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The "Health" of Robert Altman

Film director Robert Altman isn't a stockholder in Twentieth Century-Fox, but if he were, he'd ask this question at Fox's summer board meeting, which will be held here in Chicago Thursday: "When is Robert Altman's new movie 'Health' going to be released?" The studio apparently has no plans to release.

"Health," which Altman shot in early 1979 on a budget of about $6 million. The movie was originally scheduled for Christmas release in 1979, then moved back to Easter of 1980, then suggested for and later withdrawn from Filmex, the Los Angeles film festival, and is currently languishing in the studio's vaults. Along the way, Altman admits, "Health" has picked up a reputation for being "unreleasable." But that's what Bette Davis would call "a large order of prognosis negative," he said Wednesday during a phone call to The Sun-Times:

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"This is a movie that got caught between regimes at the studio. The previous regime apparently didn't like it. The new regime has just let it sit there. Sherry Lansing (the studio's new production chief) saw it only last week, in New York, and called me to say she flipped over it. But Norman Levy (head of distribution) hasn't returned my calls for seven weeks."

The comedy takes place during a national health food convention in Florida, and stars Carol Burnett, Lauren Bacall, James Garner, Paul Dooley and such media figures as Walter Cronkite and Dick Cavett. The action involves an election for president of the nutritionists' organization. Altman thinks it should be released in August or September, while the memory of the national political conventions is still fresh. "The studio has $6 million tied up in the movie, with interest," he said, "and they've put it on the shelf. That puts us in a bad position, because I put up bond to complete the movie, and the stars (Burnett, Garner, etc.) worked for very small salaries against a percentage of the profits. If the movie is never released, obviously there aren't going to be any profits."

Altman recently returned to Los Angeles after six months on Malta, filming the musical "Popeye" with Robyn Williams and Shelley Duvall. He returned to find "Health" still in the can, and launched a campaign to get it released: The first time most Hollywood people saw the film was last Friday, during an Altman screening at his Lion's Gate Films headquarters. Bartenders at the screening were dressed as bunches of broccoli.

"I look at it this way," Altman said during his Wednesday call. "So many pictures that have been released this summer aren't being seen, that a picture that hasn't been released should be seen." He said he has hired political prankster Dick Tuck to work on the movie's campaign. Tuck's first contribution. "This is the 187th day 'Health' has been held hostage."

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