Classic Hollywood: Robert Forster finds new acting challenges in the indie drama ‘What They Had’

Oscar-nominated actor Robert Forster of "Jackie Brown" fame plays the husband of a woman (Blythe Danner) who is suffering from Alzheimer's in the new film "What They Had."
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Robert Forster vividly recalled the time veteran character actor Pat O’Brien was a guest on the 1972-73 NBC detective series “Banyon.” Forster was starring in the series as a John Garfield-esque 1930s L.A. gumshoe and O’Brien was playing a political bigwig.

“At 10 o’clock, when they took their break and the big door opened [on the sound stage] and the sun came shining in, somebody brought over a chair, ” the open and engaging actor said recently.

O’Brien sat down, sipped some coffee and was about to read the newspaper when “little by little, from all over the lot, guys who had worked with him came over to pay respects. I said to myself, ‘Boy, I hope I last in this business enough to run into people that I have known for a long time.’”


Now 77 and still an in-demand actor — especially since his supporting actor Oscar nomination for Quentin Tarentino’s 1997 hit “Jackie Brown — Forster has been in the business even longer than O’Brien had when he appeared on “Banyon.” He knows everybody, and everybody knows him.

“You reach a tenure of some sort,” he said with a smile.

Now, he feels like he’s beginning a third act in his career with his latest movie, the indie drama “What They Had,” which opens Friday.

Based on the lives of the grandparents of first-time writer-director Elizabeth Chomko, “What They Had” revolves around a family in crisis. Forster plays Burt, a devout Catholic with a history of heart attacks. His wife, Ruth (Blythe Danner), has Alzheimer’s, but he refuses to put her in a memory care program, insisting she should stay with him.

After Ruth wanders off in the middle of the night during a blizzard, their daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank) returns home on her brother’s (Michael Shannon) insistence to convince Burt that he can no longer take care of her. Forster’s performance is haunting, funny and filled with pathos.

“I’ve been in some nice pictures,” said Forster. “I’ve had nice parts, but at the end of the career, this is something great. It gives me a feeling of completion and freedom. I hope I can stretch this out.”

Forster was Chomko’s first choice to play Burt. “They were just wonderful people,” she said of her grandparents. “They were so full of love and joy and laughter. My grandfather was just one of my favorite people. So, I wrote the script in his voice. I shared it with a friend of mine who is also a producer. He said, ‘You know, you should look at Robert Forster.’”


Chomko recalled how impressed she was with him in Alexander Payne’s 2011 “The Descendants.”

“He plays a sort of that guy with that very solid moral structure in that film.” she noted. “It just felt like that texture I was looking for from the Midwest, the simplicity of that loyalty to God and your parish and your family. You put your head down and do the right thing.”

Forster and Danner also had a history together, appearing as husband and wife in the Showtime series “Huff.”

For his part, Forster said he had no problem stepping into Burt’s shoes.

“I understood him totally, and right from the beginning,” he said. “I’m a father, for 200 years, I’d like to say, if you count up the ages of my children. I have four kids, and they’re all grown up now. And I’ve got grandchildren.”

Forster noted that he “had a household full of kids for a long time.”

“I was a single father from the time my son came to live with me when he was just 9, until the time my middle daughter went to New York City,” he added.

And he had only one firm edict for his kids: “I will clean up my own mess immediately, plus 10%,” said Forster, who has been divorced twice. “If you know that you are bound to clean up your own mess immediately, you don’t make as much mess. Listen, if one person is sloppy, it’s no matter. If two people are sloppy, it is intolerable. “

“What They Had” was shot in just 22 days, without the benefit of rehearsals. “But all the actors were really seasoned people, and everybody knew what to do,” Forster said. “We all did what the actor is supposed to do, achieve intimacy on the first moment.”

“Robert really put his whole heart into my hands and sort of led all of us as the leader of this family, because, of course, we became this little family,” said Chomko.

Two-time Oscar winner Swank noted that it was a gift to work with Forster, whom she’d admired since she was a youngster.

“We clicked from the moment we met, because he’s so present and a genuine giver,” she said. “He wants to help in every way — when he’s off-camera too.”

A particularly challenging scene between the two of them takes place when Burt is folding clothes in his bedroom. “He was so patient with me and my process,” Swank said. “He’s a genuine human. When he speaks, he’s straight from the heart. He’s old school-in the good way.”

Forster has been working almost nonstop since playing bail bondsman Max Cherry in “Jackie Brown.” But that wasn’t the case for the 25 years before he got the role. Although he had started out hot in Hollywood, making his film debut in John Huston’s 1967 “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” as well as starring in Haskell Wexler’s acclaimed 1969 “Medium Cool,” his career went into a slide after the failure of “Banyon” to last an entire season.

One person who never gave up on him was his father, Robert, who had been an elephant trainer for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus when he was young man.

Forster did “circus things” every year during the last decade of his father’s life. “He came out for the last time to San Francisco, went to the circus [fan] convention and came to Los Angeles and the set of ‘Jackie Brown.’

“I got him to the airport after all this night of work and he said. ‘Bob, this guy is good and is going to do you some good.”

After Forster finished the film, he went to his hometown to Rochester, N.Y., to take care of his father for the last month of his life.

Though the elder Forster never got to see his son’s comeback, his did get to see some of the movie. “Quentin Tarantino cut some of the scenes quickly together and put them on videotape and sent them to me. So Quentin did something for my dad.”