Mr. Altman was a member of maverick breed of movie directors who took Hollywood by storm in the late '60s and early '70s, including Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdonovich, Martin Scorcese, Hal Ashby, Dennis Hopper and William Friedkin. His utterly original films hit a counter-cultural nerve with their portrayal of an America roiling with comic hypocrisy. His heroes were misfits and malcontents, such as Donald Sutherland's rebel war doctor Hawkeye Pierce in "M*A*S*H," Warren Beatty's hapless Old West entrepreneur in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," and Elliott Gould's cynical, modern-day Philip Marlowe in "The Long Goodbye." His movies often upended classic Hollywood genres such as the detective story, the western, the war film and the musical, revealing them as myths and lies.
His unusual storytelling style was instantly recognizable. Among his artistic trademarks were overlapping dialogue, a quilt-like plot of interlocking stories, a vast array of characters, an almost offhand naturalism and shots filled with a depth of action. Critics referred to his works as mosaics.
Mr. Altman directed a single Broadway show, the Ed Graczyk play Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which starred Karen Black, Cher, Sandy Dennis and Kathy Bates. It ran for 52 performances in 1982. He made the play into a movie in with the same cast.
He also made films based on the stage plays Streamers by David Rabe and Fool for Love by Sam Shepard.
A tireless worker who produced as much gold as dross, his many films included "A Wedding," "3 Women," "Short Cuts," "McTeague," "Kansas City," "California Split," "The Gingerbread Man" and his most recent film, "A Prairie Home Companion." His heyday was the early '70s, when such films as "Nashville" were hailed as modern masterpieces. After a long period of decline in the 1980s, he came back with the Hollywood satire "The Player," a critical and popular hit. Another comeback came in 2001 with the Oscar-nominated "Gosford Park," a sort of Altmanesque spin on an Agatha Christie murder mystery. As usual, the emphasis was less on plot than on character and larger themes of flawed human nature. He often used the same actors time and again as a sort of running stock ensemble. Among his favorites were Keith Carradine, Lily Tomlin, Elliott Gould, Rene Auberjonois, Shelley Duvall, Michael Murphy, Jeff Goldblum and Karen Black.