One thing Robert Altman learned crafting complex, star-studded movies such as M*A*S*H, Nashville, Gosford Park and A Prairie Home Companion: how to multitask. On Nov. 17 the 81-year-old director was busy at his Malibu home, preparing for Thanksgiving, getting ready to begin shooting a new film with Meryl Streep and Hilary Swank—and loving it. "He was only happy when he was working," says his stepdaughter Konni Corriere. "He was always in the director's seat." Now that chair is empty. Three days later Altman—who received an honorary Oscar in March for his film work—died after an 18-month battle with cancer. "There's never been another director like him," says Nashville star Keith Carradine. "And there never will be."

In fact, throughout some 36 movies, the Kansas City, Mo., native made a career out of bucking Hollywood, standing up to studio execs and having actors improvise and overlap dialogue. "He would say, 'The best thing you can do is surprise me,' "says actor Peter Gallagher (The Player). That wasn't Altman's only adage; at his deathbed, his six children took turns reciting his one-liners. Corriere bid farewell with her favorite: "See you in the next reel."