By SCOTT VOISIN

Signed and inscribed note from Forster to the author.

In Hollywood, changing trends and flavors of the month often dictate the shelf life of many actors, but Robert Forster is a survivor. For nearly 50 years, he has been riding the show biz roller coaster, going from leading man to forgotten has-been to respected supporting player. His story is proof that those interested in acting as a route to fame and fortune are almost always doomed to fail, but serious actors committed to doing their best in any circumstance have a chance of staying in the game.

Forster got his start in acting while pursuing another interest: women. “On the first day of my senior year in college, I followed a girl into the auditorium and was trying to think of something to say to her,” he says. “They were doing an audition for Bye Bye Birdie. I had never seen the play and I hadn’t seen the movie, but I knew it was about a guy in a gold suit doing a parody of Elvis Presley. I thought if I did that, that’s how I could meet the girl. They didn’t give me the part of the guy in the gold suit; they put me in the chorus, which was a big comedown. I almost didn’t do it, but then I thought, Bob, how are you going to meet the girl? So I went back and became part of the chorus of Bye Bye Birdie.”

Forster not only met the girl, he married her, and the couple moved to Los Angeles in 1967. It was then that he got the call to audition for legendary director John Huston for the film, Reflections in a Golden Eye. “I’m introduced to Huston, who’s this tall, old guy, and he says, ‘What have you done?’” Forster recalls. “I said, ‘Look, I haven’t done much. I did one Broadway play, I wasn’t bad and I don’t make myself as an actor. I never did a movie, I don’t know how they’re made and I don’t know what the tricks are, but if you hire me, I will give you your money’s worth.’ Huston said, ‘You’ll be hearing from us.’ I figured that was the kiss-off. When somebody says that, you never hear from them. Two hours after that meeting, they made a deal with my agent. John Huston hired me on the basis of a three-minute meeting.”

Reflections starred Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, and although he shared the screen with two Hollywood heavyweights, Forster made a strong impression on critics and casting agents. He soon graduated to leading man status in Haskell Wexler’s 1969 experimental classic, Medium Cool. The spontaneous nature of the film forced the actor to flex creative muscles he never knew he had. “I was playing a news cameraman,” Forster says, “and I had no experience being a news cameraman, but one time after another, I was required to make it up. Haskell is shooting me as I’m interacting with people and interviewing them, and he made it into a different picture than what we had on paper. We shot twice as much than was in the script. I learned that as an actor, you may be required to do material that is not written for you, and you’ve got to be able to be that character in the shot. You’ve got to be able to make something out of whatever it is they give you to do.”

With his star on the rise, Forster entered the 1970s as an actor in demand, headlining two TV series (Banyon and Nakia) and big-budget studio films like Disney’s sci-fi epic, The Black Hole. But as he soon discovered, it takes more than talent to stay at the top of Hollywood’s A-list. “I got lucky at the beginning of my career, and if you don’t get a hit the second time or the third time to keep the ball rolling, you start slipping,” he explains. “Your agents can only put you up for good stuff for so long, and if you’re not in hits and breaking records, then you start sliding. Every time I thought I had a picture that was going to give me a little traction, it didn’t. It’s very hard to get going again when you’ve started slipping.”

By the 1980s and ’90s, Forster had been reduced to taking roles in low-rent, direct-to-video projects such as Satan’s Princess, Body Chemistry III and Scanners IV. “I was doing crappy stuff, really dopey stuff, anything I could find because I had four kids and two ex-wives,” he says. However, in 1996, his roller coaster career took another turn for the unexpected. “There’s a restaurant where I’ve got a little corner spot that I always sit in where I read my paper and read scripts. I’ve been sittin’ in this spot for 18 or 19 years, and one day, in walks Quentin Tarantino.” Tarantino was Hollywood’s hottest filmmaker, and everyone in the industry was waiting to see what he would do as a follow-up to his Oscar-winning crime drama, Pulp Fiction. “I didn’t know Quentin but I had read for him on Reservoir Dogs,” Forster continues. “So I call him over, he sits down and we bull— for awhile. Six months later, I walk into this restaurant and there he is, sitting in my spot. I approached the table, he hands me a script and he said, ‘Read this and see if you like it.’”

 Forster as Max Cherry, his comeback character in the 1997 film, Jackie Brown.

Forster as Max Cherry, his comeback character in the 1997 film, Jackie Brown.

The script was Jackie Brown, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel, Rum Punch. “I went home and read the script, and I couldn’t believe he was thinking of hiring me for a big picture like this,” Forster says. “We had breakfast together three days later, and I said, ‘This is great and I’d love to do it, but I’m not sure they’re going to let you hire me.’ Quentin said, ‘I hire anybody I want.’ Only at that moment did I start to believe that maybe this thing could actually happen. There were a few more bumps and worries because everybody in town wanted this part. Big actors wanted to do the part of Max Cherry, but Quentin hung in there for me. It was one of the greatest gifts an actor can ever get.”

As it turns out, it was a gift that kept on giving. Jackie Brown was released in 1997 to great acclaim, earning Forster an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. His first reaction was shock, but as the day went on and he fielded congratulatory phone calls, another feeling washed over him. “It was a feeling of belonging, a feeling of acceptance. After 20-something years in this business and being long forgotten—after being on the top and going all the way to really, really low-end stuff—it was so generous for the members of the Academy to write my name down. They actually had to write my name, not just check-off a box. It was the most warm, generous feeling I ever had.”

Although he didn’t win the Oscar, Forster happily takes the loss in stride. “The difference between being nominated and winning is like a 10-pound box of chocolates and a 12-pound box of chocolates: they’re both pretty sweet.” Even sweeter was the renewed respect shown to him by Hollywood. Since Jackie Brown, Forster has worked at a feverish pace in projects both big and small, a combination he enjoys. “As an actor, getting a day’s work is one of the great opportunities,” he says. “Somebody calls your name, you step up to the plate and when somebody says, ‘Action!’ you get a chance to hit it out of the park. A low-budget movie requires an awful lot more participation of the actor. He’s required to do more things, to work with less and to get more done. For those reasons, little pictures add something to your day as an actor. However, big pictures can be fun, and you can make a better day’s pay.”

Now in his fifth decade in show biz, Forster has experienced the euphoric highs and depressing lows of life as an actor. Still, he remains enthusiastic about the possibilities that lie ahead. “I try to keep working, I’m ready to work and we’ll see what comes out of left field. An actor never, ever knows what’s coming next.”