Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Interviews

“You never know how you’re going to get from point A to point B”: Robert Forster Interviewed

Quentin Tarantino developed a reputation not simply for unconventional storytelling and inventive writing, but for inspired casting. Reservoir Dogs introduced Lawrence Tierney to a new generation of crime movie fans. Pulp Fiction revived the faltering career of John Travolta. And Jackie Brown, his first film based on someone else’s story, he cast as his leads two veterans of the seventies drive-in and exploitation cinema: Pam Grier and Robert Forster.

Last week I published my interview with Ms. Grier. This week, I present my conversation with Mr. Forster, one of the most underrated performers of his time and an actor we almost lost to neglect before Tarantino gave him a showcase. Again, limited to twenty minutes, I had very little time to really dig into his career, but I was able to touch on some of my favorite films of his, and discover that they are his favorites as well.

Sean Axmaker: Let’s talk about Jackie Brown. Quentin Tarantino was a fan of your films. Were you a fan of his when you were cast?

Robert Forster: Well, sure. This guy made great movies. I had auditioned for one of his movies, for Reservoir Dogs. I thought I was going to get it until I realized that he had dedicated the film to the guy to did the part that I wanted, Lawrence Tierney. So it came as a big surprise when I walked out of that audition thinking that I had just hit it out of the park, and then Quentin comes out after me and says, “Look, this isn’t going to work. I’m going to give this part to the guy I dedicated the script to, but I won’t forget you.” And I thought, “Okay, good.” And then he did Pulp Fiction and became a huge filmmaker and years had gone by and I ran into him in a coffee shop. By then my career was really, really dead and we blah-blahed for a few minutes and then six months later he showed up at the same coffee shop with a script in his hands and handed it to me. I by then had been reduced to hoping some young guy who liked me growing up would turn into a moviemaker and give me a good part and here comes the guy and what a script! When I read it I could hardly believe that he had me in mind for Max Cherry except that nothing else made any sense, so when I asked him about it he said, “Yes, it’s Max Cherry that I wrote for you,” and that’s when I said to him, “I’m sure they’re not going to let you hire me.” Because I’ve had the experience of getting close to good parts and realizing the distributors wanted something else. So when I said that too him, he said, “I hire anybody I want.” And that’s when I realized I was going to get another shot at a career and this guy gave me what I’d been hoping for: a good part from someone who liked me growing up.

When you got together with Tarantino, were there any of your films in particular that he wanted to talk about?

Yeah, we talked about a lot of stuff. He saw stuff, I can’t quite remember now, he had asked me if I had any copies of films that I had been in and I had a 16mm copy of Medium Cool and I had a few episodes of Banyon and he said “I want to see those.” So we screened the Banyon episodes I had on day I think I went to his house around noon, I didn’t leave until 8 o’clock at night. We watched those Banyon episodes, we read the script of Jackie Brown, he read all the parts and I read Max Cherry and then I read a different part and he read everything. We had a lot of conversations and at the end of that I said, “Look, I understand the part of Max Cherry. I don’t understand the part of the convict.” He said, “Don’t worry, you’re going to make a good Max Cherry.” And that’s when I believed I had a great role and a good shot.

I had the great opportunity to see Medium Cool with Haskell Wexler introducing the film in Seattle. It still is amazing to see that lightning in a bottle moment when you are shooting the scene at the Democratic National Convention and then the unexpected happens and there you are, right in the middle of history.

Yes. There couldn’t be two movies more different from one another. Quentin’s movie was perfectly scripted. I did not take any liberties at all with that material. There were only a couple of moments when a little bit of improvisation was required in Quentin’s movie, but in Medium Cool, that’s where I realized that I was responsible every piece of the frame. You had to fill that frame with stuff and if there wasn’t anything written on the page, you had to invent it, and I can only say that the movie, if you could see my hands, I would move my hands about two feet apart and that was the size of the script. And now I extend my hands out about as far as I can, and that’s the amount of stuff we shot. There was so much stuff that was not in the script that we shot and there was much improvisation and interviews that we conducted and the scene in the black cab driver’s apartment was just something that he threw together from a piece of news that had happened. The scene in the boxing gym was out of an improvisation with the young boy next to me at the dinner table. I told him that I was a CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) boxer and Haskell said, “Okay, we’re going to shoot in a boxing ring and we’re going do a scene where…” We just shot stuff as it occurred to Haskell. So there could not be two movies that were more different from one another. But they both are at the top of my career.

What did getting cast in Jackie Brown do for your career?

It brought it back. I had no career, my career was dead. I had no agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing. I was just picking up scraps. I had four kids and two ex-wives and I needed to take any job I could get and there weren’t very many and one was worse than the other. And eventually, as I say, I ran into Quentin in a coffee shop and this guy gave me a gift the size of which cannot be exaggerated: he gave me a career back and the last fourteen years have been fabulous. It’s great. I got out of debt and these last fourteen years have been satisfying in an awful lot of ways.

If we have the time, there are a couple of facets of your career I would love to talk about. There were those Corman AIP films and, along those lines, William Lustig’s Vigilante, which is kind of in the vein of Death Wish but you play a tragic hero. You lose your family and then the killers get off and you are sent to prison and get mentored by Woody Strode. Your ordeal is very powerful and your performance makes it even more so.

I’ve seen Vigilante as recently as a year or so ago at a film festival and, remarkably, it holds up well. And you’re correct, it’s a strong movie. It was made by an exploitation filmmaker without much money but he made a movie that seems to have lasted. And from that movie I met Fred Williamson and I did a bunch of movies for him. As low case as they were, this guy kept me alive and Lustig kept me alive. These are guys who hired me again and again, so Lustig’s movie Vigilante helped to keep my dying career alive for a while, all of which led to Quentin’s movie. You never know how you’re going to get from point A to point B but something or another happens and, well, that was one of them. The other movies, I’m not sure what you mean.

The one in particular I was thinking of was Alligator.

Oh, Alligator I put up there as one of the top movies in my career. I love that movie. It was a spoof of Jaws, I put in those hair jokes, I was losing hair at the time so I said “Let’s get some jokes out of this,” and that movie…. Ah, I love that movie. And it was a very well reviewed movie by serious guys, so it was a thrilling movie to be in. If you look up the New York Times review of Alligator, it not only got a great review to begin with, about two weeks later they reviewed the summer movies and put it with two huge movies as the best movies of that summer, so it got plenty of play. It’s like a lot of other things, you think it’s going to propel your career and it did nothing at all. But it certainly is one of the movies in my career that I most enjoyed, most loved doing and had fun with and liked.

Of the films you made after Jackie Brown, there is one in particular that I have a great fondness for, and that is Lakeboat.

Ohhhh, Lakeboat was great material. At first I was hired to play the first mate and after I said, “Sure, I’d be delighted to,” they called me back and said, “You know what? Charles Durning has agreed to play the first mate. Is that all right?” And I said, “Sure, it’s okay.” I was busy at the time. And a few days later they called me back and they said, “You know what? Would you play Joe instead?” I thought to myself, God, I better read it again before I say yes, because I didn’t remember what Joe was all about, and I said to myself, Know that you can deliver before you say yes, Bob. So I read it again and I though, okay, this is that sensitive character and one of the able-bodied seamen—not one of the main guys, not one of the cooks, this was one of the able-bodied seamen, that’s what those guys are called—and I said, “Sure.” And then I worked on the material and it was great. I remember shooting that, I prepared that scene, I knew that David Mamet was one of those guys who does not want to hear any alteration of his lines and so I was very careful and I worked very hard to get good at that material and then we shot it in about four or five hours and bingo bango it’s over with. I prepared that for about a month and whammo you shoot it and now it’s behind you. I met some good friends on that picture: Jack Wallace, one of the other seamen, and J.J. Johnston, the three of us. And I’ve known those guys ever since. Jack’s still working. J.J. doesn’t work a lot but Jack, you see him popping up in a lot of places. It was a terrific movie to work on and Joe Mantegna did a wonderful job of directing it. I was privileged to be in that movie.

You have a tremendous sense of calm and ease and composure and confidence in all of your performance, which seems at odds with the kind of exploitation films you were making in the seventies and eighties, but I also think it gave them a lot of gravitas.

I’m not sure how to account for it. I can tell you this: My father was an elephant trainer with the Ringling Bros. circus. He was fearless and maybe I caught something good from the old man. He was a very good guy and I admired him a lot and I’d say that part of his nature was a certain amount of confidence and a certain amount of calmness. I had an apartment here in L.A. and he came to visit me and I had the window open, it was a kind of sliding aluminum door window, you know the kind, that led out to the roof, and we had birds there and there had been lots of bluejays. They’re very cocky, very aggressive birds but they had never come in to my apartment. And he sat there and he was as patient as can be and after a long time, I had left the room but I came back, and he was still there and here was a bluejay coming in to the room and eventually took a peanut out of his hand, and I thought to myself, That’s why this guy was an animal trainer. He had great patience. He loved the elephant, he loved the bulls. When I was growing up, he had left Ringling and went in to World War II, I was born in 1941, but some of the things I remember about my father are that this guy had great confidence, great strength, and was fearless. You go up against an elephant and either you boss them around or you make friends with them and I think that he made friends with his charges. I guess if there’s any good stuff in my, I got it from my parents.