EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS:
HOW THE SEX-DRUGS-AND-ROCK 'N' ROLL GENERATION SAVED HOLLYWOOD
[United Artists' David Picker], according to [George] Litto, refused to pay Altman, who was broke, until [Thieves Like Us was delivered. When Altman and script supervisor Joan Tewkesbury arrived at the airport near the location in Jackson, Mississippi, they learned that the deal had fallen through. Picker had taken exception to Altman's budget, $1.3 million, slashed it by $500,000. Tewkesbury looked at Bob, and said, "Yeah, but we're all here. We have to continue." Bob agreed. He was already financing preproduction out of his own pocket. "Bob always did that," says Litto. "Get them a little bit pregnant; he intimidated them into going ahead." Litto had to kick in some of his money to make up the difference. Picker's behavior left a bad taste. There wasn't even any money for dressing rooms. The production assistants had to go from door to door, offering locals $5, $10 for the use of their bathrooms so the stars could change into their costumes.
Louise Fletcher had a major role in Thieves, which her husband, Jerry Bick, was producing. They and the Altmans were close. Fletcher hadn't acted in over a decade, and Altman persuaded her to take the role of Mattie. "There was this wonderful atmosphere on the set," says Fletcher. "He did everything possible for an actor to find the truth. But he had a split personality, fucked you after it was over. You don't exist anymore, you're dead. Bob insisted on getting his going rate, but asked everyone else to sacrifice and take scale. He rails against this industry, like in The Player, but he's part of it. Like a lot of directors, they have their eye on the prize." Adds Tommy Thompson, Altman's AD for a decade, "He'd always position himself for his money. Look at him now, a lot of failures, but he's always done fine."
Altman treated Bick badly. He had the typical New Hollywood director's attitude toward producers: he wanted to do it himself, and he did. Says Thompson, "Jerry was desperately trying to produce, trying to have some say, and Bob didn't want it. It was just an annoyance to him."
While Altman was still in Mississippi, he asked Tewkesbury to go to Nashville and keep a diary that would be the basis for a script. Months afterward, Altman himself visited Nashville, along with Tewkesbury and Platt, whom he had asked to work on the picture. The Watergate hearings were on television and Bob, who was obsessed with and detested Nixon, would not leave his room.
When Altman submitted Tewkesbury's script...Picker wrote him a note that said, "This is not a script." Recalls the director, "He hated it, so they threw it out." The upshot was, Altman was free to take Nashville elsewhere, which he did, to Jerry Weintraub at ABC pictures.
The Lily Tomlin character, Linnea Reese, was based on Fletcher, whose parents were deaf, and Fletcher was supposed to play it. "Nashville was in development, and my parents came from Birmingham to visit the set of Thieves," says Fletcher. "He witnessed Jerry not being able to communicate with them, and I was sort of the go-between, the interpreter for them with everybody. He got this idea to write a character who has a deaf child, and the father isn't able to communicate with the child, and that was going to be my part. So, one day, when we were back in L.A., Bob's wife, Kathryn, called me on the phone, and said, 'Guess who came into the office today? Lily Tomlin.' I said, 'Oh, great. What part's she going to play?' There was a silence. She said, 'Bob hasn't called you?' I said, 'No, Bob hasn't called me.' It turned out that it was my part. He took my family identity, then to treat me in that way. I stopped speaking to him, because he hurt me so bad.
"That was the same year I made Cuckoo's Nest," continues Fletcher. "One morning I was at the Sherry Netherland being interviewed by Aljean Harmetz from the New York Times in the coffee shop, and Bob was in another booth. I didn't know it, until he verbally attacked me, in a loud voice, saying, 'You don't speak to me, after all I did for you. You don't speak to me.' That was the last straw. Jerry had already produced two of his movies, and he was like a broken man over working with Bob. Kathryn picked up the pieces. People work for him for a certain amount of time, and then they say, 'I can't.'"
The Academy Awards for 1975 were held on March 29, 1976. Louise Fletcher won Best Actress for her portrayal of Nurse Ratched in Cuckoo's Nest. She still bore the wound Altman had inflicted when he gave the role based on her parents to Lily Tomlin, a wound that was reopened when Tomlin was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Nashville. "What drove me crazy was I could have done both," she says. "But the worst thing Bob did, at the Academy Awards, when I won - it was the Bicentennial - we all went out on stage and sang 'America the Beautiful,' and I thanked my parents in sign language. I looked down, and there in one of the front rows was Bob." His face distorted into a grimace, he was mimicking her signing movements, his hands dancing about as if they had a life of their own. He was making fun of Fletcher signing to her deaf parents. She tried to put the best face on it. "I can't believe that Bob meant it in that malicious way," she says. "I think he meant it as a kind of joke, but I thought it was incredibly ironic, with Nashville, and then what had happened that night, and then to have Bob put this tag on it."
Copyright 1998 Simon and Schuster.