Robert Forster’s Wild Trajectory

On Film / The Daily — Oct 15, 2019
Robert Forster in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969)

After Robert Forster passed away last Friday at the age of seventy-eight, many of us spent the long holiday weekend reflecting on one of the most oddly shaped career trajectories in recent American cinema and television. “My career went upwards for about five years,” Forster told Keith Phipps at Vulture last October, “and then downwards for about twenty-seven years.” Quentin Tarantino famously plucked the actor from undeserved obscurity and cast him opposite Pam Grier—thereby reviving two moribund careers—in Jackie Brown (1997). Forster never lacked for high-profile roles again as he went on to work with the likes of Gus Van Sant (Psycho, 1998), Alexander Payne (The Descendants, 2011), and David Lynch (Mulholland Dr., 2001; Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017). On the day he died, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, featuring Forster as a vacuum cleaner salesman who supplies criminals with fresh identities, premiered on Netflix.

Attracted to a fellow student at the University of Rochester, Forster followed her into an audition for a musical and scored a spot in the chorus. One part led to another, and Forster dropped his plans to study law. In 1965, Darryl F. Zanuck caught his performance in Mrs. Dally Has a Lover on Broadway and put him under contract at 20th Century Fox. When his agent called with an opportunity to audition for Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), Forster confessed that he’d never heard of John Huston. John Hagelston, who caught a revival screening of the film in 2011, recorded Forster’s recollection of his first meeting with Huston. “Look,” Forster told the director, “I haven’t done much. I did one Broadway play; I wasn’t bad, but I don’t make myself an actor. I never did a movie, I don’t know how they’re made, I don’t know what the tricks are, but if you hire me, I’ll give you your money’s worth.”

He was hired. Forster plays Ellgee Williams, a private who catches the eye of both a major (Marlon Brando) and the major’s wife (Elizabeth Taylor). On his first day on the set, Huston told Forster to look through the camera’s viewfinder. “Those are the frame lines,” Huston told him. “Now ask yourself this. What needs to be there?” Forster has often credited Huston with opening “the door for something that has been a lifelong curiosity with an instructive first Zen-like piece of advice.” Forster next worked with Gregory Peck and Eva Marie Saint on Robert Mulligan’s western The Stalking Moon (1968) and with Anouk Aimée, Dirk Bogarde, and Anna Karina on Justine (1969), a troubled production that saw director Joseph Strick replaced by George Cukor. His next project would be the breakthrough.

Haskell Wexler originally wanted John Cassavetes to play John Cassellis, a television news cameraman with neither scruples nor convictions until he learns that his footage is being passed along to the F.B.I. As Thomas Beard puts it in the essay accompanying our release, Medium Cool (1969) is “a film remarkable for its insistence that no one exists outside of politics, whether one experiences it as a backdrop to daily life (a wrinkled Bobby Kennedy poster in a cramped apartment) or as a nightstick to the gut.” Cassavetes wasn’t available, so Wexler had Forster come over to his place, “and we talked for a while,” Forster recalled, “and without him ever saying ‘Yes, you got the job,’ the next thing you know, I had the job.” Hagelston reports that Forster freely admitted that improvising in front of Wexler’s camera proved to be a major challenge. Reviewing Medium Cool for the New York Times, Vincent Canby noted that Forster “looks and moves like a contemporary technician, a man for whom craft has the meaning of art.”

Forster then landed lead roles on two television series, Banyon and Nakia, but both proved to be short-lived and his career began to flounder. With two ex-wives and four kids, he couldn’t afford to be choosy, and there isn’t much in the filmography leading up to Jackie Brown that will be remembered. Alligator (1980), a Jaws knockoff written by John Sayles and directed by Lewis Teague, does have its fans, though.

Forster liked to tell the story of breakfasting at his favorite diner, spotting Quentin Tarantino, and calling him over. The actor had auditioned for Reservoir Dogs, but that role went to Lawrence Tierney. Tarantino mentioned that he was writing an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's 1992 novel Rum Punch, and about six months later, when Forster entered the diner, he found Tarantino sitting at his table. The director handed him the screenplay for Jackie Brown. Talking to Will Harris at the A.V. Club in 2011, Forster looked back on that morning. “I said to him, ‘Look, I appreciate it, but I don’t think they’ll let you hire me.’ And he said, ‘I hire anybody I want.’ And that’s when the world stopped. I know that Pam had the same experience, because we’ve talked about it. I could not believe that I was going to get another shot at this business. But this guy gave it to me. He gave me a gift, the size of which cannot be exaggerated.”

The A.V. Club’s William Hughes argues that it’s Max Cherry, the bondsman Forster plays, “who gives Jackie Brown its heart, falling in love with Grier’s put-upon flight attendant from pretty much the first moment he sees her—albeit in a taciturn, Robert Forster sort of way.” It’s a key moment for Ryan Gilbey at the Guardian, too. “When Max first sees Jackie,” he writes, “a subtle shift in Forster’s eyes signals that something inside this man, who has previously been impossible to sway or impress, has suddenly been reignited. That their connection is rooted in empathy and kinship long before it flowers into romance (they kiss just once in the film’s closing minutes) makes it that bit more profound.” For Greg Cwik at Slant, Jackie Brown is “one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories.”

Cwik also writes about Forster’s single scene in Mulholland Dr. His character, a detective, was to have played a larger role in the story that Lynch originally wrote as a television series, but the role was whittled down when Lynch reworked Mulholland as a feature. “Saying fewer than twenty words and appearing in only a handful of shots,” writes Cwik, Forster “exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.”

Forster was granted more screen time as Sheriff Frank Truman in Lynch’s revival of Twin Peaks, and over the weekend, Lynch told Deadline’s Nellie Andreeva that he felt “so lucky to have had the chance to know and to work with Robert.” Tarantino, too, released a statement in which he says that casting Forster in Jackie Brown was “one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life.” Breaking Bad showrunner and El Camino director Vince Gilligan tells Andreeva that he thinks “of Bob as the Spencer Tracy of his generation. He’d never let anybody catch him at acting, but he was so damned great at it.” In his remembrance for the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw writes that Forster “started out looking like Alain Delon’s roughed-up elder brother; later he came to be a coolly charismatic and distinctive American character actor who lent style and weight to any movie or TV show he was involved in.”

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