by PETER BISKIND
In 1954 Robert Altman met and married his second wife, Lotus Corelli, a former model. This marriage lasted three years, and the Altmans had two boys, Michael and Stephen. A year later, he made a low-budget feature, The Delinquents, that was financed by a small Midwest exhibitor.
He was determined to edit the picture in L.A. The exhibitor refused to pay his airfare, so in the last week of August 1956 he dumped the dailies into a '56 Thunderbird that he had finessed from the production, and headed west, accompanied by an Iranian friend, Reza Badiyi. Altman turned his back on Kansas City for good, leaving behind two marriages, a couple of kids, his parents, and his sister. During the trip they listened to the Republican convention, which nominated Eisenhower and Nixon. Altman was a Democrat, supported Adlai Stevenson.
The following year he landed a job working for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This would be the beginning of a decade's worth of television work, which repeatedly saw him make his mark with innovative methods. He would antagonize whoever there was to antagonize, and in high dudgeon, move on to something else.
Along the way, like a snowball rolling down a hill, he picked up people who would become part of his creative team. Among them was Tommy Thompson, whose claim to fame was that he had, in 1946 while working for the Armed Forces Radio Services in Tokyo, reported that Japan had been invaded by a Godzilla-like sea monster. This prank was something Altman could appreciate, and the two men became fast friends.
Thompson began working regularly for Altman as his first assistant director. He used to pick him up from his apartment in a grand old building on the northwest corner of Fountain and La Cienega in West Hollywood, to take him to work. Often he'd knock on the door, no answer. He'd walk in and find Bob, passed out, an unfinished drink by his side.
"He was like the big Pillsbury Dough Boy," Thompson recalls. "I'd get him in the shower, dressed, down to the car, and we'd get out on the location. He sat in the high director's chair while I stood behind him. As they'd rehearse he'd nod off and I'd kind of poke him, and he'd wake up and say, "How was it?" I'd say, "Run it again," and he said, "All right, let's run it again." And he'd go back to sleep. I'd punch him, "Say 'Cut'!" "Cut! How was it?" "Tell 'em to go faster." "Speed it up a little, guys." We'd run through the whole day like that."
One day, when Altman was hanging out in George Litto's office, the agent handed him a screenplay, saying, "This is written in a style that might appeal to you. Read it?" It was M*A*S*H. The writer, Ring Lardner Jr., was just emerging from the shadow of the blacklist.
Litto saw a similarity between the feel of the piece and the material Altman liked to do. Altman called a day or so later and said, "This is great. Can you get me the job?" Litto replied, "I don't know. Probably not." Fox was an old-line studio that still liked to work with producers. Ingo Preminger had a deal there, and Richard Zanuck had given him the green light on M*A*S*H. Lots of directors, including Friedkin, had turned it down. Litto showed Preminger some of Altman's work. Preminger liked what he saw, and decided to take a flier on the director. Litto negotiated the deal, $125,000, and 5 percent of the picture. But when Fox heard that Preminger wanted to hire Altman, they went through the roof.
He was still infamous for a TV show he did nearly a decade earlier that had gotten the studio into hot water. One of the Fox executive expressed the feeling at the studio: "You're making a deal with trouble!"
Owen McLean, Zanuck's business affairs guy, was a tough nut. McLean called Litto, said, "George, I have a memo here that Ingo, without authorization, made a deal with you for Bob Altman. We cannot stand behind this because Ingo was not—"
"All I know is I made the deal, Owen. I'm just a humble agent. Just tell me what you have to say and I'll transmit your proposal to my client."
"You're full of shit, George, but here's the deal. $75,000 cash, take it or leave it. Don't come back and try to negotiate with me. That's what he gets if he wants to do the picture."
Litto called Preminger, said, "McLean is trying to provoke me. he doesn't want Bob to do the picture."
"What are you going to do, George?"
"I'm going to make the deal, and if the picture's great, I'm depending on you to fix it later." Litto called Altman, told him the terms. Altman was furious. Litto said, "Bob, you really want to fuck 'em?"
"I'd love to fuck 'em."
"Okay, take the deal. You'll make a great picture. I'll make you rich on the next one, all right?" The director acquiesced. Litto never did make Altman rich. But he came close, and would have succeeded had Altman not indulged in his propensity to shoot himself in the foot.
Peter Biskind is the author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, from which this excerpt is taken. You can purchase the book here.
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