It is no surprise how many people are expressing grief at the death of Robert Forster from brain cancer at age 78. It was far too soon. He’s actually on screen now, in Vince Gilligan’s “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” which hit both theaters and Netflix this weekend.
Anyone who met Forster knows what a kindly man he was, often handing out elegant silver letter openers to set visitors and new acquaintances; he gave me my second at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where he was promoting the intimate family drama “What They Had.” He steals the movie and provides its emotional center as the tough but vulnerable patriarch doggedly hanging onto his wife (Blythe Danner) as she slips into Alzheimer’s.
Bryan Cranston described his “Alligator,” “Breaking Bad,” and “El Camino” costar Forster as a “lovely man and a consummate actor,” he tweeted. “I never forgot how kind and generous he was to a young kid just starting out in Hollywood.”
Talking to Forster and his partner Denise Grayson at the Bleecker Street table at last year’s Academy Governors Awards, Forster was grateful to be in constant demand during the last chapter of his film career, thanks to “the best job I ever had,” he told me. Quentin Tarantino rescued the seasoned character actor from a 13-year run of villain parts when he cast him to play honorable bail bondsman Max Cherry opposite Pam Grier as wily “Jackie Brown.”
Both actors made huge comebacks; Forster earned his only Oscar nomination. And after that, he happily embraced all number of juicy roles in films: the Farrelly brothers’ “Me Myself & Irene” opposite Jim Carrey, who brought him in; a tough military man with a temper in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants“; Gus Van Sant’s remake of “Psycho”; David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive”; and as Sheriff Frank Truman on the continuation of “Twin Peaks,” among other TV series like “Grid,” “Karen Sisco,” “Heroes,” and “Last Man Standing.” Forster’s last role was in “Dynoman and the Volt,” in the upcoming Apple TV+ “Amazing Stories” reboot.
Forster grew up in Rochester, New York, and shared two loves in college: football and musical theater. He was talking to the woman who eventually became his wife when he wandered into a musical casting session for “Bye Bye Birdie.” He launched a Broadway career with “Mrs. Dally Has a Lover,” where Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck spotted him and signed him to a studio contract; John Huston cast him in Forster’s first movie “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967), opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando.
Forster had a decent run in Hollywood in television and such films as Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” until his career slowed down in the ’80s and he was forced by his agent (who was lending him money) to reluctantly take on his first bad guy in “The Delta Force” (1986). From there, Forster was stuck with a string of villains, and not unlike Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Forster played a recurring role on a western TV series, “Walker, Texas Ranger.”
Luckily, Tarantino had always been a fan. When Forster engaged him in banter at a small LA restaurant, Tarantino told him he was adapting the Elmore Leonard novel “Rum Punch” and told him to read it. Six months later, the director returned to the restaurant and handed Forster his “Jackie Brown” script. “Read this,” he said. “See if you like it.”
Forster landed the part after a grueling seven-hour audition. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself,” Tarantino told him. “Just prepare the way you normally prepare.” Forster hadn’t had such a meaty role in 25 years. “You can’t make that up,” he told me.
Forster is survived by his children, Bobby, Elizabeth, Kate, and Maeghen, and his grandchildren, Tess, Liam, Jack, and Olivia.