There aren’t many actors around in this cynical day and age that can channel effortlessly cool and solid straight shooters that might have been more at home turning up a high ball with Glenn Ford or shooting the breeze with Jimmy Stewart. Robert Forster was one of the last remaining cowboys whose very inner being seemed to emanate an upright moral compass from another time and place. His voice was soothing, reassuring and firm. When he said something – anything – you believed it and took his every word to the proverbial bank. The mere presence of Mr. Forster in a movie scene anchored the whole moment together and made him the object of study and fascination from the viewer, whether he was sharing a scene with Robert DeNiro or Aaron Paul. The gentleman had gravitas in spades and he knew it but he never flaunted it. He was an American original.
Robert Forster passed away on October 11, 2019 at the age of 78 and that seems way too young to this admirer of his extensive film work.
Born in Rochester, New York on July 13, 1941, Forster made his mark early, splashing into Hollywood with John Huston’s 1967 film, Reflections in a Golden Eye and following that up the next year as a part-Indian scout in The Stalking Moon. In these years of tumult, as America reeled from the Vietnam War to political assassinations, Robert Forster seemed of and apart from the times with his steady presence onscreen. Collectively, we as a country might have been going quite topsy-turvy, but Forster already seemed above the fray, almost as if he were quietly contemplating and taking stock of these huge cultural upheavals. His expressive face and emotive eyes – the window into the soul of any really good actor – were weathered and well-worn even early on in his career. He was an old soul and it took some of the less in the know crowd some time to come around to fully appreciating his always level and evenhanded acting choices.
Me, I discovered Mr. Forster’s considerable acting chops at a very early age and how could I have failed to do so otherwise? As a latchkey kid who counted as some of his only company fantasy, horror and science fiction movies, I worshipped at the altar of his journeyman work in Disney’s The Black Hole and to my seven year old way of thinking his work in the 1980 flick Alligator was right up there with Clark Gable’s in Gone With the Wind. In case you missed it between paragraphs and a limited word count, Forster had made a segue from his earlier work in film into more genre efforts that were a lot of fun for budding film fans such as myself who were still cutting on our teeth on Hammer Dracula movies and Return to Witch Mountain. This hard working troubadour elevated any and all projects he worked on and a whole generation of writers and directors now active in Hollywood were introduced to Forster through movies with titles like Satan’s Princess and Hollywood Harry.
Of course, it was with Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film Jackie Brown that the world collectively awoke from their self-induced amnesia and rediscovered the actor from 1969’s Medium Cool and 1970’s Cover Me Babe. He’d never really gone anywhere, of course, but we sure had, losing ourselves in the haze of the 1970s and the hangover of the 1980s. When we woke up and looked around at the tour de force performance Mr. Forster gave as bail bondsman Max Cherry in Jackie Brown it seemed a revelation. For his achingly realized portrayal of Cherry, the actor received his one and only Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture.
Other brilliant work from Forster came along; The Descendants, Mulholland Drive and Breaking Bad and each project benefited just by his sheer presence and his quietly understated acting. A lot of truly remarkable talent passes through this crazy world we live in and are only recognized fully after they’ve sung the great Bon Voyage ditty. Forster was known, recognized and beloved in a sometimes cold and hard industry during his lifetime, a rare case of knowing we have a good thing while it’s still around.
Robert Forster cut out of this world on the same day Netflix released some of his last and best work in the new film El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. Appropriate and I suppose every actor worth their salt knows when to exit stage left. Hearing the news this past Friday I couldn’t help but reflect on another exit in Mr. Forster’s star-studded resume, this one a bittersweet and poignant one from the film that put him back on the map where he belonged, Jackie Brown. In what could surely serve as an epitaph for one of the most stoic and original voices Hollywood has ever seen, Robert Forster leaves his audience in tears as he reluctantly says goodbye to Pam Grier’s character of Jackie Brown. He could just as easily be looking down the pike some twenty two years later and bidding adieu to us, the movie going audience who has loved him for years.
Jackie Brown: I’ll send you a postcard.
Max Cherry: Will you?
Jackie Brown: I sure will partner.
(They kiss. Both are silent for a moment after, then the phone begins to ring. Max hesitates to answer it.)
Jackie Brown: You’re running a business, Max.
Max Cherry: (answers phone) Cherry Bail Bonds. Uh, what is it your son’s charged with?
(Jackie leaves the office, Max watching her go)
Max Cherry: Yes, that’s a very serious offence. Is your son still in school? Does his father still live in the house? Could I excuse myself? Would you call me back in about half an hour? Yes, thank you.
(Hangs up the phone and watches Jackie drive-off out the window)
Thank you for giving us Max Cherry and a thousand and one other fascinating characters, Robert Forster. You will be missed by anyone who knows and loves movies.
Hollywood is a town that exists in the present with very little reflection going on …