The new documentary “Altman,” premiering August 6 on Epix, runs through the story of one of Hollywood’s unlikeliest major players: Robert Altman, a stubborn iconoclast who shocked the system by making films in an entirely new way. Rather than clean shots, his cameras roamed and prowled through frames, stopping on actors who didn’t always seem to be acting — just being. And instead of clean sound, he miked everyone and had actors talk over each other, to the horror of traditional execs.
One of his most fruitful collaborations was with Elliott Gould, who was there for his breakthrough: “M.A.S.H.” Gould played Trapper John, one of the more rambunctious and outspoken of the Korean War doctors trying to maintain sanity — and an un-PC attitude — in the midst of bloody horror. Gould would reunite with Altman for both “The Long Goodbye” and “California Split,” as well as play himself in both “Nashville” and “The Player.”
Gould had no idea who Robert Altman was before he met him. Initially Altman wanted him to play Duke. But after reading the script, Gould couldn’t see himself in that role. “I told him I’d never questioned an offer before, but it would drive me crazy validating myself as a Southerner,” Gould recalls. “I said to him I could do it, but if he hadn’t cast Trapper John, then I’ve got what that part really needs, which is the juice and the energy and the spirit for it. And he gave me the part.” (Duke went to Tom Skerritt.)
It wasn’t always clear to the actors what Altman was doing. And that’s especially due to how little of the script’s dialogue was being used — which is to say almost none of it. For one scene, when they’re looking at X-rays while golfing with a helicopter in the background, they didn’t get what he was doing. “I came from theater and a more conventional way of working,” he says. “I don’t speak for Donald [Sutherland, who played Hawkeye], but we had a problem with it. And Bob agreed to a re-shoot. In hindsight I see it as Donald and I not really knowing or understand how Bob was working.”
There’s a rumor that he and Sutherland tried to get Altman fired at one point. “That’s not true at all,” he charges. “I think that Bob had had some problems or challenges with management and studios and administrators. But there was never a thought of that.”
It didn’t go well when screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. finally saw it. After one screening, Gould was the one he talked to. “He came out and walked up to me and said, ‘How could you do this to me? There’s not a word that I wrote onscreen!’” Lardner Jr. went on to win the Oscar for the script anyway.
There was a time when things did come to a head between Altman and Gould. In the middle of a grueling 36-hour day, Altman went up to the actor during lunch. “Bob asked me, ‘Why can’t you be like Corey Fischer?” he says, referring to one of the cast members, who had been in The Committee, a noted improvisational group from San Francisco. “I had my lunch on a tray and I started to shake. It was one of the worst things anyone could ever say to me. I threw my lunch up in the air and said, ‘I’m not going to stick my neck out for you again. I come from the theater. I was a tap dancer. I understand precision and repetition. You tell me what you want to do and that’s what I’ll do.’ He apologized and I accepted.”
But his attitude towards him has since then been sky-high. “He freed me. He allowed me to be free. He gave me so much space. He was like a father to me.”
He has weird memories of the “M.A.S.H.” shoot. “We were working out at the Fox ranch,” he remembers. “We would be bused to the set. At that point they were shooting ‘Beneath the Planet of the Apes.’ I thought it was amazing, that we’d be bussed through the ‘Planet of the Apes’ set to ‘M.A.S.H.’”
Stallone may or may not be somewhere in “M.A.S.H.” “When I met Sylvester Stallone with my friend Burgess Meredith, Stallone told me he never admitted to doing extra work out in Hollywood. But one of the few pictures he admitted he was an extra on was ‘M.A.S.H.’” Gould says. “When I mentioned that to Bob, he said, ‘I don’t accept that. Sylvester Stallone couldn’t have been an extra in my picture.’ But that’s what Stallone told me.”
Soon they were back in business together. Producer David V. Picker wanted Gould to star in “The Long Goodbye,” Altman’s bizarro 1973 modernization of Philip Marlowe, before Altman was attached. But Peter Bogdanovich, who was considering directing the film, didn’t want him. “He couldn’t see me or wouldn’t see me in the part,” Gould says. But Picker stayed true to Gould and sought Altman instead. The Bogdanovich version would have been very different. The script by Leigh Brackett, he says, was more like a pastiche, set at the time of the Raymond Carver novels. “Bob called me from Ireland, where he was finishing ‘Images.’ He said, ‘What do you think?’ I said I always wanted to play this guy. And Bob said, ‘You are this guy.’ It moves me just to mention that, because we don’t always get that validation.”
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