After M*A*S*H


ROBERT ALTMAN: The problem with so many artists today is if a guy succeeds at something in an art form, he feels he is obligated to repeat it. I can’t tell you the amount of money I was offered to make another M*A*S*H or another picture like it. I wouldn’t even mess around with that television series. I mean, I’ve never seen one of those episodes all the way through—never seen a whole one. I don’t like it and I don’t like any of those people. And it’s jealousy, too, that drives me to have those opinions. It’s, “How dare they walk into my studio and look at my easel?” Or, if you’re a baker and someone down the street comes up with a bigger sign and is making more money doing what you did first. “What the fuck are they doing? They took my idea! I made cream puffs!”

It’s also my attitude that M*A*S*H, this movie, was about foreign wars. And then, every fucking week on a Sunday night, to have a drama about that, in which they had these platitudes about liberalism and whatever the current issue is. It’s still bringing a foreign war into your home every week for twelve years, and even though the bad guys in the script were from your own military hierarchy, you’re really presenting the bad guys as the brown people with the slanted eyes who you’re fighting. I don’t get the joke, and I don’t like the joke.

KATHRYN REED ALTMAN: I never dreamed—though he probably did—that a picture like M*A*S*H was going to change our lives completely. Turn him into a star and set up all kinds of problems [laughs]. Well, not so much problems but situations that we hadn’t dreamed of dealing with. Or I hadn’t.

GEORGE LITTO: In this business, before you’re somebody they’re always taking things away from you. And now you finally get recognized.

Now you don’t want to give anything up. He won the award at Cannes and he became almost like an international legend overnight. For us, though, it was the start of the end. Suddenly, you know, he got so serious. He wasn’t the same, you know?

Bob was contrary. He could be perverse, he could be charming, he could be brilliant, he could be funny. He was all those things. Some days you didn’t know what you were going to get. We used to rent yachts, we’d go fishing, go off of Catalina, go swimming in the ocean. I would cook breakfast and everything, he would skin the fish, and we’d cook and we’d eat, we’d drink, and he’d do card tricks, he’d tell stories, he’d do pantomime, he was hysterically funny. He was great to be with. We all had so much fun. Until he started reading his reviews [laughs]. Then he became the great filmmaker.

Part of why I invested myself in Bob was because I thought he was this brilliant talent. I never made a lot of money with Bob because he took up so much fucking time. But I did it because we had this—what shall we call it—this adventure. We had this sense of adventure together. It was all a challenge. I liked the challenge because I thought he’d do great things. And I was all for his becoming a great filmmaker, but part of how you endured all this stuff is you had a lot of fun in between. And suddenly it got a little bit too stuffy for me.

COREY FISCHER (actor): There’s always the shadow, in Jungian terms. Someone that big, who lives that big and publicly, it’s not all sweetness and light. The more someone like him has to maintain a strength and power to see these enormous projects through, there is going to be dark stuff happening. If one is super-enlightened, or really self-aware or incredibly mature, maybe one can deal with that shadow without acting out. But for most of us, it can catch us unawares. And we wind up doing things that, politically, much later we will say, “I was young and irresponsible.”

I think film and the industry and the medium, because it involves so many issues of power, the complexity of film, the expense of it, the size of the undertaking, when you are able to pull that off, make a film and make a film like M*A*S*H that becomes a cultural artifact, you’re vulnerable to inflation, to believing your own legend.

ROBERT REED ALTMAN: The minute M*A*S*H was made we moved out of Mandeville Canyon and started renting beach houses down here in Malibu. Then they built their big Malibu house, the one my mother called “the movie-star house.” Everything did get very chaotic and different.

KATHRYN REED ALTMAN: Big offers were coming in. He wanted to move to Canada—he was mad at America. He wanted to become a landed immigrant in Canada. He had already gotten the documents and I was trying to sell the house. I was ready for an adventure. We ended up not doing that.

We built what I laughingly call “the movie-star house” in Malibu. By that I meant it had the tower, the gallery, the swimming pool, the gym, the sauna, the hundred feet of beachfront, blah, blah, blah. All in cedar and glass and ferns, up on pilings. It was gorgeous, a great party house, and there were great parties there.

MICHAEL MURPHY: M*A*S*H catapulted him into the stratosphere. The guy became the hottest director in the world. And this leads to the next remarkable thing about Bob Altman. A lot of directors—I could name a few, but I won’t—would be thinking, “Let me be careful about my next film and who is in it and who can help me remain successful. Let me get Clark Gable in this thing.” You know, they want somebody, a big star, that can share the burden. That’s what all these guys do. Instead, Bob’s next picture is Brewster McCloud, with me and Sally Kellerman and Bud Cort. He was just, “Yeah, let’s make this.”

Brewster McCloud (1970)

Vincent Canby, review in The New York Times, December 24, 1970: Robert Altman’s “Brewster McCloud,” the director’s first film since “M*A*S*H,” attempts to be a kind of all-American, slapstick “Orpheus Ascending,” a timeless myth about innocence and corruption told in the sort of outrageous and vulgar terms that Brian De Palma and Robert Downey do much better.

Brewster McCloud (Don “Bud” Cort), a virginal young man who is protected by the gods (but only up to a point), lives hidden inside Houston’s Astrodome, that extraordinary enclosed-environment-within-an-enclosed-environment, where he secretly prepares to fly with his own man-made wings. Terrible people, however, keep getting into Brewster’s way. … Wherever Brewster goes, he is followed by a mother-protector named Louise (Sally Kellerman), who has once had her own wings (there are scars on her back to prove it), and her crow, which flies overhead to excrete on the people who would put an end to Brewster’s dream, just before they are mysteriously strangled. “Brewster McCloud” has more characters and incidents than a comic strip, but never enough wit to sustain more than a few isolated sequences. … Even so, I must admit that I laughed out loud at “Brewster McCloud”… largely because Mr. Altman has a gift for occasionally stuffing the screen and the soundtrack with all sorts of crazy and contradictory details, some of which are most attractive and quite dirty.

Bud Cort flying around the Astrodome in Brewster McCloud

LOU ADLER (producer): I was basically in the music business, but I had done the Monterey Pop documentary. Whatever success I had in the music business prompted some agent to send me the script. I sent it to Bob and he liked it. Then we met at MGM and they agreed to go ahead and make the picture. I think anybody would have made a film of his choosing coming off the success of M*A*S*H.

He was exciting. He was full of enthusiasm but with a confidence about him. I liked him immediately as a person and he seemed to like me also. I don’t think he would have worked with me at that point if he didn’t. He was taking a chance with me as a producer. He actually made me a producer. He allowed me to solve the crises—be it dailies that went wrong or something that had to be delivered immediately from L.A. He didn’t step in and have somebody handle it—he allowed me to become a producer.

BUD CORT: Once M*A*S*H was over I went to New York to audition for a play. I went in and auditioned for David Merrick. I killed. They went with someone else. Bob called and said, “I heard you didn’t get the part. That’s great because I got an idea for you. Just hang tough.” I did some episodic television and Bob said, “Don’t do television. You’re a movie star. Trust me.” I said, “I trust you.”

Bob says, “You’re going to play a mass murderer and it’s going to be a whole reaction to how sick society is right now.” Then he would call me two or three times a week and have me for dinner—tell me what was going on. At some point I went to Bob and said, “I want to ask a favor.” I took my clothes off. Naked. “I want a trainer.” Bob looks at me and says, “Oh yeah, I get it.” He got me a trainer, a guy named Buddy Brando, at the Beverly Hills Athletic Club. I instinctively knew that I had to get bird-ripped to play Brewster.

Bob asked if I had any ideas for Suzanne. I sent in some wonderful actresses—Annie Lockhart, others—but I could tell Bob was not a hundred percent sold. Couple weeks later, he said he had found Suzanne.

Shelley Duvall to Lawrence Eisenberg, story headlined “Filmdom’s Most Unlikely Star,” Cosmopolitan, August 1981: I was twenty and living with Bernard (an artist whom the actress later married and divorced) in his parents’ house in Houston, and we used to give a lot of parties to show off his paintings. Friends would invite other people, and one night two guys showed up saying they knew a patron of the arts and could I bring some paintings to show him.

ROBERT ALTMAN: Tommy Thompson and Bob Eggenweiler, who were my associates on that picture, told me, “You’ve got to see this girl, she’s really something.”

Lawrence Eisenberg, story headlined “Filmdom’s Most Unlikely Star,” Cosmopolitan, August 1981: The next afternoon Shelley loaded thirty canvases into her car and took them to the appointed spot, where the “patron” turned out to be Robert Altman, in town casting Brewster McCloud.

ROBERT ALTMAN: I met her and I thought she was just full of shit. I thought she knew what she was doing, pretending to be that way. And I was really rude to her. But she turned out to be what she turned out to be.

LOU ADLER: She was real interesting, great eyes and an interesting look and particularly interesting in her presentation of the art of her boyfriend. The paintings were very bizarre, but she sort of made them accessible. Bob kept on saying, “Tell us more, tell us more.” At the end he said, “I think she should be the female lead of the movie.” She wasn’t even thinking of herself as an actress.

Shelley Duvall to Lawrence Eisenberg, story headlined “Filmdom’s Most Unlikely Star,” Cosmopolitan, August 1981: Actually, I was pretty suspicious. I thought he was making some kind of porno movie or something. Then somebody shouted, “But this is Robert Altman. He directed M*A*S*H.” I hadn’t seen the picture, hadn’t heard of him and couldn’t have cared less. Anyway this same person asked for my telephone number, and just to get out of there I gave it to him, figuring I was safe. After all, my father’s a lawyer.

Shelley Duvall and Bud Cort in Brewster McCloud

MICHAEL MURPHY: He’s intrigued by her and gives her the starring role [laughs]. And she has to start shooting in like three days. The closest she’s been to a movie is in the theater, sitting in a chair. Of course she was great. She had that real, natural way, and Bob was the kind of guy who could get that out of you. He had her so relaxed and easy. She blew everybody off the screen in that movie. She was such a natural and she was with the right guy.

BUD CORT: We got off the plane and there was this little baby giraffe—eyelashes down to her chin and up to her forehead. And Bob said, “This is Shelley Duvall.” She says, “Hi, y’all!”

Shelley Duvall, to Patricia Bosworth, from Show, April 1971: Nobody else calls him “Pirate” ’cept me. That’s ’cuz I think he’s the bravest, toughest, most imaginative man I’ve ever met. … No matter what “Pirate” asked me to do I could do it—easy as pie. Acting isn’t difficult. I’d never take lessons. You just do it, you know? Everybody in life acts anyhow. President Nixon, the Pope, even John Lennon.

MICHAEL MURPHY: It was one of those movies where it just got wilder by the minute. I mean I haven’t seen the movie in many, many years, but I don’t know if anybody has a clue what any of it is about. I don’t remember if it was drug induced or what [laughs]. This is my own take on it, but I think it was kind of a look at the insanity of all of that period in time, you know? Guys were really breaking loose and doing their “dream films” and doing nutty stuff. Things were getting off the page more and more, and he was in the vanguard of all that.

LOU ADLER: The original script took place in New York in the TWA building. Next thing I knew he was filming in Houston in the Astrodome. That was the beginning of a lot of changes that would come about in that script.

We’d do the day’s shooting—a lot of it was improvised—and then at the end of the shooting we’d meet back in Bob’s hotel room. At first, that would include the screenwriter, Billy Cannon. He wasn’t around very long when he saw how different it was from what he had written. A few of the actors would be there, and Lou Lombardo would be there. Louie Lombardo was assembling the film as they went. Bob’s confrontations with Louie were interesting. They were both very strong men. Louie had his own ideas on how things should be. I think it was a love-hate situation between those two guys. They both enjoyed it being a love-hate, and they enjoyed the hating part as much as the love part.

Anyway, Bob would make the best Bloody Mary I’ve ever tasted. Then he would stand up and make a speech, pretty much the same speech every night. “No one in this room knows what this movie is about except me.” Then he would retire to his room and write the next day’s pages.

*   *   *

Doran William Cannon, Brewster McCloud screenwriter, essay in The New York Times, February 7, 1971: Recently, I enjoyed an altercation on the phone with Mr. Altman. He claimed I should take my name off the screen since, in fact, he himself had written most of the film. I told him that if the Writer’s Guild … would allow a credit such as “Based on an Original Screenplay by,” I would be happy to take that credit since it more closely approximates THE TRUTH than “Written by,” which implies that the film kept to my script, which is not a true fact.

ALTMAN: Your screenplay was a piece of crap!

CANNON: My screenplay was perfect.

ALTMAN: It was crap.

CANNON: You bought it!

ALTMAN: You sold it!

He accused me of selling a script he had bought! Surely, I am his SOURCE, and that embarrasses him; oh, Hollywood!

ALTMAN: I will continue embarrassing you to the press.

CANNON: I’m hardly embarrassed, but you were embarrassed when I came to Houston. You were embarrassed to think that people might learn I exist. You felt exposed!

ALTMAN: I was embarrassed for you.

CANNON: Ha! You remind me of Otto Preminger. He was also embarrassed because I had written “Skidoo” as an original, and he screwed up my vision.

ALTMAN: You put me in the same class as Otto Preminger?



I suggested that we talk the whole thing over when it becomes history, perhaps in a year.

ALTMAN: See you in a year.

*   *   *

ROBERT ALTMAN: I forget what the writer’s name was, but he has sole screen credit. Cannon, yeah, Cannon. It was just a dreadful piece, I thought. But it was a kid flying, a gem of an idea I could work off.

*   *   *

MICHAEL MURPHY: One night towards the end of the movie, I could tell he was getting sick of being in Houston. It was a hundred and forty degrees and we’re in those hot clothes. It was a hard grind out there. We’re in a restaurant and he was giving an interview at one table and I was sitting across the room with some actors. The idea of my character was that he would come into town and Brewster McCloud would get screwed and he would get in his hot car and leave. From the other table, Bob says, “I’m going to kill you tomorrow.” I said, “Kill me? Why, what do you mean, kill me?” He says, “Yeah, it’ll be great. We’ll run your car into that lagoon down there in the park. You’re going to kill yourself. It’ll be great.” I knew that part of it was he just wanted to end this movie and get the hell out of there.

So all this stuff was kind of being made up on the fly. I think probably for the historians, the interesting thing about that movie is, aside from a lot of experimental things that he was kind of fooling with, I think it’s interesting knowledge that he really winged it. He would just come up with these ideas and we’d shoot them. Bob would see a fountain and put Sally in it.

SALLY KELLERMAN: Okay, M*A*S*H was a big hit, so let’s do something obscure. I think he just made up my part because he wanted to work together. I loved it. He gave me wing scars and let me sing “Rock-a-bye Baby” to Bud. I stopped people on the road to tell them about Bob and how I loved Bob and how I’d do anything for Bob. And of course he took full advantage and he put me sitting naked in the fountain. To his credit it was a long lens and there was nobody in the streets, and I was this bird, this fairy godmother. Why I did these things …

All I know is we had a great time. I remember Bob had the police chief come over and he’d have these big bowls of grass sitting around. I don’t remember if the guy knew or if he didn’t.

JOAN TEWKESBURY (screenwriter and director): If you look at René Auberjonois in Brewster McCloud and you look at the development of that character, you have to say that is fucking brilliant.

RENÉ AUBERJONOIS: I think I know how Bob thought of me for that. We were at a party at their house in Mandeville Canyon, all stoned and drinking and having a good time. I remember being in the swimming pool. I remember goofing around on the diving board and being a bird.

René Auberjonois as the Lecturer transforming into a bird in Brewster McCloud

Flapping my arms and showing off. I wasn’t trying to prove anything. Bob was this person you wanted to please. I could tell that he was enjoying it. Months later, when he said, “You’re going to do a bird lecturer and turn into a bird,” I thought, “That party scene got me the part.”

It was one of the most incredible experiences. In one day, we shot like thirty-six different scenes of me turning into a bird. I did my own makeup, my own costume—feathers in my hair—and we put birdseed in the chalk tray in front of the blackboard. At the end of that day Bob said to me, “I don’t know. I’m shooting this to be safe, and I don’t know if any of this will be in the film.”

It’s a rare thing to get into a situation where you truly feel like a collaborator with the director. He was so brilliant at knowing how it was all going to come together. He was so flexible, and in my life the great directors I’ve worked with are always directors who know exactly what they want but will change on a dime when they see what the actor brings to it. They are supremely confident that they know what they want, but at the same time open to knowing what might be better. That’s what Bob was.

LOU ADLER: If I were to plan a vacation and think, “Why don’t I do a movie at the same time?”—this would have been it. We had a suite in the Astrodome, we got to watch the ball games, the dailies were a party, and the meetings in Bob’s room were a party. The premiere was a major party. It was quite an experience that I’ve never matched.

We did two endings. The ending that I wanted was the last scene to be silent except for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” playing. Bob wanted the ending we ended up with. The way he decided on it was we showed it in two theaters next to each other in a multiplex, five minutes apart, so that we could see the reaction of one theater and then judge the reaction of the other. I always thought mine was a better reaction, but he went with his.

JOAN TEWKESBURY: In Brewster McCloud, those beautiful wings were made by the designer Leon Ericksen. Leon always knew that Brewster was going to crash and those wings are going to get broken. And to me, that’s the saddest event in any of Bob’s movies—when he falls out of the sky.

JOHN SCHUCK: It’s my favorite film. I just find it magical. It’s like a little fairy-tale story. But it’s so outrageous. It’s sort of satirizing movies and society and our inability to truly move forward as human beings.

MICHAEL MURPHY: I thought, “It can’t miss.” Bob was flying and there was so much enthusiasm. Of course, nobody came to see it. It was a huge flop. Floperama. It was a good lesson. It doesn’t always turn out the way you hope it’s going to turn out.

I look back and I think, “What the hell were we doing?”

Robert Altman to Bruce Williamson, the Playboy interview, August 1976: I wouldn’t say it’s my best film; it’s flawed, not nearly as finished as some work I’ve done since, but it’s my favorite, because I took more chances then. It was my boldest work, by far my most ambitious. I went way out on a limb to reach for it.

PETER NEWMAN (producer): The last time I saw Bob my son was seventeen—he really wanted to meet and hear Bob. We went to the Museum of Broadcasting, where Bob was doing a panel with Garrison Keillor about Prairie Home Companion. At the end of the evening I brought my son up, and said, “This is my son, Griffin, and I just want you to know his favorite movie of all time is Brewster McCloud.”

Bob grabbed the bottom of his beard, stroked it a little bit, and smiled. He said, “You have excellent taste—and terrible judgment.”

ROBERT ALTMAN: The greatest films are the ones that leave you not able to explain, but you know that you have experienced something special. I’ve always had this feeling that the perfect response to a film or a piece of work of mine would be if someone got up and said, “I don’t know what it is, but it’s right.” That’s the feeling you want—“That’s right”—and it comes from four or five layers down; it comes from the inside rather than from the outside.

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