He began directing in the 1950s in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. During this time, Altman directed and wrote many short, mostly industrial, films dealing with a variety of subjects. He directed his first feature film, The Delinquents, as well as a feature length documentary, The James Dean Story, in 1957. The Delinquents led to an offer to direct two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents for television. Altman continued to work in television for nearly a decade on shows like Whirlybirds, The Millionaire, The Roaring 20's, Combat!, and Bonanza. In 1989, he won an Emmy for the television mini-series Tanner '88.
Altman began concentrating on feature films in the late 1960s, scoring a breakout hit with MASH in 1970, which earned him the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. He is best known for films composed of multi-layered stories using an ensemble cast and improvisational style. Among his credits are the critically acclaimed McCabe and Mrs. Miller; Images; Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (for which he earned a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1976); Three Women; A Wedding, and Short Cuts. Altman directed many other highly regarded films like The Long Goodbye, California Split, Nashville, The Player, and Gosford Park, for which he won a Golden Globe. His final film was A Prairie Home Companion.
Altman has received Best Director Oscar nominations for MASH, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. Nashville and Gosford Park were also nominated for Best Picture Oscars. He received many other nominations for outstanding directing, including four nominations from the DGA and seven for the Palme d'Or at Cannes. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the DGA in 1994, and in 2005, he received an Honorary Academy Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for "reinventing the art form and inspiring filmmakers and audiences alike."