Robert Forster, the chiseled character actor whose career was revived by his Oscar-nominated turn as bail bondsman Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown,” has died. He was 78.
Forster died Friday at home in Los Angeles of brain cancer, surrounded by his four children and longtime partner Denise Grayson, according to his publicist Kathie Berlin. He learned he had cancer in June.
The Rochester, N.Y., native had gone to college with the intention of becoming a lawyer but wound up embarking on an acting career after following a girl into an auditorium where auditions for a production of “Bye Bye Birdie” were underway. “I said, ‘That’s how I’m gonna meet the girl!’” he told the Chicago Tribune last year. Indeed, he got the girl and a part in the chorus.
Following a role in the 1965 Broadway production of “Mrs. Dally Has a Lover,” Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox signed Forster to a studio contract.
He made his screen debut in John Huston’s 1967 melodrama “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” in which he played an Army private who catches the eye of a repressed officer played by Marlon Brando. He later received positive notices for his role playing a TV cameraman in “Medium Cool,” Haskell Wexler’s surrealistic and controversial take on the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention.
But instead of soaring to Hollywood stardom, Forster endured what he described as a 25-year-long career slide. In a setback, his 1972-73 NBC detective series “Banyon” was canceled in midseason.
“I was doing lousy jobs,” he told The Times in 1998. “Taking unemployment and hanging on. I said, ‘You’re not dead yet, Bob, go out and do something.’”
To keep his creative juices flowing, he began to do free speaking gigs for anyone who’d invite him, culling life lessons from his experience.
The drought ended with a chance encounter with Tarantino at a West Hollywood coffee shop where Forster regularly had breakfast. Tarantino told him he was writing an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s “Rum Punch,” which would become “Jackie Brown,” and asked Forster to read the book. Forster had been passed over twice for Tarantino movies, including a “True Romance” part that went to Christopher Walken, and the role of an older gangster in “Reservoir Dogs” filled by Lawrence Tierney.
At their next cafe meeting, Tarantino gave Forster the “Jackie Brown” script. He had Forster in mind for the role of aging bail bondsman Cherry, who falls in love with a stewardess, played by 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,” Forster told The Times in 2011.
His performance as the cool-witted Cherry earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in 1998. He lost to Robin Williams (“Good Will Hunting”).
Still, the role ended Forster’s slump, and he had been an in-demand actor ever since. “I went from zero to being in the game again,” Forster told The Times in 1998 when asked how the nomination for his work in “Jackie Brown” had changed his life. “I think we’re going to wind up with an actual decent career.”
He scored parts in movies such as David Lynch’s haunting 2001 “Mulholland Drive,” in which he played Det. McKnight, and the 2011 Alexander Payne film “The Descendants.” Lynch would later bring in Forster for a role in his 2017 revival of the TV show “Twin Peaks.”
His latest role was in “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” which was released Friday on Netflix and in select theaters. In the film, Forster reprises a character he played in a 2013 episode of the groundbreaking show, which aired on cable network AMC. Other TV roles included such shows as “Heroes,” “Alcatraz” and “Last Man Standing.”
“Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston paid tribute to Forster on Twitter, calling him a “lovely man and a consummate actor.”
“I met him on the movie Alligator 40 years ago, and then again on [‘Breaking Bad’],” Cranston said. “I never forgot how kind and generous he was to a young kid just starting out in Hollywood. RIP Bob.”
I’m saddened today by the news that Robert Forster has passed away. A lovely man and a consummate actor. I met him on the movie Alligator (pic) 40 years ago, and then again on BB. I never forgot how kind and generous he was to a young kid just starting out in Hollywood. RIP Bob. pic.twitter.com/HtunD0Fx6g— Bryan Cranston (@BryanCranston) October 12, 2019
Forster’s daughter Kate Foster Simmons said one of his most recent endeavors has been a book project, collecting the stories and life lessons he’s shared over the years, including those he imparted as a motivational speaker.
“He was brave, he was funny, he was beautiful, and now he’s free,” she said in an interview.
When a journalist asked Forster in 1998 about dealing with career dry spells, he shared a story from a workshop he gave on “How to Motivate Yourself,” about a man walking late at night who comes across a drunk bent over beneath a streetlight. “What are you looking for, buddy?” he asks the drunk. “I’m looking for my keys,” the drunk responds. “Let me help you. Where did you lose them?” The drunk points and says, “Oh, way over there.” “Then why are you looking here?” “The light’s better.”
“If you know something is true,” Forster said, “and you don’t do what you know is true, then you get what you deserve. And it’s not that hard to hang on to this: Accept all things, deliver excellence right now and never quit. Because this is true.”
In addition to Grayson and daughter Simmons, Forster is survived by children Robert Foster, Elizabeth Foster Howell and Maeghen Perry Dimperio.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.