10.24.09

The Making of M*A*S*H

In an excerpt from Mitchell Zuckoff's new biography, Robert Altman, crazy tales from the set, Elliott Gould’s tantrum, and how the director’s son made more money than him.

John Schuck: From the minute we started, he was creating this world of insanity with blood and guts and all the horrors of war. You have to realize, at the time, the Vietnamese conflict was still unresolved, really, so he couldn’t make a movie about an anti-Vietnam thing at this point. I don’t think Hollywood would have allowed that, so that’s why putting it in Korea was very smart. It gave it 25 years’ distance. But that’s what he did, he created this world that fit his message.

“It was the only time when I’ve ever started to shake and it’s the only time I’ve ever thrown up my food before I ingested it.”

Tom Skerritt: The extras were basically this improvisational group that he found in San Francisco. I would go around and tell them that Bob’s got mikes everywhere and he’s floating a camera, and it would be a good idea to pay attention and come up with stuff on your own. And they did that. It made it crisp every day, the idea that you may be on camera.

I just loved the guy from the first. He made me realize early on that you could do no wrong, as long as you tried. The worst you could do was make an ass out of yourself. And that’s the first thing you have to be willing to do as an actor, is be willing to make an ass out of yourself. Bob gave me that. But as we’re going along, I’m aware that Donald and Elliott are not too happy. They didn’t quite allow Bob in. He’s the director and all he’s saying is, “Free yourself up, we’re all in this together. Yeah, I’m the captain of the ship, but we’re all guiding the ship through the fog, and the fog is the movie system.” They did not respond to Bob’s style. I’m thinking, “This is a classic.” I’m saying that to Donald and Elliott, and they’re saying, “We can’t wait to get off this thing.”

zuckoff-altman---book-cover
Robert Altman: The Oral Biography By Mitchell Zuckoff. 576 pages. Knopf. $35. ()

Elliott Gould: One of the peculiar things was that Donald and I had a problem working with Bob at the beginning. I think you may have either heard or you read that Donald and I had complained about what we thought was his style of direction, or his being lax in terms of what our expectations were. One time Bob had the camera on a crane, and the crane had to be moving to come over and shoot each of us. It was a complicated shot and we were fighting time and we weren’t quite coordinating the camera, the crane, with us. Bob was getting a little uptight about it and he was not happy being under the pressure of having to get this shot by a certain time. Then we broke for lunch and I got my lunch on a tray and there were a few people around, and Bob said to me, “Why can’t you be like somebody else?” Which was the worst possible thing he could say to me, you know? I don’t know if he said I was ruining it for him then, but he pointed to Corey Fischer and said, “Why can’t you be more like him?”

Elliott Gould: I started... it was the only time when I’ve ever started to shake and it’s the only time I’ve ever thrown up my food before I ingested it. I threw my lunch up in the air and I said, “You fucking prick. I’m not going to stick my neck out for you again. You tell me what you want and that’s what you’ll get. I started out in the theater. I was a chorus boy. I was a tap dancer. I understand all that stuff. You know, you fucking asshole, you telling me to be like somebody else...” And he said, “I think I made a mistake.” And I said, “I think so.” And he said, “I apologize.” And I said, “I accept.”

Donald and I had the same agent and we spoke to our agent. His name was Richard Shepard, Dick Shepard, at CMA, Creative Management, and we went in and had a meeting with him and we complained.

Robert Altman, from DVD commentary: The biggest problem I had, about halfway through the film... was that Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould had gone to the studio and tried to get me fired because they said... they were the stars and I wasn’t paying enough attention to them. I was spending too much time with all these extras, background people. And I think had I known that at the time, I would have resigned. I mean, I could not have gone on if I had known they had that attitude. But I didn’t find out until later. And Elliott told me, called me up and said, “We made a terrible mistake because we thought you just didn’t know what you were doing.”

Elliott Gould: I think that, in hindsight, Donald and I were two elitist, arrogant actors who really weren’t getting Altman’s genius.

***

Johnny Mandel (composer): When I got there, the first thing [Robert Altman] was going to shoot was the suicide scene. We’re sitting around one night and he says, “That is the first thing I have to do. It’s just dead air with everyone walking around putting Scotch and Playboy in the casket. We need a song. It’s got to be the stupidest song that was ever written.” I said, “Well, I can do stupid.”

He starts thinking and says five minutes later—we were a bit ripped at the time—he says, “The Painless Pole is going to commit suicide. The name of this song is ‘Suicide Is Painless.’ I used to write songs. I’m going to go home and see if I can come up with something.” The next day, he tells me, “There’s too much stuff in this 45-year-old brain of mine. I can’t get anything nearly as stupid as I need. But all is not lost. I have this kid who is a total idiot. He’ll run through this thing like a dose of salts...”

Michael Altman: They paid me $500 and gave me 50 percent of the song [‘Suicide Is Painless,’ M*A*S*H theme song]. I went and took that $500 check and bought myself a big, beautiful 12-string guitar. Fucking gorgeous, man; it was amazing. That was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. And then a couple of years later, after the TV show came out, it went into syndication. You know Bob hated the TV series, right?

Anyway, after the series came out, I got another check for, like, $26. And then the second check was like a $130. And I’m going, “Oh, this is nice.” And the next check was like $26,000. And then it started, the whole thing started with royalties. I think I ended up making close to $2 million. And Bob had gotten paid $75,000 to direct the movie and no points, right? And it made Fox Studios what it is, right? It was their biggest hit ever, you know. Then the TV show and stuff like that. And Bob’s just been livid about that for years.

Ingo Preminger, from Remembering M*A*S*H: The 30th Anniversary Cast and Crew Reunion: The amusing thing is that Michael Altman made more money of this picture than his father.

Robert Altman, from Remembering M*A*S*H: The 30th Anniversary Cast and Crew Reunion: Oh, by a long shot. I’m cool about it all, because what I got out of it was better than money.

Excerpted from Robert Altman by Mitchell Zuckoff Copyright © 2009 by Mitchell Zuckoff. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Mitchell Zuckoff is a professor of journalism at Boston University. He is the author of three previous books, most recently Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend. As a reporter with The Boston Globe, he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and the recipient of numerous national writing awards.