When Robert Forster isn’t working, you can find him at his office: a corner table on the patio of the Silver Spoon coffee shop on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. He’s hung out there for the last 28 years and has called that particular table his home away from home for the last two decades.
The 69-year-old veteran of such films as Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown,” for which he earned an Oscar nomination, and Haskell Wexler’s innovative “Medium Cool” was a Schwab’s drugstore regular until it closed in 1983. “It was on Sunset and Laurel Canyon,” Forster says on this overcast early afternoon over a “No. 1" breakfast — French toast, eggs and bacon.
“They closed up unexpectedly, and all of those hundreds of regulars had to find a new place to be. They started to scatter to the four winds. There was a table of us actors who set up a table here inside and after a few years, I had heard their stories, and one of the guys had died, so I used that as my excuse to come out here. They save my table for me. People come to visit. I do my work here. I read the paper. I do whatever I have to do.”
That’s where he was sitting when he noticed Tarantino coming into the restaurant about 15 years ago. “I was sitting here with my friend, another actor, and I saw him and yelled at him,” says Forster, an open-faced, unpretentious man.
“He came in and sat down with us. One of the things I said was, ‘What are you up to?’ He said, ‘I am writing an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s “Rum Punch.” Why don’t you read it?’”
So Forster read the crime novel. Six months later, Forster arrived at the restaurant one day to find Tarantino sitting in his spot with his script, now called “Jackie Brown.” Tarantino had him in mind for the role of the aging bail bondsman, Max Cherry, who falls in love with an airline stewardess (Pam Grier).
“I took the script home and I could hardly believe that the part he was asking me to read was such a great part. I called him up and he said, ‘Let’s meet again.’”
At that time, Forster was in the 25th year of a freefall. “My career was at the bottom,” he says. “I didn’t have an agent. I had nothing. No manager.” Forster even told Tarantino at that second meeting that the filmmaker would run into problems casting him because he was basically dead in the water in Hollywood.
“He said, ‘I hire anybody I want.’ That is when I began to believe that maybe this could happen. I know that every big actor in this town wanted that role. That was the moment in which I could dream again….”
The role of Cherry fit Forster like the well-worn green sweater he’s wearing this day. Forster said it wasn’t hard to perform Tarantino’s lines. “They are so well written,” he says. “He is a magnificent dialogue writer.”
Forster was considered a hot property with a lot of promise during the first five years of his film career. His nude horseback riding scene in his movie debut in John Huston’s 1967 melodrama “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” in which he plays an Army private who catches the eye of a repressed officer (Marlon Brando), garnered good notices, as did his performance as a TV news reporter in the controversial, politically charged 1969 drama “Medium Cool.”
This Sunday evening, the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Santa Monica will be screening both films. Forster will be on hand with Wexler to discuss his career with “Ed Wood” screenwriter Larry Karaszewski.
Forster still doesn’t have a clue why his career took a wrong turn for so long. But he knows that after his 1972-73 NBC detective series “Banyon” was canceled in midseason, “it started to slip and then it slipped and then it slipped.”
But he took it all in stride. Even when the projects were dreadful, he always gave 100%. “By delivering the best you can, you can get the award of self-respect and satisfaction,” says Forster. And if he sometimes sounds like a motivational speaker when he talks — well, he is one.
“I have been speaking to audiences for 20 years,” he says. “When my career was really rotten, you have got to find a way to express yourself. “
Thanks to “Jackie Brown,” he’s a working actor again. He has a small but pivotal part as a former cop/bar owner in J.J. Abrams’ new Fox time-travel series, “Alcatraz,” and is about to start rehearsals for a one-man show, “Lifeguard: The Life and Times of Ronald Reagan,” though no L.A. theater engagement is set.
“This is big,” he says of the play. “My career has some good things in it, and this could easily be the top.”