It took a high-profile role in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown to make Robert Forster a household name, but he'd spent the preceding three decades earning the distinction. After achieving theatrical acclaim for his work on Broadway, Forster won a major part in John Huston's 1967 film Reflections In A Golden Eye, appearing alongside Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. After starring in Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler's landmark work of cinema verite filmed in part amidst the riots that erupted at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Forster slowly slipped into failed TV series and B-movies, often proving the best part of such films as Alligator and Avalanche. Despite Forster's obvious talent, work became scarce through the '80s and '90s—he was eventually reduced to minor parts in American Yakuza and Scanner Cop II--a trend that reversed itself when longtime fan Tarantino cast him opposite blaxploitation icon Pam Grier in Jackie Brown. Forster's measured, subtle, Oscar-nominated performance in that film is no fluke: He's always been that good. The years since have found him hard at work in a number of films, including the forthcoming Joe Mantegna-directed David Mamet adaptation Lakeboat, the Natassja Kinski vehicle The Magic Of Marciano, and American Perfekt, a 1997 film (now surfacing on video and cable) by British director Paul Chart, who, like Tarantino, handpicked Forster for his film. Forster discussed his busy schedule, his colorful past, and his second career as an inspirational speaker in a recent interview with The Onion A.V. Club.
ascending first act and a 25-year descending second act." How would you describe the third act so far?
Robert Forster: The third act is shooting forward and upward. It's pretty good.
O: What are you most excited about now?
RF: You know, during the period immediately following the [Oscar] nomination, I did a lot of stuff. I ran into Quentin after about a year. We were talking about it, and I was asking him, "How do you pick really good material? Because I've been working a lot." "Yeah," he said, "you've got to be careful about that, because sometimes an actor who hasn't worked a lot can be doing lots of things, and then everything comes out at once. Then you can't get away from the guy and people get bored real quick. Sometimes a guy has four or five things coming out at one time." I was ashamed to tell him I had eight different things that I'd worked on.
O: Medium Cool was relatively early in your career. You weren't actually in the riot footage too much, were you?
RF: No, I was not, but I remember where I was that day. I was back at the hotel and then out with the crew. We were shooting right near where we were staying, and it was all happening right there. I remember [co-star Verna Bloom] was dressed in that yellow dress, and that was so she could be spotted, so our crew could stick with her. She was in the melee a lot more than I was. However, we went on the floor of the convention, Haskell and I. They only had two press credentials, and we both got in and got down there on the floor and both shot film there in the Democratic Convention. That was all real stuff. That was, they tell me, the best or only real example of cinema verite in American film. I'm not certain here, but I think the phrase "the whole world is watching" was coined at that exact moment, when the military was trying to separate the crowd from the press. They were pushing them, separating them, and the crowd was yelling, "Don't leave us, don't leave us, the whole world is watching." I believe that's where that phrase was coined.
O: Not a lot of people know this, but you have a second career as a lecturer. Is that the right word for it?
RF: Oh, it's a little less than a lecturer. I have one topic. Basically, it's a program I developed here during the last several years. There was a point at which, in that 25-year descending second act, I decided, "All right, you're not dead yet, Bob. You're not getting much work, but your creative life is not over. You'd better think up something to do." So I took lessons of my life, created stories around some of them, and went out and started doing this program. It's called "Interacting," and it's basically a stand-up act with positive stories instead of jokes. I continue to do it frequently. In fact, I'll do one here at lunch. As soon as I finish with you, I'm going to do the Westwood Rotary big lunch. It's satisfying, occasionally they pay me, and I donate that to an actors' charity, so it's a triple-win situation.
O: When did you start?
RF: Oh, gee, it's been six years now, maybe seven. I started out… I decided I would open this little actors' workshop I always told actors to look for. That gave me something to do on Wednesday nights, and after about a year of that, I realized that some of the things I was saying to actors probably had broader application. I ran into a magazine called Speakers For Free. I put myself in the magazine, and that's when I became a speaker. Not a lecturer, but [part of] this little program.
O: I don't want you to give your act away, but one item on the menu that intrigued me was "A Chilling Brando Story." Can you tell me what that is?
RF: It's a story about respect. You want the story?
RF: This is my closer, by the way. It's four or five minutes long, so relax. In the same week in which John Huston gave me my very first acting advice, and it is a great piece of advice—that's the top of that list, the John Huston story—but in the same week in which Huston gave me that piece of acting advice, I met Marlon Brando. We were shooting starting at noon and finishing at midnight. I was playing a private, we were out on the drilling field, and there were lots of other guys dressed like me; we were drilling and doing army stuff. Late in the afternoon of the fourth or fifth day of shooting, preceded by a whisper, [voice drops to a whisper] "Marlon's here. Here comes Marlon. Marlon's on the set." Everybody looks. Yep, there he is, Marlon Brando. John Huston breaks the set up, he starts walking over there, and he turns back to me and says, [imitating Huston] "Come on over here, Bobby, I want to introduce you to Marl." I walk over, I'm introduced to Marlon, they blah blah for a minute. Marlon says to me, [imitating Brando] "When do you break for dinner?" I say, "In an hour or so." He says, "Well, come on over to my Winnebago and we'll have a little conversation." We break for dinner and I go over to his Winnebago. We're sitting there in the Winnebago, and you know how they're set up: There's a couple of bench seats and a little table, and there's a picture window. The picture window looks out over everybody out there on the set. We're talking and Marlon's looking out the window a little bit. We're talking, and he's still looking out the window once in a while. He turns to me and says, "Where's your dressing room?" I said, "Well, you know, I'm over there. I'm fine." I came from the theater, and I was used to dressing in the bathroom if necessary. They'd given me a little corner with a drape on it where all the guys were dressing up as privates, and I knew it was a little bit of a loaded question, so in response to, "Where's your dressing room?" I say, "I'm over there. I'm fine." He's looking out the window a little bit more. He spots somebody. He gets up. He walks to the front door. He opens up the door. He points to the first assistant [director], a big tall guy, and the guy comes running over. "What do you need, Marlon?" Marlon looks at him and he points at me. He says, "This actor hasn't got a dressing room. He's dressing with the extras." That's something I hadn't told him, something he determined on his own. I'm thinking, "Why is this guy putting the heat on me? I didn't ask him to." The first assistant is, "Oh, but…" as he's wringing his hands, and he's saying, "Marlon, I'm sorry, but there weren't enough Winnebagos because of the tennis tournament," or because it's Long Island or because of this or because of that. Marlon says, "But, by the way, when we go to Italy he'll have a great dressing room." And when we got to Italy I had a great dressing room. He dismisses the first assistant, but by now everybody on the set, though they couldn't hear what Marlon was talking about in front of his dressing room, they saw the body language of the first assistant and knew something was going on. Something was wrong, and now he's got everybody's attention. Now he points to the biggest guy on the set, one of the producers. I forget who it was; let's call him Phil. "Phil," he yells to Phil. He points, and Phil comes over. "Yeah, Marlon, what is it? What is it, Marlon?" "Phil," and he looks Phil straight in the eyes. I'm inches away from all of this. He says, "Phil, I'm very, very upset." And he eyeballs Phil for a long time, 12 or 15 seconds, enough time for sweat to start forming on Phil's upper lip. I'm thinking, "Oh, please, please, please don't let it be my dressing room he's so upset about." Finally, in answer to the question Phil and I are both asking ourselves—what's he so upset about?—Marlon says, "Phil, there's too many folks around here. They're making me nervous." "What do you need, Marlon?" "I need some tranquilizers, Phil." "Right away, Marlon. What kind do you need?" He tells him what kind he needs. He says, "I'll be right back." He starts to leave. Marlon says, "Phil. Phil." Phil comes back. "What is it, Marlon?" "Phil, there's no music in this Winnebago. I'd like to hear some music. A little classical music to make me feel better." "Right away, Marlon. Right away." He starts to leave. "Phil. Phil." Phil comes back. "Something with a couple of speakers, Phil." Phil leaves. Thirty minutes later, he's got a big guy with him carrying a big record player, two speakers, and a stack of classical records. The guy brings it in, he installs it in seconds, and he's out the door. Phil gives the tranquilizers to Marlon. "Anything else I can do for you?" "No, Phil, you did great. I appreciate it very much." "Anything you need, you just let us know, Marlon." "Phil, you did great, I appreciate it very much." He shoos Phil out the door, closes the door, sits back down, and watches Phil walk back to the other producers. We're waiting to find out whether we're going to work tomorrow or not. He watches them for a while, and then he turns to me and he says this: "You see, if you don't scare them, they will never respect you, all right?" I learned three important things. Number one, I learned that the word "respect" has polar opposite meanings. At one end of the meaning of the word, respect is the thing that people give you if you've got a hammer over their head. At the extreme opposite end of the meaning of the same word is the thing that people give you if they love you, if they're not afraid of you, and if they want you to succeed. Number two, I realized what passed for respect in Hollywood, and that's who's got the hammer. And number three, I realized that if I ever got any of this respect, I wanted it to come from the other meaning of the word, where you don't have to worry about getting stabbed in the back. I tell my children—and part of this program, by the way, is about parenting—that life is short. It's an arc: First you're born and you can't take care of yourself, then you can take care of yourself, and then for most of your life you have to take care of others until the very end, when you can't take care of yourself anymore. You've got to rely on the ones you've parented. "You'd better do a good job, Bob," I say to myself. I realized that life is a series of moments along this arc, moments at which you can deliver excellence, or less, if you desire. But if you do deliver excellence, you get that reward, and I've built up a metaphor during this program of what you get when you deliver excellence to any job of any kind: You get the reward of self-respect and respect from others and satisfaction. And this is the real McCoy. This is untransferrable wealth. You stick this in your pocket and it's like a little nugget; it'll always be there. If you're ever wondering what to do right now, and if you're ever asking yourself, "What shall I do with this job that I've got right now?"… If I apply the simple formula that I'm going to do this job as good as I can, that and a little practice gives me excellence almost every time. And when you're delivering excellence every time, you get that reward I keep mentioning. And if you happen to be getting that reward on a frequent enough basis, you know… Those in both religious traditions, the Eastern and the Western, talk about a path: the path of righteousness. If you're getting these rewards on a frequent basis, you're on that path. And if you're one of the ones who believe in a heaven, this is the path right to it. But if you're one of the ones who believe that inner peace is the best life has to offer, you know precisely what you're doing when you wake up in the morning. You're using your life and your life experiences to understand with, and with every action you create, you deliver that understanding. You're doing what an artist does: using his life to understand and deliver that understanding with every act you create. And if you're doing that, and you're getting those rewards on a frequent enough basis, you're making the best that you can out of the life you've got to live. End of program.
O: One thing about your comeback is that it came from the type of respect that you like. People loved your work and sought you out. It must have been rewarding to see what you've been teaching come through in your own life, as well.
RF: Well, you've heard of a 12-step program? I've got a three-step program. It's a whole lot easier to remember. Step three was during the period in which I was headed downward and downward. I kept thinking to myself, "This slide has got to stop." But I had an epiphany during that period, and the epiphany was the simple one, when you realize, "You know what? You're not dead yet, Bob. You can win it in the late innings. You've still got the late innings, but you can't quit. Never quit." That's step three: You're ready to die, you're waiting to die. Never quit, that's step three. Step two: You've got to have a strategy to get from where you are, which is in a deep hole, to winning it in the late innings. That's the obvious strategy. You deliver excellence to what you're doing right now, and I say excellence; I don't mean perfection. I mean the willingness to do the job as good as you can. If you're willing to do it as good as you're willing to think up to do it, that's what your mind is there for, and you deliver excellence right now, now being the only moment you can control or do anything with or be creative with. Now is the only moment you've got to work with. If you deliver excellence right now, that gives you the best shot at the best future you've got coming. That's step two. Step one: You've got to have a good attitude in order to deliver step two, because if you have a bad attitude, step two is precluded; you can't deliver excellence if you've got a bad attitude. Step one is to accept all things. "It doesn't matter that they're not giving you good jobs anymore, Bob. It doesn't matter that you don't get the Winnebago anymore, Bob. It doesn't matter that she doesn't love you anymore." Put it behind you, just like that. Your shoulders relax, you breathe easier. Suddenly you've accepted it, you've put it behind you, and you're not going to worry about that anymore, no more negativity about that. Put it behind you just like that. Acceptance gives you a good attitude. That's step one. Delivering excellence right now gives you the best shot at the best future you've got coming. That's step two. And it's not over 'til it's over, but then it's really over. Never quit. That's step three. And I promise, I use that in my own life and with my own attitudes for the years when I was doing lousy in hopes that I would have another shot at this career and do something better with it the second time than I did the first. And Quentin Tarantino came along and [American Perfekt director] Paul Chart came along, and then some others have come along, and guess what? We've got another shot at it.
O: One thing I liked about reading interviews with you around the time of Jackie Brown is that a lot of actors who have comebacks don't want to talk about the lean years, but that's something you've been willing to do.
RF: Well, what is there not to talk about? I've had children. I had four children, we all had to struggle to get up and get educated, and they all did their part, and we all did the best we could, and that's what a family and a parent is supposed to do.
O: What are your favorite films of that period? You took some interesting films at that time, even if they weren't necessarily high-profile.
RF: Films of mine?
RF: Oh… Alligator.
O: That's a fun movie.
RF: It's a fun movie. Peacemaker, another fun movie. What are the pictures? Boy, you're talking to a guy who can't remember anything anymore.
O: I just watched the DVD of Vigilante recently.
RF: Oh, Vigilante. Well, you know, that's sort of an exploitation picture shot in New York, but I met some good guys from it.
O: I was going to mention that. It seems like you met a lot of people you worked with for many years after that.
RF: Fred Williamson… Fred makes pictures one after another. He gets them together, and they're not great pictures, but he kept me working. Who else… I did several pictures for [William] Lustig. He's the guy who made Vigilante.
O: And Larry Cohen wasn't involved with that project, but it seemed like that's someone you worked with quite a bit.
RF: I actually worked with Larry a couple times. The first time I worked with Larry, I quit the picture.
O: Really? What picture was that?
RF: It was God Told Me To. Remember that? He was one of those guys who yelled a lot on the set, and I said, "Hey, this isn't for me. Let me out of here." We parted friendly and all that, and over the years I kept running into him, and then we worked together again on a picture Fred produced called Original Gangstas. I think Larry Cohen also wrote one of Lustig's pictures. And I still see Larry. I went to his 60th birthday party, maybe 65th.
O: The Black Hole seems like it must have been interesting, because it's such a big-budget film with a relatively inexperienced director involved.
RF: Yeah, well, it was a long picture. It took just about exactly six months. Seven in the morning to seven at night for six months.
O: Were you surprised with the way it turned out?
RF: When I did the picture, we had a script that did not have the last few pages. The script at the end said… I forget now how it was worded, but it made it clear that there was an ending that they were going to keep secret until they shot it. My assumption was, "Oh, boy, this is going to be a good ending. This is Disney, these guys know what they're doing, they're really gonna put something great out there." And when I saw the picture, I was really confused about what that ending was all about. So, with the exception of the ending, I liked the picture a lot.
O: You also directed a film called Hollywood Harry which I had trouble tracking down. Can you tell me about the film?
RF: Yes. Hollywood Harry. I went to Cannes with Vigilante, and that was the first time I saw how they sell movies. "Wow," I thought. "This is fun. I'm going to do this. How hard could it be?" I went home, got a writer I knew, and we got a sort of mediocre script together. I figured for half a million dollars I'd make a picture, I'd probably sell it for a lot of money, probably get a house in Malibu. Well, it's not so easy to make a movie. I made it with a whole lot less, about $125,000. Eventually, I called up my daughter Kate, who at the time was 12 and wanted to act, and I said, "Do you want to work? Are you ready to work?" She said, "Yes, absolutely." And so I built a little picture around her and me.
O: In the late '80s, you did three films in Spain with George Kennedy. How did that come about? Were they all filmed back to back?
RF: No. One of those films I actually did. Two of those films are a Spanish actor who… Somebody told him he looked enough like me. He took my name and made, well, you see them. One is called The Hopped-Up Nymphomaniac Of Rio Grande or something like that, isn't that right?
O: There's Esmeralda Bay.
RF: Esmeralda Bay I did. That I think I did with George Kennedy. Name the other ones?
O: Satan's Princess?
RF: That's not a Spanish picture. That's just another dopey picture. During the years when I was trying to survive, I was doing dopey stuff. That one was made by a guy named Bert I. Gordon. His name was really Bert Gordon, but he decided to put an I in there so that his initials spelled "BIG." Aw, don't laugh at this stuff. This… [Laughs.] Bert I. Gordon, Satan's Princess. I've never seen it, but I know it's a horror.
O: Then there's this thing called Counterforce. I think that's a Spanish film.
RF: I did do Counterforce. That was a period where I played all the villains in the world. I played Noriega, Gadhafi, the guy that killed a kid and tossed him out of the airplane in the hijack picture. I can't remember what else, but that was a period in which I couldn't get any kind of jobs except terrorists and villains.
O: How did you end up with villains? You don't strike me as somebody who'd immediately be cast as a villain.
RF: Listen, if you're cast as nothing and you get an offer as a villain, you take it. You've got kids. You've got to work. You've got to scrape it out. You've got to hang in there.