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Remembering Robert Altman’s Milder Side

Director Robert Altman, who died on November 22 at age 81, was known for his rebellious nature and acerbic wit. But at a press panel this past April at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Mass., he revealed a more intimate side.

The panel, which comprised Altman and actors Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and John C. Reilly, was part of the theater’s festivities honoring Streep with its 2006 Coolidge Award.

When Streep and Kline were asked about their roles in the 1982 movie “Sophie’s Choice,” and about Streep’s in the 1978 NBC miniseries “Holocaust,” in light of renewed Holocaust denial, both responded thoughtfully. “It’s incredible that in this information age, we seem to have less and less that gets through,” Streep said.

“There are those who say you can’t make a movie about the Holocaust, that what happened to these survivors is too horrible to fictionalize,” said Kline, who, along with actress-wife Phoebe Cates, is half-Jewish. “On the other hand, though, you are educating so many people. So it all sort of evens out in the wash.” He paused. “It will always be a double-edged sword. We mustn’t forget.”

Both Streep and Kline said they were proud of these roles, while Altman, who despite his Jewish-sounding name was not Jewish, pointed out that the two productions reflected times that were, unfortunately, nothing new for the Jewish people.

“Of course, this wasn’t anything that hadn’t been going on before then,” he said. “Certain things just didn’t start yesterday.”

Altman spoke of his longtime love of radio, citing Jewish poet-journalist Norman Corwin — still writing and teaching today at 95 — whose 1930s and 1940s programs included the V-E Day broadcast “On a Note of Triumph.” (In an NPR interview re-aired November 26, Altman, who was a bomber pilot during World War II, deemed “On a Note of Triumph” the defining moment in his life.) “Corwin brought a whole new sense of poetry to radio,” Altman said.

In the film industry, he was a giant of legendary repute. He left 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. But it was the endearing sense of humanity he revealed that day that, to the audience, will be Altman’s lasting legacy.

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