One of the fun things about the film business is following the careers of its many participants. Some you watch rise, some you watch disappear and some are like the proverbial boomerang. Actors like the late Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Robert Forster fall into this category for a variety of reasons. In the case of Robert Forster the reasons are that the good roles simply dried up. The studios control the destinies of journeymen actors and although Robert rarely stopped working the calibre of the films he made from 1975-95 varied greatly. Anyone who has seen The Magic of Marciano and then watched Point of Seduction III would willingly attest to the unevenness and Robert has always been quite frank about the successes and failures of his past. However, an actor with four growing kids must work and good films and bad films pay the bills equally.
In 1997 and 44 films after the great TV series Banyon had confirmed his acting credentials, Robert’s career bounced back. And how! At the age of fifty-six when many actors’ careers are winding down, Robert’s life changed when he was given two scripts. Firstly, he made American Perfekt which gave him a role to sink his teeth into, but mainly because he had the talent to make his character memorable. Perhaps the fact that the lead character decided life on the toss of a coin meant more to Robert than to most actors and he certainly flipped a winner when Quentin Tarantino asked him to play Max Cherry in Jackie Brown. Here was Tarantino’s most complex film being carried by two Hollywood has-beens, the Medium Cool Robert Forster and the Foxy Brown Pam Grier. This masterstroke by Tarantino was amply rewarded when these actors gave career best performances with Robert earning an Oscar nomination. The tapestry of Robert’s life was suddenly undergoing a major reconstruction.
However, there is much more to Robert than nearly 40 years of filmmaking. It is the man himself who really impresses. Nowadays, Robert works harder than he ever has and his whole life seems to have been built to support his brilliant post-fifty-five career. And as you will read below, Robert’s life is not just about acting. He has put in the hard yards to help other people by using his various life/career skills to good use as well as his time to some worthy works. The main programme is called, INTERACTING . It’s like a stand up act, but uses positive stories rather than jokes. The stories are the lessons of his life – things like respect, responsibility and the satisfaction derived from delivering excellence. It is a programme that he often provided free of charge to any community group that wants his help and has been a huge success.
With the help of his daughter, Kate and others, Robert has also created an excellent website for movie fans and interested parties to visit. Much of the purpose of the site isn’t about self-promotion but acts as an access point for the work he does with community groups and is well worth a visit at: http://www.robertforster.com
Because Kate Foster is a fine actress in her own right, I asked her about working with her father and she had this memory to share with us. “One of my favourite stories is about doing the Hollywood Harry movie with my father as a kid – You see, he taught me how to act over the phone! From a very young age I had been dying to get into acting and singing. I took lessons, acted in school plays, sang at every opportunity. When the time came and when we agreed that I'd do the part in Hollywood Harry, I was living in Rochester, New York and dad was living in Los Angeles, California. I was in high school and we were set to film during the summer, so in order to prepare, we'd have these lengthy conversations on the phone about all aspects of acting and shooting a movie. The piece of advice that has stuck with me through the last twenty years is: figure out what the scene is about; learn your words; then forget it all and just have a conversation.”
Recently, Robert was kind enough to have a chat and we talked about his parents and about family and the idea of respect (the right kind of respect) and he told about how he’d been enjoying breakfast at his favourite spot every morning for the last twenty-plus years. This is a place where a few actors grab a hot breakfast and get a good day started right. Robert explained that from time to time a few people would recognize him through the window, which was nice. Sometimes they would be European or British tourists who would have loved to have come in for an autograph but were too nervous to disturb him. And sometimes as he was leaving, he would sign some photos or cards for a few people. But he said to me that, “hey, if they are polite and want to come and in and have me sign a photo, I don’t mind.” I won’t tell you where Robert enjoys his breakfast, but if you do see him there then drop in and say a quick hello and he’ll probably sign a napkin or a photo for you. He might even sign it, “respectfully yours…”
David: I was asking you about your first autograph and then we got chatting about your dad’s past and also how you really got the acting bug…
Robert: You know he was a really great bloke. He spent a large part of his life working for Ringling Bros Circus. He started there when he was very young and spent much of his life travelling as he worked training and caring for the elephants. I think he loved both the animals and the gypsy life very much.
Anyway, years later I was going to university where I was studying Law. One day I spied this very pretty girl. It turned out that she was appearing in a play on campus. So to get closer to her I tried out for a part. I didn’t get the role, but I did get to be part of the chorus. And I did get the girl. But the big thing was that I enjoyed acting. So I went home one day and said to my father, ‘hey dad, I like this acting gig and I think I will give up the Law and take it up full time.” Well, my father turned to me and said, quite simply, “That’s great Robert. I think you can make a go of it.” You know, I always appreciated the way he viewed life and he always commanded the type of respect a man deserves when he’s honest and sincere. I’ve always thought that respect garnished by love rather than power is to be treasured and I have always tried to emulate him in that regard.
Later, when I was making Jackie Brown in ’97 my dad was ill and he died before the first official screening, but Quentin Tarantino did a really great thing. He organised for my father to see the film before its release. That was a great moment for me. Some of my dad’s circus gear now resides in Quentin’s office for everyone to admire.
As to autographs, I think I signed some during my early films and of course when Banyon was made, but I can’t remember the very first one. These days I sign a lot more than I did then. You know, I’m always amused by those actors who won’t give autographs. It’s such a small payback for the fans who stick with you through thick and thin. And it’s certainly better than not being asked at all.
David: You were also talking about a book your mom had and the lessons you took from it?
Robert: Yes, that’s right. She had this book that was about 100 years old. It was called White Hyacinth and was written by Elbert Hubbard. I vividly remember the quote, “If I had two loaves of bread I would sell one of them and buy white hyacinths to feed my soul.” I think I have kept that principle close to my heart and now, years later, my soul is reaping its reward. I certainly love the work that is coming my way and feel blessed that it has come my way. So perhaps even the bad films have laid the groundwork for my current successes.
David: You have just finished a stint on the very successful Karen Sisco series, but during your career you have also made six films with your daughter Kate?
Robert: Oh, I dragged Kate into acting at a very young age. At one time I decided that I wanted to direct a film because I thought it would be quite straightforward. She was about twelve at the time and I asked her if she would like to act in it with me. Since then we have worked together several times and Kate runs my office, my website and is also my script reader. She does a fantastic job and has become my right arm in this techno-age. And hey, you will also notice that I haven’t done much directing since my debut.
David: I interviewed a friend of yours, Hugh O’Brian, in 2003 and we both have a great respect for both the man and the work he does for HOBY and his complete dedication to good works…
Robert: Oh yes. I have never met many stronger characters than Hugh. I’ve the highest regard for his work and I am proud to call him a true friend. He lives his life by a simple creed and it reminds me of the historian Arnold Toynbee’s quote that “a human being should be in service to the universe. One should not exploit but serve instead.”
David: So I take it that you have now reached the stage where Toynbee says, “The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.” Especially when you think of the work you are now doing outside acting with the “Interacting” programme and your talking book projects.
Robert: I do love my work so you’re probably right. The Interacting programme is something that came about over many years and predates my revival as an actor. Although my films were not always the best during the 80s and early 90s, I had never stopped applying my interests to being creative and growing as a person, which is one of the reasons I came up with this particular programme. That it is also raises some money for various actors’ charity is a welcome bonus. The whole programme is designed around my life experiences and what I do is pass on a little of what I have learned and allow the audience to interact with me to learn about my profession and hopefully gain some insight into their own lives as well. You know most people are striving for excellence in their own lives or careers and some of the lessons and stories I have learned can be applied to their own lives. If people stop questioning themselves and others they stop growing as a person. And you know it’s not one-way traffic as I often get something back from them as well.
The talking books are something different again. I was asked to do one once and ended up doing quite a few like the Midnight Louie series. I enjoyed doing them and I hope people with eyesight problems get some fun out of these stories. Reading in whatever format is available is as important as eating or sleeping and I’m glad I was be able to help out a little bit.
David: So you are currently working on a pilot for a new series?
Robert: Yes, I start filming tomorrow and it looks to be a pretty strong story and hopefully CBS will pick up the series. I play a bounty hunter who has his two sons working with him. No doubt when this article is published we will know if it has survived or not.
David: Well it has been great to catch up with you Robert and I am sure we all hope the show is a hit and that we will be seeing you on TV regularly.
Robert: There are several other projects in the works so no doubt viewers will see me bobbing up now and again on their screens. I still have a long way to go before the tapestry of my life is complete.
(C) David Priol 2005