Friday, October 11, 2019

Robert Forster: An Interview

Although he often refers to his career as a "five-year surge" followed by a "25-year downhill slide," actor Robert Forster has been appearing steadily in television and motion pictures since the late 1960s, when he made his film debut opposite Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor in John Huston's REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE. After a few promising follow-ups, Forster disappeared from mainstream features for constant work in television, including the title roles in the TV series "Banyon" and "Nakia," and low-budget exploitation. Films like ALLIGATOR, VIGILANTE, HOLLYWOOD HARRY and STUNTS may be unfamiliar to general audiences, but Forster became a genre fan favorite for his consistently solid performances, often containing brooding heroics and a wise-guy blue-collar sense of humor, in films that were often not worthy of his presence. The pendulum clicked back the opposite direction in 1997, however, when Quentin Tarantino cast Forster in the role of lonely bail bondsman Max Cherry in JACKIE BROWN, which earned Forster an Academy Award nomination. Since then, Forster has worked almost non-stop in a great number of films, ranging from major studio pictures like SUPERNOVA and ME, MYSELF & IRENE to indie fare such as OUTSIDE OZONA and DIAMOND MEN.

In April 2002, Forster appeared at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where Ebert was introducing DIAMOND MEN, an outstanding drama co-starring Donnie Wahlberg (TV's "Blue Bloods") and directed by Daniel Cohen. As an occasional freelance writer for a local zine called Micro-Film, I sought out Forster for an interview. Because Micro-Film's emphasis is on independent film, most of our half-hour together consisted of talk about DIAMOND MEN and HOLLYWOOD HARRY, an oddball comedy produced and directed by Forster in the mid-1980s, although we did touch on a few other subjects as well.

I certainly wish I had more time with the man. In person, Forster seems to be a genuinely nice guy, appreciative of his fan base, politely signing autographs, shaking hands and even asking the names of everyone who stopped by to say "hello" or "I loved you in JACKIE BROWN." Whatever good things are happening to him personally and professionally these days couldn't happen to a more deserving fellow.

Marty McKee: How did you get involved with DIAMOND MEN? You seem to be doing a lot of studio pictures and then small pictures.

Robert Forster: Well, not that many studio pictures. Studio pictures are really hard to break into, so most of the things I've been doing are independent. I did ME, MYSELF & IRENE (with Jim Carrey), SUPERNOVA (a notorious SF flop released by MGM that was directed by Walter Hill, who took his name off of it, and re-edited by Francis Ford Coppola), and maybe one other picture, but most everything since JACKIE BROWN has been an independent start. Dan Cohen was a first-time writer/director who approached us with this script. I read it and my daughter (Kate) read it and my lawyer read it and everybody liked it. We were trying at that point to find pictures where there was at least a small paycheck. This was a "no paycheck," so basically we fit this in between paying jobs and made it work. It took several months. We wanted to do it in the late summer or fall (1998) and I wasn't available, so we waited until spring.

What drew you to this particular story? Because I know you get a lot of scripts.

The writing was good. And I understood the character. That's the first thing — you gotta understand what you're doing. If you understand it, then it's like falling off a log. I understood JACKIE BROWN. I understood the character of Max Cherry, so it was a cinch to do. I understood this guy (his DIAMOND MEN character). My father was an old salesman. He'd been selling for 30-something years. He sold to bakers. I'd been on the road with him once or twice. He wanted me to meet his customers, so occasionally I'd go out with him, and I got a feel for what he and his life was like on the road. We liked the story and decided to do it. As I say, we slipped it in between two paying jobs. However, this, among all of them, has really risen to the top. It's little, but nice.

Did you do much research? You seem like an expert on diamonds.

Dan Cohen, whose family are diamond salesmen, gave Donnie Wahlberg and me a course. We spent several days visiting where they process them and where they set them and where they grade them. We actually took a diamond course — an abbreviated one, of course — but we learned a few things about diamonds. For instance, I remember the Four Cs: Clarity, Cut, Carat and Color. You can tell from the picture that we had enough conversation on the subject to feel confident discussing it.

You were an executive producer on DIAMOND MEN. Were you involved in Donnie Wahlberg's casting? He's very good, but he wouldn't have been my first choice for the role.

He was wonderful, and, no, I had no part in his casting. Dan Cohen did the casting. I consider that to have been one of his brilliant jobs. He cast this thing beautifully. The only reason I'm on as an executive producer is because they had no dough. So they give you a title instead.

Someone else I was so happy to see was Bess Armstrong.

She's great.

The best smile in Hollywood.

She knew what that job required. Keeping the audience unaware of her real convictions until late in the picture. To make sure the audience did not know whether she was trying to exploit my character or whether she was honest.

I know that you know a little more about independent filmmaking because you made your own, HOLLYWOOD HARRY.

The only picture I ever "made." I worked with the writer (Curt Allen) …

Who is Curt Allen?

He is a guy who wrote WALKING THE EDGE. I had worked on that picture a year or two before, and I said, "Y'know, Curt Allen is a guy who could probably help me out here," and I told him I wanted to do a picture …I'll tell you what I started with, I started with the "Banyon" suit. The chalk-stripe "Banyon" suit.

There's a photo from "Banyon" in the film, right? A publicity still?

Yep. And I said to him, "I want to do a story playing a modern detective. A broken-down detective in Hollywood who doesn't want to fall in love anymore and who's got a kid. A 12-year-old." By the time we made the picture, she was 14, but basically my daughter Kate played the kid. She told me years before this that she wanted to work (as an actress), and I said, "Honey, if I ever get an opportunity, I will put you to work."

When she was 12, I went to Cannes (with director William Lustig and co-star Fred Williamson to promote VIGILANTE at the famous Cannes Film Festival) and I realized how they made independent movies. How they sold movies and what B.S. artists they were. Very often, they just created a one-sheet poster with the title. They sell (the film on the basis of) the poster, and with the sales of the poster, they made the movie.

So I said, "I can do that. How hard could that be?" It was much harder than I imagined and I haven't produced and directed another picture since. All I can tell you is that being an actor is much, much easier. Being a producer is …augh …it's so rough. Being a director, you gotta constantly be asking yourself how to present the material. The actor has to ask himself, "What does the material mean? How will I make the audience understand it?" A director, on the other hand, has to be thinking about how to present it and the shots and so forth. I don't find that to be my strength. Dealmaking as a producer is too rough. Asking people to do for you things that you don't have enough money to pay them for. Begging people to do things for you. Making deals and a lot of paperwork and I figure, "That's not for me." So one and one only: HOLLYWOOD HARRY. Not much, but not junk.

No, it's not junk. It's a fun movie. It's also got a different Robert Forster, one we've not seen before, sort of a loosey-goosey Forster.

Yes, thank you, loosey-goosey, that's exactly correct.

I haven't seen you play much comedy.

OK, well, I did a picture called RAT IN A CAN last year. And it's now called something else. It's now called STRANGE HEARTS.

You played "Jack."

That's correct. It's as close to loosey-goosey as I have gotten in bigger pictures.

Do you still dance?

Of course!

HOLLYWOOD HARRY must have been a great labor of love. Your daughter's in the picture. Your good friend Joe Spinell …tell me about Joe.

Joe Spinell has, in the history of his career, been used as a good guy only once — in HOLLYWOOD HARRY. He has otherwise played a greasy, rotten bastard. And I knew this guy — he was a good guy. He never swore in movies, are you aware of that? You look at his old movies, and I don't think you'll ever find that he swears in movies. He always said, "No, no, you're not supposed to do that." He played rotten characters, but he never wanted to swear. He said his mother might see the picture.

You also worked with Joe in VIGILANTE, which is a good picture.

I like VIGILANTE. (Director) Bill Lustig kept me alive! He brought me to Cannes. They ran out of money while we were shooting the picture. I borrowed some money, a hundred-and-some thousand dollars, and we finished the picture. For that, they brought me to Cannes, and that's where I got my first look at how they sold movies.

Tell me about the "Hammer," Fred Williamson (Forster's co-star in VIGILANTE), whom I interviewed years ago. A colorful guy.

He is a colorful guy, and I'll tell you what. He makes (Williamson still produces and directs movies through his Po' Boy company) low-budget pictures. He makes them out of the spur of the moment real, real cheap. Every time a new actor comes, on the first day, he gives them this speech: "Now, look," he tells the new actor, "this is a low-budget production. We don't shoot a lot of takes. If it's good on the first take, we print it and move on. So just you remember this — if you do bad on that first take, you're gonna look bad in the movie." That focuses an actor's attention, I promise you.

What kind of budget and schedule did you have on HOLLYWOOD HARRY?

I did everything one step at a time. First of all, I picked an arbitrary number: $500,000. I said, "For $500,000, I can make this picture." And, of course, you can. But I didn't know where to get $500,000. I kept trying to sell the idea to prospective producers, and, finally, a couple of exhibitors — these guys had exhibited ALLIGATOR (in which Forster starred for director Lewis Teague) and made money with it in Europe — said, "Yeah, we'll work with you. What's the budget?" "$500,000," I told 'em. They said, "You come up with a third. We'll come up with two-thirds." And we made a deal.

I sold the only investment I had — the only thing I owned — which was some investment I had made some years before. I got $150,000 for it. I called these guys up in England, and I said, "OK, guys, I got my money, it's in the bank," and they didn't return my phone call. Ohhhhhh, one of those absolutely typical stories. You think you got a deal and you trust somebody and they did not come through with it. So I made HOLLYWOOD HARRY with $125,000 of that $150,000 — I had to have some money to live on. I borrowed another $10,000 from my cousin and another $25,000 from a friend, and we finished up a rough cut for approximately $160,000. Later, I had to borrow even more money to post-produce.

Each step of the way, I said, "OK, what do you do now?" By the time we got to a finished picture, I knew that I had to get it to a salesman. We got it to Cannes the following year. We sold to about five small territories. That was 1985. Later that summer, I went to work for Menahem Golan in THE DELTA FORCE (Forster played an Arab terrorist in this Chuck Norris/Lee Marvin action flick for Cannon). While we were working on DELTA FORCE, Menahem, who I had run into in Cannes, asked, "How did you do with that little picture of yours?" I said, "Oh, we sold Australia and Denmark and …" He said, "I will buy the rest of the world." This guy got me out! We sold Golan the picture. Now comes Christmas time …

How much did you sell it for?

Wait, I'll tell ya. They originally offered me $400,000. I figured, OK, that's about $75,000 profit. When I first started making this picture, I thought it was going to get me a house on the beach in Malibu. At best, I wound up with a condo in West Hollywood. I figured I was gonna grab 75-Gs on this picture for my efforts. And that was a two-year effort. Eventually, I went in to Cannon to sign the deal. By then, they kept "grinding" the deal. They take a little bit here, they take a little bit there. Finally, they found out exactly how much money I had in the picture, which was roughly $325,000. And that's exactly and only what they would give me. I had no choice. Now I was working for nothing, but at least I was gonna pay off everybody. I went in around Christmas time to sign the paperwork, and as I was signing, Golan's partner, Yoram Globus, said, "We changed the name of your picture." "Changed the name of my picture? From HOLLYWOOD HARRY to what? And why?" "Well, we had to change the name of your picture." "But why? To what?" "We're going to change it to HARRY'S MACHINE." I said, "Wait a minute, why do that? This is a beautiful title — HOLLYWOOD HARRY. It said something. And my titles (opening credit sequence) are animated. You can't change the name of the picture." He said, "Yes, well, we're going to change the name of the picture."

I was heartbroken. I was devastated. I'm signing the paperwork, I have no choice, I gotta get the $25,000 they're giving me as an advance, I had no Christmas money, I was dead broke. I'm signing the thing, I think, "Oh, God, this is what happens when you make a little movie." Later on, I discovered that Cannon had sold a package of about twenty movies, one of which was titled HARRY'S MACHINE, but they had never made it. So they bought my picture to substitute for a picture they had already sold called HARRY'S MACHINE! Wow!

I'm sure it's out of print now, but the videocassette I have is HOLLYWOOD HARRY. I think Media Home Entertainment put it out.

Yes, yes, you never saw HARRY'S MACHINE. It's HARRY'S MACHINE only in a descriptive list of the pictures that they sold. They never touched it.


I don't know who owns it now. All I know is it sold 26,000 units (videocassettes) its first quarter. That's a lot of units for a little, tiny picture.

It really is a lot of fun.

I agree.

I also want to ask you about "Banyon." Everyone I've ever spoken to about "Banyon" has fond memories of that show. Did you think that was going to be big?

I don't know. I had no idea. All I know is I loved doing it.

Joan Blondell was on that show.

Yes, indeed. She played the operator of a secretarial school, and she would give me a free secretary every week. So I always had a free, new secretary that I had to break in every week.

But it only lasted, what, thirteen weeks?

Fifteen shows. Half a season. The guy who wrote and produced and created it, Ed Adamson, died while we were shooting our first order. The show just did not survive his death.

Then a couple of years later, you played a Native American detective.

"Nakia." Good guy. Indian. Deputy sheriff. New Mexico. Contemporary. Cops-and-robbers in the desert. And the thing about that was the pilot to that was (very similar to) BILLY JACK. As is obvious. When the pilot went on the air … by then, we had already gotten an order for thirteen (hour-long episodes), and we were getting ready to shoot them. The day after the pilot showed, Tom Laughlin (the producer, writer, director and star of BILLY JACK) sued Columbia for never having purchased the rights to BILLY JACK. Whoops. What did I know?

There's another pilot you did called "The City" with Don Johnson, which looked like it could have been a pretty decent show.

Not a bad show …and it didn't go.

Do you know why it didn't work?

Ah, you never know why.

A Quinn Martin production, right? Did you ever work with Quinn Martin before?

Oh, yes, Quinn Martin produced "Banyon." He was the executive producer. He picked it up after it had been a pilot, but before it got its order. He was the one that got it its 15 episodes. Quinn Martin was a very good guy. He always overpaid his actors.

I've heard that's why he was always able to attract such extraordinary casts, including guest stars.

He always exceeded the going rate for guest actors. I don't think he paid many actors scale. He bumped it up just a little.

In THE DARKER SIDE OF TERROR, you played two roles. You played a scientist and you were cloned.

Ah, THE CLONE! It was originally called THE CLONE. It's a picture about a guy who is a scientist and Ray Milland is another scientist and he takes a bit of my blood and clones me. And now the little clone is growing up inside a tank of fluid, and when the clone is exactly my age, height and weight, somebody breaks the tank, and I come flowing out. Now there's two of me, and they dress me up the same. This is the big gimmick at the end — I am presented to the faculty. Two of us, both dressed the same. Then there is a fight and a fire in which one of us killed the other, but the audience doesn't know which one survives, and the surviving one gets in bed with the wife (Adrienne Barbeau) and she doesn't know which one survived. And I'm telling you, for many months after that was shown, people would come up to me and ask me which one survived. And I would try and explain that the actor's job is to create a possibility on both sides of that balance without tipping the action. So after I would give them this explanation about "an actor's not supposed to … " they would say (in a whispered tone), "Yeah, yeah, I know, but who really survived?"

It's an actor's dream to play two roles, isn't it?

Well, in this one, I got the opportunity to fool the audience and they were fooled.

MEDIUM COOL. Was it as adventurous for you guys to make as it looks like on-screen?

It was for me. I had no idea they asked actors to say things that weren't on the script. In this picture, there was a great deal of improvisation. Lots of scenes were improvised. So I got the realization that the actor was not only responsible for the words on the page, but for bringing a frame of reference to his material and embodying the character he's playing, so that, if necessary, you can enter any circumstance and be that character. I also realized that being yourself is oh so much easier than putting a veneer over yourself and trying to be somebody else.

At Paramount, did they bury it or did they just not get behind it or …?

Later they put it out on video. They also put it out on DVD. So it's become a little cult classic as maybe the only example of film vérité in American cinema. I can tell you one other thing about this picture, and that is that the phrase, "The whole world is watching," was coined exactly at that instant that is presented in the picture. They say, "Don't leave us! Don't leave us! The world is watching! The whole world is watching!" and it became a chant. That phrase had a lot of use during the '60s and '70s, and it was coined right then and there.

And your first nude scene in MEDIUM COOL … how many times have you performed nude?

(Laughing) I apologize …

HOLLYWOOD HARRY has one too.


You've got a butt shot in HOLLYWOOD HARRY.

Yeah, well, uh …(laughing) … well, all I know is that when I first saw in REFLECTIONS OF A GOLDEN EYE (Forster's first film), a guy rides a horse naked.

Oh, that's right, I forgot that one.

I said to myself, "God, I wonder how they do that?" Probably trick photography or something. When I got out there on the set, I saw an Italian extra riding around on the horse, and I thought, "God, I don't want that guy to do it. That's my shot! I wanna be doing it." I said to (REFLECTIONS director) John Huston, "I can do that." He says (Huston impression), "Could ya, Bobby?" I said, "Yeah!" I hadn't ridden a horse, you know, not since ten-cents-a-turn around the circle when I was a kid. I'd never really ridden a horse, but I said, "I could do that." Next thing I know, the wardrobe department hands me a little cup from a jockstrap and a roll of tape. That was for my modesty. After two or three takes on that sweaty horse, the cup was gone and I stopped worrying about it. I figured if you're gonna do something like that, you just gotta do it, no reservations. If you go do it scared, you'll never, never do it right.