The actor: When describing his career in Hollywood, Robert Forster once likened his experience to a play, having had “a five-years upwards first act and a 25-year sliding second act.” The third act, however, started off with a major upswing, courtesy of Quentin Tarantino’s decision to cast him as bail bondsman Max Cherry in the 1997 film Jackie Brown (which is newly out on Blu-ray). Since then, Forster has rarely been without work, bouncing between big-screen players like David Lynch (Mulholland Dr.) and the Farrelly Brothers (Me, Myself & Irene) while still pulling the occasional small-screen gig, such as a high-profile stint on NBC’s Heroes.
Jackie Brown (1997)—“Max Cherry”
The A.V. Club: Did Quentin Tarantino approach you to be in this film?
Robert Forster: No, actually, I snared Quentin Tarantino at a little restaurant. He was walking in, unassuming, and another actor and I were sitting there, and I yelled at him. And he wandered over and we talked for a while, we broke his balls a little bit and kidded around, and I said, “What are you working on?” He said he was adapting Rum Punch, an Elmore Leonard novel. He said, “Why don’t you read it?” And I did. Six months later, I walked into the same restaurant—where I have breakfast every morning, so I’m a regular there—and as I came out onto the patio and turned toward my table, he was sitting in my spot. And as I approached him, he lifted up this script and extended it toward me and said, “Read this, see if you like it.” See, my career by then was dead. No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing. And this guy hands me this script and says, “Read it and see if you like it.” And I took it home, and I did read it, and I could not believe that he was talking about the Max Cherry role. And I know that Pam [Grier] had the same exact experience when she read it. I read it, and I couldn’t figure out what part he had in mind for me. But when I called him, he said, “Let’s have breakfast again,” so the following morning we had breakfast again, and because I’d had the experience before of getting close to a good role and having the distributor say, “No, no, no, we want somebody else,” 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.
Alligator (1980)—“David Madison”
RF: Alligator! Oh, boy, that’s a favorite of mine. I was losing my hair at the time, and… I was in Schwab’s Drugstore, one of the great meeting places for actors from 1941 to 1983, when it closed, but everybody, everybody, everybody went there for breakfast, including the governor, Jerry Brown. Actors, directors, writers, publicists, hookers, horseplayers, and hangers-on—you name it, they were all at Schwab’s. [Laughs.] And I was sitting there in a booth, reading my paper, and some guy was standing there waiting for a table, and I looked up. I thought he was reading over my shoulder, and I looked up to make sure he had finished before I turned the page, and he wasn’t looking at the newspaper. He said, “Hey, Bob, I’m a friend of yours.” I said, “Yeah, Lenny.” He said, “I’m gonna tell you something, but… I’m a friend of yours.” I said, “Lenny, what is it?” He said, “Bob, you look better with hair, and you’d better do something about it.” And I thought to myself, “Jesus, the guy’s right.” I had gotten to the point where I was making jokes about hair loss.
Now, you may remember that, in Alligator, there are a series of little jokes about a guy who’s sensitive about losing his hair. You remember that? I put those jokes into the movie. I wrote ’em, I asked the director if I could put ’em in here, put ’em in there. He said, “Yes,” and the very first time we saw a rough cut of the movie, they were all in there, and in the second rough cut, they were all gone. And I figured, “Oh, God, this director didn’t like them,” or something, and I was sorry about it to myself. But then the third time, I said, “You know what? I think those belong in the movie.” And he called me back and said, “I’ve had friends tell me that they miss those hair jokes, so I’m gonna put ’em back in the movie.” And you may remember that when the movie was released, those hair jokes, every single reviewer commented on them. Without knowing how they got there, sure, but they all recognized that it was something human about the character, which gave it a little plus. Because, you know, it was a genre movie. It was a spoof of Jaws, basically. With a guy who was losing his hair. So when Lenny said what he said to me, that’s when I said to myself, “Losing my hair is not good enough to make the next joke. You’d better do something about it.” [Laughs.]
Reflections In A Golden Eye (1967)—“Pvt. L.G. Williams”
RF: When they asked me if I knew how to ride a horse, I did what all actors do: I said “Yes.” I had never been on a horse, except when I was a kid, where you paid 10 cents to sit on a pony and walk around in a circle. But I said “Yes.” On the day that we had to shoot that scene of me riding around on the horse—naked!—that was another memorable moment in my career. [Laughs.] I had never made a movie, I didn’t know how they were made, but I remember as I read that scene, where it said, “Guy rides around on a horse naked,” I said to myself, “Boy, I wonder how they do that! Probably trick photography or something.” But when I got there on that morning, here was an Italian extra—we were in Rome—riding around on that horse, riding through those trees. We were driving up to the set, and I saw the guy riding, and I said, “Holy moly, that’s supposed to be me! I’m not going to let that guy do that!” So I went to [John] Huston, and I said, “You know, I can do that.” And he said, [Huston impression] “Could you really, Bobby?” And I said, “Sure I can!” The next thing I know, the wardrobe department hands me a little… you know the pouch part of a jockstrap? Dyed flesh-colored. And a roll of flesh-colored tape. They hand this to me, and they say, “This is for your modesty.” So I tried to tape the damned thing on, and after about two rounds with the horse, the horse is now warm and lathered up, and this thing is flopping around. I finally took it off and tossed it in the bushes, and I said, “Bob, if you are afraid to be naked on this horse, you’d better quit, because if you don’t do it with full abandon, with absolute abandon, then you have no right to be an actor. You’d better quit now.” And that was the moment I said to myself, “All right, just go with it, Bob.”
The Black Hole (1979)— “Captain Dan Holland”
RF: The uniform kept shrinking and shrinking until it was so tight that I… well, it was tight as can be. It was form-fitting, let’s put it that way. [Laughs.] And it was the only steady job I ever had as an actor. Six months to the day, working from 7 in the morning to 7 at night at the Disney studio, shooting on a number of soundstages. It was kind of an adaptation of one of my favorite movies as a kid: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. The Black Hole was basically the space version. So it was from one of my favorite movies, and I could not believe my good fortune when I got picked to play the captain. But, otherwise, I remember it as a steady job and a very tight uniform. [Laughs.]
Mulholland Dr. (2001)—“Detective Harry McKnight”
RF: In the very first scene that I shot, which was up on the hill at night, overlooking Los Angeles, I had huge lines of dialogue with somebody else, probably another cop. And after the first time we shoot it, David Lynch says, “Do it slower.” So I did it slower. Then he comes again at the end of the shot, and he says, “The next time we shoot it, do it slower.” And I do it slower. And now I’m beginning to say to myself, “What is this guy doing?” Because I know what good timing sounds like, and I know what something coming out of my mouth ought to sound like, and I know what human back-and-forth should sound like, and this is beginning to sound different from that. It wasn’t until months and months and months later that I realized that I was in a dream. It was not an actual event, but that I was in… I think it was the dream state of the girl who killed herself, but I’m still a little bit wobbly on how that movie works. [Laughs.] But basically, it took me a very long time before I realized why he kept telling me to do it slower and slower. But don’t forget, this is David Lynch, so I said to myself, “Don’t fight this guy, Bob. Just do it the way he wants.” And I’m so glad I did.
The Kinky Coaches And The Pom Pom Pussycats (1981), “Coach Alan Arnoldi”
RF: Oh, Jesus.
AVC: It was apparently also known as Heartbreak High.
RF: Whatever it was called, I know they renamed it The Pussycat Movie, or whatever it was you just said. That was a high-school football comedy, and I had a pretty small part in it, but it was up in Montreal, and it was summertime, so it was nice. I remember Montreal being a beautiful place with nice people. I enjoyed being there. I remember thinking, “Boy oh boy, a job like this doesn’t come along everyday.” And I remember I needed the money. Well, I always needed the money: I had four kids and two exes. [Laughs.] So I had to take jobs, so I took ’em.
That isn’t the worst title in my résumé. There are some other titles that appear in Spanish, and you wonder why? Because there was an actor in Spain, and when I started out, people told him that he looked like me, so he did a number of movies using the name “Robert Forster.” Which, you know, apparently you can do over there. Not here. The Screen Actors Guild won’t let you do that. But over there, they did it. They might’ve been cleaned out by now, but in some old movie databases, there are movies, the titles of which will curl your toes. [Laughs.] And I can’t remember what they are in Spanish, but in English, they’re something like The Hyperactive Nymphomaniacs From The Rio Grande or something like that. And I’m not kidding. If you ever find them, you’ll chuckle, because they’re even worse than I just described. And there are several of them. And I worked with this guy in a movie! And he came over to me and sheepishly told me the story that I just told you, that they told him that he looked like me, so he made some movies calling himself Robert Forster. Nice guy, though. [Laughs.]
[The actor in question is Antonio Mayans, who worked with Forster on the 1989 film Esmeralda Bay. IMDB now lists Mayans’ credited pseudonym as “Robert Foster.” As for the titles of the films that had mistakenly ended up on Forster’s résumé, we’re guessing he’s referring to such classics as Aberraciones Sexuales De Una Mujer Casada, La Noche De Los Sexos Abiertos, and El Sexo Está Loco. And possibly Confesiones Íntimas De Una Exhibicionista, too. —ed.]
Heroes (2008)—“Arthur Petrelli”
RF: I didn’t know if I was a good guy or a bad guy until the third or fourth episode. They didn’t tell me. They were cryptic about whether or not I was good or bad. And so I tried to play it right down the middle, so that when I did discover whether I was a good guy or a bad guy, I would be able to then lean it over in that direction. But eventually I decided, “No, no, these are not the actions of a good guy. This guy is a bad guy.” So that colored the rest of my performance. I only did nine shows, so about halfway through was when I figured out that I was not a good guy.
Me, Myself & Irene (2000)—“Colonel Partington”
RF: The tightest boots I ever wore. [Laughs.] I just played it as straight as I could, and I enjoyed that. First of all, I like Jim Carrey. I liked Jim Carrey from the very beginning. There are two guys who knocked my socks off the first time I ever saw ’em: One was Robin Williams. The other’s Jim Carrey. The first time I saw both of ’em, I said, “How do they do that? What are their minds like, these guys?” Well, I ran into Jim Carrey at a party and shook hands and I told him what I just said, that I liked him in [Ace Ventura] Pet Detective and whatever else I’d seen him in. A week or so later, I get a call from 20th Century Fox. “Jim Carrey wants you to play the head of the Rhode Island State Police.” So there you go. Jim Carrey, what a guy. Threw me a job. And I liked doing it.
Psycho (1998)—“Dr. Fred Simon”
RF: When I got the script, I called my agent, and I said, “Look, they sent me the wrong script. This is the original script, the one from 1961.” She said, “I’ll get them to send you the right script.” She made contact with somebody, they sent me a second script, and it was the same wrong script. I called my agent, I said, “Look, they aren’t shooting the same script. This is the old movie. They’re shooting something else. I’m sure they’re not shooting this.” She made contact with them again, and they sent me a third script—apparently, nobody talks to anybody—and it was the same 1961 script to Psycho. Finally, I realized they were shooting the same script. They also told me that they wanted me to shoot the scene in the same amount of time that the original was shot in. So I knew going in that I had to do this scene in the same amount of time that it was onscreen. And I did. They cut it up a lot in the movie, but I walked in thinking, “Oh, first we’ll do a big shot, then we’ll do some close-ups, and eventually we’ll do the close close-up, and by then I’ll be warmed up and know the scene better.” But I had prepared, thankfully, because the very first shot, he says, “Okay, this is a steady-cam, he’ll be on you, this is your tight shot, he’ll follow you all around, we’re doing it in one.” [Sighs.] So I’m glad I had prepared enough. I knocked off the scene, and at the end of the first take, they said, “You’re going to have to clip eight or nine seconds off that take.” And on the second roll, I think I brought it in exactly on time. And we moved on. It was an interesting day’s work. Or two days’ work. I only did that one scene.
The Delta Force (1986)—“Abdul”
RF: First time I ever played a bad guy. I didn’t want to do it. I got stuck in bad guys for 13 years after that. I was broke, my agent had lent me money. He said, “No, I don’t have anything else for you. You’re going to have to go to Israel and play the bad guy.” Which I did. And I got away with. And I got stuck for 13. Until Jackie Brown pulled me out of the fire.