed director Otto) took the statue and disappeared.

"He said he never saw Ingo or the award again," Planco laughed.

Altman, by the way, never made a penny from the hit TV series that came from "M*A*S*H," but his son Michael, who was 14, made a mint writing the theme song, called "Suicide Is Painless."

He had his opinions, too, and was outspoken. There was a famous quote about his desire to leave the U.S. if George Bush was elected in 2000.

He stayed, though, because Altman was quintessentially American, a real Midwesterner from Kansas City who loved America and the inalienable right to complain about it.

Politics excited him but movies were his passion, and he didn’t mind criticizing his peers.

"Titanic," he told me for a 2002 interview, "was the most dreadful piece of work I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Another film I think is equally bad is 'American Beauty.' So badly acted and directed. [Kevin] Spacey, for one, looked like he really wished he wasn’t in that movie."

His words could come back to bite him. This past spring, Altman staged Arthur Miller’s last play, "Resurrection Blues," in London at the Old Vic and got singed from bad reviews. It didn’t help, I heard last night, that none other than Kevin Spacey is the Old Vic’s artistic director.

"Spacey was so nasty to Bob," a friend said. "He treated him terribly. There were lots of fights." Spacey no doubt had heard or read Altman’s thoughts on his Oscar-winning "Beauty" performance.

I first learned about Altman thanks to Pauline Kael’s reviews of him in the New Yorker in the early '70s. She championed him from the start.

When I suggested to Bob that she’d made him the "must-see" director, he replied: "Absolutely. She was great. But she was 50-50 with me, too. I remember she said, ‘Bob, I think the first half of '3 Women' is the best film, and the second half is terrible.’ It was like saying, ‘I love your new child’s feet but I can’t stand his head!’ I said, ‘It’s one thing. Don’t say you don’t like part of it!’"

In 1975, after a first career (directing TV shows like "Bonanza" and "Combat") and a second one (making respected films like "Brewster," "Thieves" and "McCabe" after "M*A*S*H"), Altman — with a push from Kael — hit it big with "Nashville."

It’s his "Rhapsody in Blue," his masterwork, his template and crucible. It’s his "Hey Jude" and his Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony all rolled into one.

But the Academy went with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" for the Oscar instead, and Altman started a run of Oscar nominations but no wins for the next 30 years.

Last spring, he finally got the Lifetime Achievement Award. It was ridiculously overdue, but at least it happened. He was thrilled. On the night before the show, Picturehouse’s Bob Berney threw him a little reception at the Four Seasons.

Everyone showed up: Meryl Streep, of course. Lily Tomlin and Henry Gibson, who’d each been in "Nashville"; Lauren Hutton, who was in "Welcome to L.A.," the Alan Rudolph film Bob had famously produced; Jennifer Jason Leigh, who’d not only starred in Rudolph’s "Mrs. Parker," which he’d also produced, but is also the daughter of Bob’s great friend, screenwriter Barbara Turner and the late "Combat" star Vic Morrow; plus Charlize Theron, Lindsay Lohan and Philip Seymour Hoffman all came to pay respects. Director Graeme Clifford ("Frances") and Lois Smith, Bob’s longtime flack, regaled everyone with more stories of an amazing career.

Bob looked around the room and I noticed he was actually smiling. His eyes had welled up. "I’m happy," he said. "I’m really happy."

Rest in peace, Bob. You will never be forgotten.