ROBERT ALTMAN: I know where it started, this thing of making pictures, or what eventually led into making pictures.
I think you could walk down the street and see a kid—a seven-or eight-year-old kid—and he’s throwing a baseball. You stop him—you’re a stranger. And you say, “Hey, throw that ball again.” And the kid throws the ball again. You say, “Hey, you could be a major-league pitcher. You’ve got the stuff for it. You really know how to throw the ball.” You leave, and you never see that kid again for the rest of your life. But that kid has a better chance of being a big-league pitcher than if you hadn’t stopped.
I was overseas, and I had a cousin—it was actually my father’s cousin—a woman named Mary Rector. She was the secretary to the guy who was the emcee on the Camel cigarette weekly variety show. I wrote her a letter because I thought that she was a star. I mean, she rubbed shoulders with those people. It was a real funny letter—I mean, I was trying to be funny. And she wrote back, “Oh, you’re a born writer. You should be a writer—your letter was so good.” From that day on I was a writer.
After that I wrote a couple of pages of something. I can remember, almost, the first line: “The scallops of lights on Wilshire Boulevard emptied into the shallow ocean, and a glaring sign blinked on and off. And it said, THE BROKEN DRUM; YOU CAN’T BEAT IT.” That was a restaurant. And then I took this character into the restaurant. I never got to the real character. It was all just atmosphere, and it was always somebody else’s character that I had in mind. But I stuck with that piece of writing a long time.
After the war, looking for what to do next
Untitled work from Robert Altman’s personal files: There was just the hint of dawn in the East, and Wilshire Boulevard was quiet and dark, save the scallops of light that bordered the curbing. A few blocks from where the file of streetlamps emptied into the blackness of shallow ocean, one small building gave evidence of life. Evidence in the form of a blinding neon sign which illuminated in red and white neon the words, THE BROKEN DRUM. Beneath this glowed another neon tube shaped like a drum, and to a tom-tom rhythm the irritating phrase, YOU CAN’T BEAT IT, flashed on and off.
ROBERT ALTMAN: The first film that made the difference in my mind between a movie and a film, if you can use those terms, was Brief Encounter. This was after I got out, after the war. I remember going to the Fairfax in L.A., going over by myself for some reason. I remember thinking, “What is this about?” This girl, Celia Johnson, was not pretty. She wore those sensible shoes. And suddenly I’m in love with her. I walked out of that movie and I went for a long walk. I realized the difference, and from that point on I started looking for those kinds of experiences in films.
* * *
JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: After the war we went back to Kansas City and LaVonne followed him there. There was a terrible car accident. It was a red Buick, and the guy driving was wealthy, rich and wild. He had a bad leg or a limp or something. There were, I think, six people in the car. LaVonne was sitting on Bob’s lap and they hit a Greyhound bus, or the bus hit them. The entire car was gone. LaVonne’s face was pretty broken up—her face was all wired. No one died that I know of, but everyone was injured badly and thrown. Except for Bob. He was fine.
BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: Bob gets out and wanders around. They didn’t even know he was in the wreck.
JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: He married LaVonne as soon as she got out of the hospital. He felt responsible.
CHRISTINE ALTMAN: I imagine that they were going to get married anyway, but she was going to have to stay there at the Altman house when she got out of the hospital. B.C. said, “Son, you should do something about this.”
BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: He married her because she was pregnant, with their daughter, Christine.
Twenty-two-year-old Robert Altman with his first wife, LaVonne, and their daughter, Christine, in 1947
CHRISTINE ALTMAN: Pregnant with me? I don’t know. I was born in ’47, and I don’t know the date that they got married. I’m not sure. The way I got it was they were just married and I came along. If it was before or after I’m not really sure. It was never an issue.
BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: After they got married, here in Kansas City, they came out to California. She looked like a skeleton, she was so thin. Her mouth was still wired. He used that in A Wedding. You know, the bride with braces.
* * *
ROBERT ALTMAN: After the war, I took singing lessons from my aunt Pauline. I had no aptitude for it at all. But I remember I took some singing lessons from her. I didn’t know what I was doing, or going to do.
I got into this Identi-Code thing. I don’t know how I got into this, but I bought this bulldog called Punch. The guy that sold me the dog was a guy named Skimmerhorn.
Dialogue from M*A*S*H:
(Hawkeye and Duke race off in a stolen Jeep.)
MOTOR POOL SERGEANT (Played by Jerry Jones): Skimmerhorn, get that son of a bitch! He just stole my Jeep! [Skimmerhorn runs past, bumps into sergeant, spilling hot coffee on him]
ROBERT ALTMAN: Skimmerhorn was from Detroit, and he had a partner named H. Graham Connar. He was an English guy, and he had introduced indoor polo to America, as I remember. He wore one of those English moustaches. So they told me about this thing they were doing called Identi-Code—tattooing identification on dogs, in case they were lost or stolen. I thought, “That’s a great idea.” I got very enthusiastic about it and somehow I joined them. I became the guy who did the tattooing.
I went down to buy the tattooing machines from a guy in downtown L.A., a guy who had been a tattooed man in a circus. And the wife was the fat lady in the circus, called Dainty Dottie. All around his garage he had designs, drawings of eagles, all that stuff. So the fat lady is typing up the invoice on this portable Royal typewriter and I was trying to be polite to her.
I’d say, “You know, this is really nice. I saw your drawings up there.”
And she’d make a mistake on the invoice and she’d put a new piece of paper in. We did that a few times and I remember he leaned over to me and said, “It’s better if you don’t talk. Dottie can only think of one thing at a time.”
I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, “I’m here with the tattooed man and the fat lady from the circus, and a little Royal typewriter. I bought some tattooing machines and she’s writing up a receipt. Is this my life?”
JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: He went in with Dad on that dog-tattooing thing. That was the first time they worked together—Dad on the financing, I think.
One time Bob went down to the corner grocery store and his bulldog followed him. A German shepherd was coming out of the grocery store and the bulldog grabbed it by the neck. He wouldn’t let go of this dog, and Bob grabbed a broom and stuck it up his ass. That’s how they got him to release his hold on that other dog. But the dog was docile with people, great with people and great with babies. Bob’s daughter, Chrissy, was an infant, not even crawling, and that dog just loved her.
ROBERT ALTMAN: Punch was the first dog I tattooed. We would shave an area on the inside of the right hind leg, up near the groin, shave it with an electric razor. Then we’d put on the oil, which was a lubricant and also antiseptic. Then I would write in these numbers. The number system we set up was that each state had its number, like Alabama was “1” and Arizona was “2” or so on. Then each county in the state had its own number. So Aaron County, Alabama, if there even is one, would be “1-1.” Then there was the dog’s individual number. That was our system.
Then we made a deal with all the sheriffs in America, through the sheriffs’ organization, that they would keep records of all those numbers in each sheriff’s office. We would pay a dollar for each record they’d keep. So all they had to do was stick that in a file someplace and they’d get that dollar. That came out of what we charged for the tattoo, which I think was five dollars or ten dollars. Then we went to Washington and tattooed Harry Truman’s dog.
Through John Walsh, Pauline’s husband, we got through to someone who knew Truman. Truman had this dog he didn’t even care about, a little dog of some kind. They sent it over to us and we tattooed it. That was part of our promotion of Identi-Code. Then we went to the Pure Food and Drug folks to get certification for the oil and the ethyl chloride we used to freeze the area.
Our hope was to sell this whole operation to the National Dog Bureau, which was owned by Purina. We’d sell it to them and come out with a few hundred thousand dollars and walk away. We even got the Hearst papers behind us because we said this was for antivivisection. They were a big antivivisection voice. It was part of their crusade, but for me it was a scam. I mean, although I did this stuff sincerely, it’s like any salesman. You tend to believe in what you’re selling, even though you really don’t know what it is. Was it my goal to safeguard all the dogs in America? No, not at all.
We got to the point where we went to the ASPCA, or whatever it was at the time, and said we had all these funds behind us, seeking their endorsement. But Connar had taken the funds and gone to Ireland—he took, I don’t know, fifteen thousand dollars or so. The indoor polo player went east with our money. It fucked us with the ASPCA, and the whole thing just fell apart. That was it. It almost worked.
I went back to California and declared myself a writer. My dad had a place in Malibu, up in the hills, and in the downstairs of the house lived a guy named George W. George and his wife. George was Rube Goldberg’s son. We met and I said I was a writer. He said he was a director. So we started to work together.
GEORGE W. GEORGE (writer/producer): I had no idea who he was. He was just a guy whose parents lived upstairs who had some ideas for stories for movies and things like that. He seemed like a nice guy. We immediately started talking about stories, and we wrote a crime story for RKO.
Bodyguard (1948; Robert Altman received
story credit, with George W. George)
GEORGE W. GEORGE: Bob was always a good collaborator. Work is a difficult thing to divide. Work is something you do as a personal issue among yourself and your gods. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes you suffer. It’s either professional or it isn’t professional, and Bob was always professional. Sometimes you can’t work with people because they don’t know what you’re working on. They’ve been in the movie business all their lives and they have no idea what a movie is.
I worked once with an agent who told me, “Mr. George, anybody can write the first act of a play. The hard thing to do is a second act of a play.” Think of it as your own life. You lived the first act of your life pretty good because you just did it. You think you know everything about life because you’re young. But you’ve made a pretty good mess of your life so far. That’s the first act. How do you write the second act? Well, very few people can write a successful second act. That’s why it’s such fun. Everybody wishes they could do it over again, do something over again, or at least live a full life. Most of them have no idea what they lived through or how to do a second act. Very few people live a successful second act. Bob knew how.
ROBERT ALTMAN: George had an uncle named Eddie Marin. He was a director at RKO, kind of a B-movie director. We sold Christmas Eve as an original story through his uncle. I wasn’t credited. And then we sold Bodyguard. And they were both made into films.
JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: Bob and George wrote two Hollywood scripts together. I think they made thirty-five thousand dollars.
ROBERT ALTMAN: They wouldn’t let me do what I wanted. I remember, I went to them on Bodyguard and said, “I’ll do the screenplay—let me do the screenplay for free.” And, of course, that really turns them off. I could never even get on a set to learn how these pictures were made.