Richard Portman, an Oscar winner who wove the signature overlapping dialogue on Robert Altman’s 1975 landmark Nashville into a complex and hypnotic tapestry as central to the film as each character, died Saturday night at his home in Betton Hills, FL. Celebrated and 11 times Oscar-nominated for his work as sound editor on films as diverse as Harold and Maude (1971), The Godfather (1972), Star Wars (1977) and The Deer Hunter (the 1978 Michael Cimino film for which he won the statuette), Portman was 82 and recently had broken his hip in a fall.
His death was announced on her Facebook page by his daughter Jennifer Portman, news director at the Tallahassee Democrat:
In addition to Altman, Portman worked repeatedly with such iconoclastic directors as Arthur Penn, Mel Brooks and Peter Bogdanovich, on some 200 films including Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971), Little Big Man (1970), Young Frankenstein (1974) and Paper Moon (1973).
“I worked with Peter Bogdanovich on They All Laughed and Daisy Miller — which wasn’t a very good film,” Portman told the Democrat in 2007. “I think Paper Moon is his masterpiece. I thought it was better than The Last Picture Show. [Paper Moon] was the one of the few movies I worked on that I went back to see in the theater. I wanted to make sure they got it right. And they did.”
‘[Robert] Altman’s film family were free-spirited people who liked to have fun. Others might say they were lawless lunatics who should be in jail. I developed a kinship with them right away.’
With Altman, the similarly rules-breaking sound man developed the overlapping, multi-tracking dialogue soundscape that helped Nashville and 3 Women (1977) embody the freewheeling spirit of filmmaking in the 1970s. “Altman’s film family were free-spirited people who liked to have fun,” Portman wrote in They Wanted a Louder Gun, an unpublished memoir, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. “Others might say they were lawless lunatics who should be in jail. I developed a kinship with them right away.”
Born in Los Angeles, Portman was the son of sound engineer Clem Portman, who had worked on King Kong (1933), Citizen Kane (1941) and It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). The son’s career launched in 1957, after five years as a Marine, when Portman pere helped him get hired as a machine loader in the re-recording room at Columbia Pictures.
Portman’s Oscar nominations were for Kotch (1971), The Godfather (1972), The Candidate (1972), Paper Moon, The Day of the Dolphin (1973), Young Frankenstein, Funny Lady (1975), Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), On Golden Pond (1981) and The River (1984). Among the other popular films he worked on during his 40-year career: Where’s Poppa? (1970), Carnal Knowledge (1971), The Way We Were (1973), Brooks’ Silent Movie (1976) and High Anxiety (1978), Starting Over (1979), Body Heat (1981), Splash (1984), Fletch (1985) and L.A. Story (1991).
In 1995, Portman began a second career, helping to found and then teaching at Florida State University’s well-regarded film school. His students called him Dr. Zero, a name he reportedly relished. One of his students there was future director Barry Jenkins, whose Moonlight is competing for eight Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture.
“My father was the first person to ever re-record an entire movie by himself,” Jennifer Portman recalled in a 2015 story. “By the time he traded his Hollywood movie career for teaching, he’d clocked more than 95,000 hours in a dark room behind a mixing board.”
In 1998, Portman was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Cinema Audio Society. A memorial is being planned for spring. Along with his daughter, Portman is survived by his wife, Jackie.