By M.V. Moorhead
Robert Forster passed on recently, at 78. Even though his hair had recently gone gray and thinner, the verve and sharp edge of his acting always made him seem at least 10 years younger.
Like many actors, the soulfully craggy- faced fellow with the accent that sounded like pure Chicago—though he hailed from Rochester, N.Y.— paid the bills over the years with a great deal of low- rent dreck, often elevating it by his very presence.
I met Forster once, by the way; more than a decade ago, at the Phoenix Film Festival, I introduced a not-very-good crime movie in which he appeared, and ran the Q&A with him after the screening.
I introduced him so effusively that when he stepped up to shake my hand he gave me a quizzical look, as if he wondered if my enthusiasm was a put- on. It wasn’t.
As to his few and far between career highlights, they were such that they’ve given him the legacy of a true star.
The son of an elephant trainer for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Forster—born Foster but changed to avoid confusion with the other actor by the same name—studied history at the University of Rochester, but was lured away from pursuing a career in law when he followed a pretty coed into a theater audition. His film career started on a high-profile note, when he was poached from a brief tenure on Broadway to appear opposite Marlon Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye.
Roles opposite the likes of Gregory Peck in The Stalking Moon or Anthony Quinn in The Don is Dead followed; so did his lead in Haskell Wexler’s 1969 verité classic Medium Cool.
Alas, this was followed by two failed TV series in the early ‘70s, and soon Forster’s career was in decline. Despite the occasional starring role in an A-list production like 1979’s The Black Hole, by the late ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s many of Forster’s credits were in stuff like Satan’s Princess and Maniac Cop III.
Things changed in 1997, when Forster was cast as the stoic bail bondsman Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino’s best movie, his Elmore Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown. Cherry assists the title character, played by Pam Grier, in her elaborate scheme to trick the deadly arms dealer for whom she smuggles money in and out of Mexico.
Forster’s thunderstruck expression when Cherry sees the imperious Jackie emerging from a lockup may be the single most effective portrayal of love at first sight in all of movies.
Max Cherry was the performance for which Forster got his Oscar nomination, and it will probably, and deservedly, be remembered as the signature role of his career. Even so, I have a favorite from the lean part of Forster’s career: his star turn as the perplexed police detective Dave Madison in Lewis Teague’s 1980 Alligator. Helped by the reflective dialogue of John Sayles, Forster turns the what could have been a routine lead in a routine monster picture into a sly and even touching character study.
He kept acting for more than 20 years after Jackie Brown, and while the work was steady and probably more lucrative, it was only a little better in terms of quality; there were lots of forgettable supporting parts in action movies, and there were still credits like Dragon Wars and Rise: Blood Hunter. He did well on TV, with roles on Breaking Bad and Karen Sisco and Last Man Standing, and the reboot of Twin Peaks.
My road to fandom was based on appreciating Forster’s low-key, unpretentious everyman persona with an underlying tinge of melancholy.
At his best, he was deeply lovable. This past weekend I caught up with one of his very last movies, 2018’s What They Had, in which he plays a devoutly Catholic husband and father struggling to care for his dementia-afflicted wife (Blythe Danner) at home.
It’s the kind of role he should have gotten to play more often.