AS REMEMBERED BY ALLAN NICHOLLS
ROBERT ALTMAN. PHOTO BY: PHOTOFEST
On the day that Bob died i was sitting in my office in Burlington, Vermont, when — at the exact same time — a co-worker paged me, a friend e-mailed me and a staff member from Bob’s office called. It was so Altman, come to think of it, with so much being said simultaneously. Each one saying something that I just couldn’t process.
For the next few days, I didn’t feel connected to my body, and there was a strange sensation (not quite pain, but similar) in my stomach. I busied myself by trying to contact all our mutual friends, his family (most importantly, Kathryn) and being on the receiving end of countless condolences. Reaching out was an attempt to make real what was never supposed to happen. He wasn’t supposed to die. He was too extraordinary and too invincible.
I called Alan Rudolph to say that Bob was gone, but we never spoke, and he left a cryptic message in typical Rudolph fashion: “Bob doesn’t ever leave; he just goes somewhere.” I called Keith Carradine, who was in Torino, Italy, getting married, and he had just heard the news as well.
Keith introduced me to Bob 33 years ago for my role in Nashville. Upon our introduction, Bob simply said, “Do you want to be in our movie?” I said yes, and that moment began a friendship that never ended and a career that, for me, involved every aspect of filmmaking. Bob’s contagious enthusiasm took me to places that I never dreamed I would go: the Artic Circle with Paul Newman, the 1988 and 2004 Democratic Conventions, and, almost religiously, to Elaine’s.
Bob’s generosity was his finest gift to everyone who worked with him. It’s hard to describe my friendship with him. We just lived it. But I can recall the times I felt it most profoundly, like the first day of filming Nashville, when I learned that my father was seriously ill and that I might have to return to Montreal to be with him. I immediately made Tommy Thompson (Bob’s other longtime assistant director) aware of my situation and suggested replacing me.
The next morning, my very first day in a major motion picture, Bob walked with me — away from the crowd of key actors, the film crew, the marching band, the twirlers, the background players and an array of planes — and put his arm over my shoulder. He looked me in the eye and said, “Look, I know what’s happening with your father and you’re not going to have to leave the film. I will treat this as if it were happening to me.”
A song from our film, A Perfect Couple:
“We talked about our life and what would come of it,
It seems to me, we always spoke our minds,
I have a lot to thank you for, so thanks a lot,
Here’s a song, the best thing I could find,
Goodbye, friend, hate to see you go, will you be back again?
Goodbye, friend, oh I’m going to miss you, until then.”
Allan Nichols collaborated with Robert Altman for over 30 years as an actor (Nashville, Popeye), composer (Nashville, A Perfect Couple, A Wedding, Health), screenwriter (A Perfect Couple, A Wedding), and first AD (The Player, Shortcuts).