Fatherhood I


JOAN TEWKESBURY: He loved his family. Oh God, he loved them dearly. But to his core he was a filmmaker. One of the things that drew people to Bob was he was a big man physically, so everyone felt protected. He became the umbrella for everyone to stand underneath. Whether you were the cinematographer or the grip or the actor, for the most part everybody was invited to stand under the umbrella. That’s a lot of responsibility. The job came first, so often the family was on the fringe of the umbrella.

MICHAEL ALTMAN (eldest son): I never questioned where his loyalties lay. He was his work, that’s all there was to it. That’s what defined him and that’s who he was. That was going on back then and it went on until the day he passed away. That never changed.

As a child, to me he was just this kind of elusive enigma, this god, you know? I was as much in reverence of his work as he was. I didn’t have any kind of feeling like, “Oh gee, I wish I had a dad that would take me to baseball games.” I didn’t want any of that shit. I had no regrets or remorse or feelings of inadequacy on his part or on my part at all. None. I mean it just wasn’t there. I was totally accepting of him as who he was, glad to be around him when I could and fine when I wasn’t. That probably summarizes it as best as I can recall.

I left when I was sixteen. I didn’t reappear again until I was twenty or twenty-one. I had my first son when I was like nineteen, delivered him up in the mountains in the back of the truck in a snowstorm. I was doing the whole hippie thing and the alternative lifestyle and making moonshine and shit like that. I persisted and pursued it and Bob gave me a chance and I blew it and went away and I came back and he gave me another chance and I blew it. I came back and all right, this time I’m really going to do it right, and I blew it again. He was acting all tough and everything like that. But he would eventually give in. It wasn’t just me—we kids were pretty embarrassing to have around.

Three generations of Altman men: from left, Matthew, Robert (Bobby), Stephen, Michael, Bob, and B.C.

I run a studio downtown. I have two screening rooms over there that I maintain and I operate for them and I go into people’s houses and do it. It’s a gravy job. It’s a union job. I’ve got full benefits and I’ve got a retirement and a pension and the whole thing. It’s terrible. I’m a machine operator. And the thing is, the money is so good that it prevents me from doing other stuff.

STEPHEN ALTMAN (second son): It’s very tough not having a father. I missed having a dad. It was always good for me every time I hung around him. You know, as kids you don’t judge. Things are the way they are and that’s it. I didn’t have any animosity, or “Why am I not with you?” kind of thing. That’s just the way it was.

We weren’t his priority. His priority was himself and his job. At one point, I think I was around ten, though maybe I was a little older, he had everybody sit down in his Malibu mansion, the movie-star house, and told us all that if it ever came down to it and he had to choose between all of us and his work, he’d dump us in a second. We were like, “Oh, okay.” And we went back to playing. But it was something I remember always. I understood where he was standing for the rest of our lives, and kind of treated it accordingly.

I don’t know, maybe it was alcohol that made him say it. It’s hard when you’re young to know when people are drunk and belligerent and surly or hungover. Who knows?

Robert Altman, quoted by Aljean Harmetz in story headlined “The 15th Man Who Was Asked to Direct ‘M*A*S*H’ (and Did) Makes a Peculiar Western,” The New York Times, June 20, 1971: “If they should ever say to me, ‘You’ll never see your sons again or your wife unless you get out of the business of making movies,’ I’d say, ‘Sorry, Michael, Bobby, Matthew, Kathryn. It will hurt me not to see you again. But good-bye.’”

STEPHEN ALTMAN: I ran away from home at sixteen and went up to be a hippie with Michael, who was a better hippie than me. It was up in Stanwood, Camano Island, up in Washington. There was a little plot of land, kind of a semi-mini commune, and we were all vegetarians and long-haired pot smokers and that kind of thing. I had to get a dentist appointment or something and finally my mom talked me into coming back down and getting that, and she suggested I go visit my dad. He said, “You want to work on my next picture?” And I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s a good idea.” Tired of living in a tepee and sleeping in a sleeping bag and eating granola.

I was a seventeen-year-old kid. I was into having fun. The crew was always a blast. It was a fun deal and I got a salary. Not very much, but I was working with my stepdad before that. He was a brick mason and basically I was making as much money with him in cash as I was starting with Bob. I think I made eight dollars a week more with Bob, a hundred twenty-eight dollars a week. And he would bill me out for a higher price. He did that all the way through my career with him, right up to Fool for Love. I was property master starting on Quintet. I’d make five hundred dollars a week and he would, through his company, pay me the five hundred and bill me out at two thousand and keep the rest. That’s how he made his money. Off us kids and whoever else was stupid enough to go along with it.

I’m sure he was hustling everybody. It wasn’t a personal thing. It wasn’t because I was his son that he was doing that. Whoever would let him get away with it, he would get. It still pisses me off. In fact, it maybe pisses me off more now because it’s kind of an advantage taken. Then it was like, “Here’s the deal, you want it?” Better than doing brick masonry. Or so I thought.

ROBERT REED ALTMAN (third son): My relationship with my dad? You know, he was working so much I don’t really know. For me it was hard. My mom was always right there for me. I’d see my dad, he would come in and then they’d go out to dinner. So there wasn’t a lot of time I spent with him.

Throughout most of this time he was so busy always working that I knew he was my father, and I had him as a father, but I think it was probably a bit of a problem for me. I remember one time my mom and dad got into some kind of a fight, and I was scared, in Mandeville Canyon, and I hid behind the bed in my room, afraid that he was going to come and yell at me. I would hear him getting mad about some producer, some deal, because when he drank, not that he was a bad guy or anything, but I remember getting scared about how powerful his anger would come out about things. “That motherfucking son of a bitch …” For me, to hear that as a little kid, that was scary.

Graduation came around grade twelve, and my dad called up and said, “Sorry I can’t make it—we’re about to start shooting A Perfect Couple. But happy graduation and I got you a present. I got you in the union.” And I’m like, “What does that mean? I can work on your films legally now?”

I’ve always had to work harder to prove myself. Because when I was younger on a set, people were like, “Oh, we know how you got in, your dad got you in. You’re just like all the rest of those producers’ kids and blah, blah, blah.” I got into a habit of not letting them know who I was, and just doing the work. Then they’d find out and go, “Holy shit, your dad is Robert Altman?” But by then I’ve already proved that I can do it. So I think I had to work harder than other people, learn faster and be better than other people.

My relationship with him was pretty amazing as far as working together. Even though we were father and son, when we worked together he wasn’t my father during those periods, he was the director Robert Altman and I was working with him and for him. I got to spend all this time on a lot of his movies, and I got to learn how to be discreet and how to do things without causing much commotion, and I got to learn what he likes and what he was looking for. I got to a point with him when I was the operator where I became his eyes. I could really tell the way he wanted the camera to move. He wanted it to move the way it would move if the audience was running it depending on what they were seeing and what was happening while it was running. If something blew up and you felt like you needed to back away from it, I could back away from it. And if something intimate went on here and you really wanted to know what it is, I could just move in without hesitating, right into the eyes if I wanted to, and then snap back. That would freak anybody else out. If I were on another movie and I went with how I felt, I would be fired for that.

It’s been a good path; it’s been very interesting. I did eight years as a second assistant, ten years as a first assistant, and now I’m into like ten or eleven years as a camera operator. But a lot of that time I had a lot of problems with drugs, and now I’ve been sober for four and a half, almost five years. I really saw a lot of crazy shit and did a lot of crazy shit and really wasted a lot of time. But now I’m doing great.

MATTHEW ALTMAN (fourth son): I don’t remember him telling us he’d choose his career over us. But his whole life was not about family, it was about his career, which is something I think he came to regret later on in life. We’ve got a very dysfunctional family. I think when he became sick in the last five years or so, and maybe even longer, and when I was in trouble with various things, he regretted not spending more time with us and not paying more attention to how we grew up. He didn’t force us to do anything. He never made us go to college, so subsequently none of us did. I think he regretted that because now we’re all in the same business, which was his business, and that’s not easy.

For one thing, for all the money that we’ve made, none of us seems to be able to support ourselves. And we’ve all had our divorces and our squabbles between us, like everybody else’s family. Bob never guided us or helped us or forced us to learn about money or learn about the stock market or buying houses on our own or any of that stuff. If we ever had a problem, we came to him and he would have a plan and he would fix it. And subsequently it wasn’t to our collective best interest later in life. And we all had our substance-abuse problems and things of that sort, which haven’t helped. But he was always there if we ever needed him, which was a kind of a crutch. I think he felt guilty, especially in the seventies, that he wasn’t there when he was younger. It was all about his career.

On the set of M*A*S*H with daughter Christine, grandson Dana, and Michael Murphy

We went on an eight-day fishing trip to Alaska. We took fly-fishing lessons in the valley someplace for a day or so or two days. He went and bought all this expensive Orvis fishing gear and waders and cold-weather gear. We flew from here to Anchorage. I was fourteen. We took a little pontoon plane to a lake, landed on the lake. He had organized this whole thing. He and I would sit out at night and talk. I don’t remember anything we talked about. I think we smoked a little pot together. And you’d be tired and cold and it was really the best father-and-son thing that I can remember that he and I did together.

I definitely got involved with smoking pot through them, I think. He had a box in Malibu Cove of pot, and I would go in and take some and smoke. I think I was about thirteen. And then my friends from Mississippi came, we all went to Hawaii and then we came back and I think I had a fort underneath the house and that’s when my parents found out that I was smoking pot. They sat me down and said, “We know you’re doing that and we don’t think that’s good for you, but as long as we know you’re doing it under our roof, that’s okay. But you’re not doing it someplace else and being dangerous.” Eventually I learned how to roll a really good joint for my dad.

Even if he wasn’t there, he was always available. He wasn’t there physically but he was always available. He never said no. I loved him very, very much.

CHRISTINE ALTMAN (daughter): I think I was like twelve or something and we took a ride to Las Vegas, and there was some other woman with us. We went and stayed at this hotel. I couldn’t go into any of the casinos, so he taught me how to play backgammon. We were doing okay, and he would go out at night. We were only there three or four days, but by the time we left I could beat him at backgammon. While he was teaching me he’d pay me when I won. By the time it came to leaving we had to leave fast because he was broke. He lost all of his money. The only money we had for gas was the money I had won from him. He had to borrow the money from me to get us out of there. We lost the woman somewhere along the line.

KONNI CORRIERE (stepdaughter): It was like we were down on the ground where it’s kind of mundane, and day to day, but I always envisioned Bob walking, being with us but six feet off the ground, so he was just up higher. He couldn’t speak our language. He didn’t know what we were up to. He had his own way of seeing things, his own way of relating, which was kind of limited, let’s just be clear. He just hovered over the earth but he never came down to earth until he turned sixty.

SUSAN DAVIS (actress and cousin): He said to me, “I’m not a good father.” That got to me. I think it was that he wasn’t around all the time. He taught them a craft, and he supported them. I think maybe Bob expected everyone to have his courage and his sense of drive and it bothered him when they didn’t. I remember him saying to me, “I can’t even tell you which son was on the set,” and they were partying that night or whatever, and something was said about the next morning. I think Bob’s concern was that they hadn’t shown up on time. He said, “Listen, I can have as much as I want, because I’ll be on that set at six in the morning. You won’t.” It was about the work ethic. If you asked a psychologist it would probably be something of maleness that he never dealt with within himself, so he couldn’t pass it on or help the next male onto it.

Flying a kite with son Matthew in Malibu in 1972

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