Helmer was Oscar-nominated as director five times

Robert Altman, the iconoclastic, prolific, periodically brilliant director of such films as “MASH,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Nashville,” “The Player” and “Gosford Park,” died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications due to cancer. He was 81.

When the filmmaker received an honorary Academy Award earlier this year, he disclosed that he had a heart transplant in the mid-1990s.

Unpredictable, outspoken, sometimes gruff and critical of industry practices, Altman personified the maverick ’70s filmmaker, going his own way and enduring career vicissitudes while always making films that bore his stylistic stamp.

Despite his contrarian stance, Altman said while accepting his career Oscar, “No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have. I’m very fortunate in my career. I’ve never had to direct a film I didn’t choose or develop. My love for filmmaking has given me an entree to the world and to the human condition.”

A frequent critics’ darling, Altman was Oscar-nominated as director five times, for “MASH,” “Nashville,” “The Player,” “Short Cuts” and “Gosford Park.” He was awarded the DGA lifetime achievement award in 1994.

Directors Guild of America president Michael Apted said, “Bob embodied the directors’ ideal, a fiercely independent voice that was always challenging convention. In doing so, he created a body of work of breathtaking diversity.”

The Kansas City native broke through in feature films at a late age — he was 45 when “MASH” was released — after a prolific career in television and, before that, industrial films. While his extensive output was erratic, the unmistakable style of Altman’s better films, which included “The Long Goodbye,” “Thieves Like Us” and “California Split,” helped define what now is regarded as Hollywood’s second golden era in the ’70s.

Altman fell sharply out of favor for years, but he never stopped working — in the theater, onscreen and in television. Then came a period of renewed appreciation, starting in the late ’80s with HBO’s acclaimed limited series “Tanner ’88,” a satire on the presidential election process. It was followed by such critically praised films as “The Player,” “Short Cuts,” “Gosford Park” and his last effort, this year’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”

“I have to say, when I spoke with him last week, he seemed impatient for the future. He still had the generous, optimistic appetite for the next thing, and we planned the next film laughing in anticipation of the laughs we’d have,” said Meryl Streep, who appeared in his final film.

As a producer, through his Lion’s Gate films, Altman launched the directing career of his close associate Alan Rudolph with “Welcome to L.A.” and later worked with Rudolph on “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” among other films. He also produced Robert Benton’s “The Late Show.”

Almost consciously modeling himself after Orson Welles and writer Ernest Hemingway — mostly in his bearing and bravado — Altman was a constant thorn in Hollywood’s side, pointing out the town’s innate hypocrisy, feasting on the very hands that fed him. His irreverent attitude left Hollywood with mixed feelings about him. He was constantly reminded he was uncommercial, but even his detractors had to concede he was a real film artist.

Personally, he was plagued by addictions to drugs, alcohol and gambling. Sometimes those demons seemed to seep into his work, leading to films that were erratic and undisciplined, though almost always interesting.

Altman loyalists, especially actors, couldn’t praise him highly enough, particularly since he involved them in the creative process. Top-name thesps would clamor for even bit parts in his films. Altman generally worked on tight budgets, yet he continually landed marquee performers who signed on for a fraction of their normal salaries.

Cher credited him with starting her on the road to a career as a serious actress after he guided her through both the stage and film productions of “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”

Shelley Duvall, who appeared in seven Altman films, once said, “Working with Bob is a family affair.” She also said, “People love him, and you won’t hear that kind of endearment about other directors.”

Born on Feb. 20, 1925, Altman was educated in Jesuit schools before joining the Army in 1943. He flew 46 missions as a bomber pilot over Borneo and the Dutch East Indies. After his discharge he attended the U. of Missouri and began making industrial films for the Calvin Co. in his native Kansas City.

During the ’50s, he came to Hollywood twice in search of a feature career. And twice he went back home. In 1957 he persuaded United Artists to release a feature, “The Delinquents,” he’d shot in his hometown with Tom Laughlin in a leading role. It was released to only fair reviews, but it led to Warner Bros. hiring Altman to co-direct the docu “The James Dean Story,” which earned good notices.

However, it was his last feature credit for a decade. Altman threw his energies into TV, where he worked steadily on a host of popular series. He was first engaged as a director on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”; among the many other shows he did were “Whirlybirds,” “Bonanza,” “The Roaring Twenties,” “Combat,” “Suspense Theater,” “Route 66″ and “Kraft Theater.”

He was responsible for some 300 hours of television as a producer, writer and director. Weary of the grind, he snagged a directing chore on a 1968 melodrama for Warner Bros. called “Countdown,”‘ starring the relatively unknown Robert Duvall, James Caan, Ted Knight and an actor who was later to become part of the director’s stable of performers, Michael Murphy.

He was fired from the film by studio head Jack Warner, and Altman later quoted Warner as saying, “That fool has actors talking at the same time,” indicating there was little appreciation early on for one of the techniques that would bring him acclaim a few years later.

The recut film was released in 1968 to bad reviews. But by then Altman was on to his second film, psychological melodrama “That Cold Day in the Park,” with Sandy Dennis, which went nowhere.

More than a dozen directors turned down the job of helming a low-budget wartime comedy for 20th Century Fox based on a novel by Richard Hooker, a surgeon who served in the Korean conflict. Finally, Altman agreed to direct “MASH,” an irreverent look at renegade medics during the Korean War. Released in 1970, it was seen as a sly comment on the Vietnam conflict, then at its height.

The pic was a big hit and spawned an even more successful TV show, although Altman was not involved in the series.

“MASH” introduced Altman’s trademark style of overlapping dialogue, seamless ensemble acting and frenetic pacing. The film starred Elliott Gould, who would become a regular Altman ensemble player. Later films would add such actors as Keith Carradine, Lily Tomlin, Paul Dooley, Tim Robbins, Peter Gallagher, Dina Merrill and Matthew Modine to the mix.

New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who was Altman’s biggest champion early on, called “MASH” “the best American war comedy since sound came in.” It won the Palme d’Or in Cannes, best picture from the National Society of Film Critics and six Oscar nominations, including pic. (Ring Lardner Jr. won for scripting.)

It was to be Altman’s most financially successful movie, his only box office smash. But creatively, it was just the beginning.

“It’s no fun for me to go and do the same picture over and over again,” Altman told the National Observer in 1971. “I find I have to do something different every time. I go to a new place or learn about a period of history, and I’m awed. I feel I have to pass on my awe to other people. That’s where the fun is for me.”

His next feature was the quirky, quasi-surreal comedy “Brewster McCloud,” which alienated critics and audiences alike. The same fate might have befallen Altman’s revisionist Western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, if it hadn’t been vigorously promoted by Kael and other critics.

Psycholo
gical drama “Images,” with Susannah York, didn’t win much support, and while United Artists did nothing to push Altman’s offbeat updating of Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye,” with Gould as a disheveled, cat-loving Philip Marlowe, it gradually took its place as one of its director’s, and the era’s, best films.

The Depression-era drama “Thieves Like Us” and gambling comedy “California Split” also won the hearts of critics without ever attracting sizable audiences.

“Nashville,” 1975’s 24-character panorama of the country music scene mixed with trenchant political satire, displayed Altman at the apex of his powers. The film scored multiple Oscar noms, including best picture, and is regarded as one of the seminal films of the ’70s. It was, however, the last of Altman’s films to draw general critical acclaim until “The Player” 17 years later.

Altman continued to be prolific, but often at the sake of clarity and dramatic logic, producing intriguing oddities such as “Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson,” “Three Women,” “A Wedding,” “A Perfect Couple,” “Quintet,” “Health” and 1980’s “Popeye,” his most expensive film, starring Robin Williams, produced by Robert Evans and scripted by Jules Feiffer, which ultimately turned a profit.

Altman regrouped and turned to the stage with “Jimmy Dean.” He then directed a string of small-scale, set-bound films based on plays, following “Jimmy Dean” with “Streamers,” “Secret Honor,” “Fool for Love,” “Beyond Therapy” and, in a rare return to TV, 1988’s “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.” He also did “O.C. and Stiggs” and an episode of “Aria” in this stretch.

For part of the ’80s, Altman moved to Paris, and with the help of his third wife, Kathryn, overcame some of his addictions and personal problems.

Cable TV series “Tanner ’88” was his return to form, a trenchant collaboration with satirical cartoonist Garry Trudeau that starred Altman regular Michael Murphy. Then, in 1990, he directed “Vincent and Theo,” a striking biography of the artist Van Gogh’s stormy relationship with his brother and patron.

He was a director for hire on the $8 million “The Player,” a Hollywood-based murder mystery/satire, which he transformed with long, introspective takes, multiple plots and overlapping dialogue.

“The studios are run by greed,” he told the Los Angeles Times shortly after “The Player” was released. “A quarter are owned by Japanese equipment manufacturers who are interested in procuring software for their hardware. They are not concerned about culture.”

“The Player” became his biggest critical and B.O. success since “MASH,” and the emergence of new distributors in conjunction with the rise of American independent cinema created new opportunities for Altman, who was suddenly perceived as the movement’s hero and eminence grise.

He was able to raise the $12 million he needed for another ensemble piece, an adaptation of several Raymond Carver short stories transposed from the Pacific Northwest to Los Angeles. The three-hour “Short Cuts” (1993) was an acute satire on the Southern California culture with a starry cast.

Over the next several years he had mixed luck with the Paris-lensed “Pret-a-Porter,” “Kansas City,” “The Gingerbread Man,” “Cookie’s Fortune” and “Dr. T and the Women” before making another comeback with 2001’s “Gosford Park,” featuring a who’s who of British actors in a period comedy-drama that Altman described as less of a whodunit than a who-cares-whodunit.

Despite variable health, he kept working through his final years, making “The Company,” about the ballet world; “Tanner on Tanner,” which reprised his cable character; and, finally, “A Prairie Home Companion,” starring the show’s creator, Garrison Keillor, Streep, Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan and Kevin Kline, which performed nicely at the B.O.

He also dabbled in staging operas, notably “McTeague” at the Chicago Lyric Opera, later shown on television, and more theater, most recently a London staging of Arthur Miller’s “Resurrection Blues.”

Altman is survived by his wife, Kathryn; daughter Christine; and sons Robert, a camera operator; Matthew, a set dresser; Stephen, a production designer; and Michael, co-writer of the “MASH” theme song “Suicide Is Painless.”

Donations in his name may be made to the Cedars-Sinai Heart & Lung Transplant Unit.

(Richard Natale, Timothy M. Gray and wire services contributed to this report.)

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more