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The Warren Awards: Robert Forster

October 22, 2009 |  2:58 pm

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First in a series of profiles that pays tribute to the men and women who personify the backbone of the acting craft – the character actor – and explores their creative process and experience. Their work, though never less than memorable, rarely receives the credit it’s due, so we’ve framed these interviews as an award for their efforts, named after the quintessential character actor, Warren Oates.

Robert Forster

Streetwise, seemingly unflappable performer who never fails to bring a degree of honesty and integrity to his wide variety of films and television projects. Emerged in the late ‘60s as a Rebellious Young Man, most notably as the object of both Marlon Brando's and Elizabeth Taylor’s repressed desires in John Huston’s “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967) and the morally challenged cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” (1969). Brief stints as a TV star (“Banyon,” “Nakia”) preceded a lengthy period of starring roles in indie and B-pictures; the best of the latter included the quirky, John Sayles-penned “Alligator” (1980) and William Lustig’s gritty “Vigilante” (1982) as well as a nearly unrecognizable turn as a terrorist in the Golan-Globus-produced “Delta Force” (1986) with Chuck Norris. His career received a long-overdue boost with his Oscar-nominated performance as a bail bondsman understandably smitten by Pam Grier in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997); since then, he has been a regular and welcome presence in major features like “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” (2009) and series like “Heroes,” though character-driven indies like “Diamond Men” (2000), David Mamet’s “Lakeboat” (2000) and “Grand Theft Parsons” (2003) continue to be the best showcase for his talents. In addition to his acting career, Forster is a much in-demand motivational speaker (interested parties can find more information at his website,

Interview after the break.

The Circuit: What is your definition of the term “character actor?”

Robert Forster: In the old days, everyone knew what a character actor was – if you weren’t a leading man, you were one. You didn’t get the girl, you weren’t a good guy. You played second bananas, thugs, hicks – you were the comic relief. But right around the time that I started in the business, that was when Dustin Hoffman broke the mold, and what would have been a character type became the leading man. From that point on, character types started getting the girl – even bad guys got the girl.

I started out as a leading man, and I’ve done all sorts of roles since then. And I still get the girl on occasion, as recently as Rose McGowan in “Roads to Riches” (a.k.a. “Strange Hearts,” 2001), Bess Armstrong in “Diamond Men” and Amanda Plummer in “American Perfekt” (1997). Though in truth, I killed her and stuffed her in my car (laughs).

The Circuit: Of the many diverse roles you’ve played, which has been the most satisfying to play?

Robert Forster: They all have their charms. I’ve played good guys and bad guys – I got stuck in bad guys for a long time after “Delta Force,” then got rescued back into good guys by Quentin. To be taken seriously by an audience is great stuff. And to be menacing is interesting, if you can get away with it. But to create a laugh is the most satisfying thing I’ve done as an actor. I don’t get a chance to do that very often. The broadest character I’ve ever played was in a film I produced and directed called “Hollywood Harry” (1986, which also starred his daughter, Kate). It was the dopiest, broadest use of myself I’ve had. I was hoping for laughs, and it was surely one of the high points of my efforts.

The Circuit: Patience with the business aspect of acting is something that doesn’t get a lot of attention, both from the media and in acting classes. How were you able to keep your perspective during the ebb and flow of your career?

Robert Forster: I had an epiphany while walking through Plummer Park. This was during the years in which my career was going through a rough patch – I was worried about how I would keep my house, how I would pay for my kids to go to college. So I was walking into the tennis park and there was a guy there, 79 years old, a psychiatrist, still seeing patients, and batting the ball while he waited for me.  And he beat me – he had me running all over the court. And I said to myself, “Bob, that’s the answer: Do not quit.” Because if you quit, you have to do something else, and I was getting good at being an actor.  I told myself I could win it in the late innings.

So I asked myself, "How do I get from the hole I’m in now to win it in the late innings?" The answer is to not worry about it. All you have to worry about is what you’re doing right now. When you deliver your best right now, you get the reward of self-respect and satisfaction. And you can deliver your best by accepting all things. I said, “You’re pissed because you’re not getting the good jobs.” Well, put them behind you, accept it. I developed a little three-step program around this: Accept all things, deliver excellence right now, and remember that it’s not over till it’s over. You can win it in the late innings. During the years when my career got even worse, I remembered those steps, and I understood the truth in them.

The Circuit: Are there character actors whose work you enjoy?

Robert Forster: When I was growing up, I loved Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges and Huntz Hall, Sach from the Dead End Kids. They were both sympathetic guys – the other guys were ballbreakers. They took the heat and were always funny about it.

When I was a senior in college, I went to see Tony Curtis in “The Great Imposter.” And I remember walking out of the theater in Rochester, NY, and thinking, "I may not be as smart or resourceful as the character he played in the film (legendary imposter Fred Demara), but I could do what Tony Curtis did." So I started to wonder, “How do you do it?” I went to my father, who had trained elephants for the Ringling Bros. Circus in the 1930s, and said, “Dad, I want to be an actor.” He didn’t miss a beat and said, “I think you can do that.”

Tony Curtis was a good dramatic actor, but he also knew how to get laughs, and I liked that.

The Circuit: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received about the entertainment industry?

Robert Forster: I’m tempted to repeat Bette Davis’ statement about the way to move fast in Hollywood, which is to always take Fountain (laughs).

When John Huston gave me the job in “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” I told him that I’d never done a movie So he asked me to go and look through the lens of the camera. It was a big old standard lens on a Mitchell. I did so and turned back to look at him, and he had me framed in his hands, as directors do. He said, “Do you see the lines on the lens? Those are the frame lines. They show the audience what the cameraman sees. So ask yourself – what needs to be in there?” So,what any job or task requires is to figure out what’s needed by the people involved. When I heard action, I could deliver into that frame what the writer wanted and what the director wanted. That’s not the end of it, though – the guy who sets the lights has needs, and the guy who’s taking notes for continuity has needs too. And you have to understand the rollercoaster track of the movie’s structure, and you have to be believable so the audience will stick with you throughout the picture. And you have to be on time and ready to knock that thing out of the park on the first take. You owe something to everyone. The actor cannot get from “action” to “cut” until he’s delivered a take that advantages everyone at once. It sounds like a tall order to deliver a stroke like that, but there are actors who can do it 18 times a week. What’s required is to keep other people’s needs and interests in mind.

 -- Paul Gaita