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Robert Altman (1925 – 2006): His dangerous angel remembers

Robert Altman at 80.

Virginia Madsen played the significant role of the Angel of Death, named "The Dangerous Woman," in Robert Altman's last film, "A Prairie Home Companion." She wrote down these memories at my request. Altman died on Nov. 20, 2006. I was still in intensive care, and Chaz withheld the news from me. Did Bob guess how near the end was? He was a very intelligent man, a realist, with leukemia and a heart transplant from 11 years earlier.

By Virginia Madsen

Working with Robert Altman was one of the most fulfilling experiences I have ever had. Each day on "A Prairie Home Companion," I would come to work at call time, get half-way ready with make-up and hair and just sit next to Bob or hang out watching Lily and Meryl, or the guys singing with the band in between takes, and wait to see if he needed me.

He never knew where or when the "angel" should appear to haunt or float. Sometimes he would just look at me for a long time. I always held his gaze and often wondered what he was thinking. these were always quiet moments, in the midst of all the fun and chaos of a working set. He would sometimes hold my hand and then let it go as he went on to direct.

I'm making myself sound "special" but I admit that I felt that way, when he watched me. It seemed like he would watch me all the time. Constructing the shot? Perhaps... and then again, maybe not.

All of us there felt "special." Of that, I am sure. Most of the time I would just sit behind him and Paul [Thomas Anderson], whose chair had the words "Pinch Hitter" sewn on the back. "That's in case I kick the bucket.," Bob would say with a good-natured laugh that let us know it was okay to acknowledge his illness and nearness to another existence. Notice I still won't say "death." It just didn't seem possible.

I have a portrait of him that is very beautiful that I will send you. I spent a lot of my time taking pictures.

Anyway, You mentioned how he directed without directing. With "The Dangerous Woman" or the "Angel" it was strangely the opposite. Kind of awkward for me. actually, because he always wanted me to move in such a deliberate way. There would be take after take sometimes, with Bob saying, "Do it again but this time even slower." Not an easy task for me because my physicality and that of all the other performers was so animated! He even briefly entertained the idea of having me pulled along on wheels so I would really appear to float. He also designed my big hair and white trench. Guess that was angelic to a man like him! Or film-noir angelic anyway. He gave me a copy of "The Long Goodbye."

Even my hands weren't to move too much, and my speech was to have a soft quality and a slow pace. I felt stilted and odd.

Here's the funny part. I kept placing much meaning into all of this, dramatic actress that I tend to be! And I, after much thought and indeed, a good deal of hesitation, boldly, well, maybe not boldly , approached my director. The legendary Robert Altman. Now, why I would question him I will never know but I did and said "Hey Bob (always hard for me to not call him "Mr. Altman"), "why am I always moving so slow. I feel..."

"Why?" Bob said incredulous. "Because you're DEAD that's why!"

'Ah!! " (Feel free to imagine my hand gesture, ala-Kevin Kline or Eric Idle, sawing the air assuredly) "Yes, well...of course. I am dead. Got it. Right! Okay." I turned on my heel.

That was the end of that. I walked away feeling my cheeks flush like a girl. Touching one cheek, I thought, gosh, a man who can make me blush...I like that...! He was after all, an alpha male. He still carried such a masculinity that men wanted to BE him and the women , well, they just wanted him! He was a great man, a great director, a leader, father, grandfather, friend and you just wanted to be in his presence and make his dream come to life. As you know, he was a tall man, barrel-chested like Mitchum. A man's man, as my Dad would say, but my Mother would call him a Renaissance man. Both descriptions would be true. I guess they don't make 'em like that anymore.

Even tho' I just floated around him for such a brief time, I miss him, miss him a lot. Aren't you glad he left us so much?

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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