Wednesday, October 16, 2019

From Star to Slump to Second Act

Five days after the death of American television and film actor Robert Forster, I still think one of his best obituaries was also one of the first to appear: Chris Koseluk’s piece in The Hollywood Reporter.

Koseluk began by noting that Forster, aged 78, perished at his Los Angeles home as a result of brain cancer; that he had “made his film debut opposite Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), then sparkled as an ethically challenged cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s ultra-realistic Medium Cool (1969)”; and that following starring roles on TV (in NBC’s Banyon and ABC’s Nakia), Forster’s career had slumped to the point of his taking “supporting roles in such low-budget efforts as [1993’s] Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence.” Finally, Koseluk recalled the story of Forster’s “heartwarming comeback”:
“I went 21 months without a job. I had four kids, I took any job I could get,” Forster told the Chicago Tribune in 2018, raising and then lowering his hand to indicate his fortunes. “My career went like this for five years and then like that for 27. Every time it reached a lower level I thought I could tolerate, it dropped some more, and then some more. Near the end I had no agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing. I was taking whatever fell through the cracks.”

A fan of Forster since he was a kid, [movie director/screenwriter Quentin] Tarantino had brought the actor in to audition for the part of aging gangster Joe Cabot in 1992’s
Reservoir Dogs, but he had his heart set on casting Lawrence Tierney. Tarantino never forgot Forster, however, and as he was crafting the screenplay for Jackie Brown (1997)—an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel, Rum Punch—he wrote Max Cherry with him in mind.

“Years had gone by and I ran into him in a coffee shop. By then my career was really, really dead,” Forster recalled in a 2018 interview with Fandor. “And we blah-blah’d for a few minutes, and then six months later he showed up at the same coffee shop with a script in his hands and handed it to me.

“When I read it I could hardly believe that he had me in mind for Max Cherry, except that nothing else made any sense. So when I asked him about it, he said, ‘Yes, it’s Max Cherry that I wrote for you.’ That's when I said to him, ‘I'm sure they’re not going to let you hire me.’ He said, ‘I hire anybody I want.’ “And that’s when I realized I was going to get another shot at a career.”
Of course, that led to Forster receiving an Oscar nomination for his work on Jackie Brown. He went on to appear in the motion pictures Psycho (1998), Mulholland Drive (2001), and The Descendants (2011). Forster also had a regular role as Carla Gugino’s ex-cop father on the underrated small-screen drama Karen Sisco (2003-2004), featured in the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad, and in the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks he played Sheriff Frank Truman, the brother of Michael Ontkean’s lawman character from the original show.

(Right) TV Guide’s 1972 Fall Preview write-up on Banyon. Click to enlarge.

My earliest and perhaps fondest memory of Forster, though, comes from Banyon (1972-1973). Introduced by a 1971 pilot film, which co-starred Darren McGavin (and which I liked much more than did Mystery*File’s Michael Shonk), that Friday-night series found Forster as Miles C. Banyon, a rough-and-tumble private investigator in 1930s Los Angeles. The character had an office in downtown L.A.’s landmark Bradbury Building, a regular girlfriend—nightclub singer Abby Graham (played by Julie Gregg)—and a police contact/antagonist, Lieutenant Pete McNeil (portrayed by Richard Jaeckel in the weekly drama; McGavin played basically the same role in the pilot, though his character was named Lieutenant Pete Cordova). I tend to think of Banyon as having been inspired by Jack Nicholson’s 1974 film, Chinatown (much like Wayne Rogers’ 1976 NBC show, City of Angels), but in fact that NBC series debuted two years before Chinatown, so was—as Max Allan Collins writes—“a pioneering period private eye show.” Some years ago, I managed to locate a DVD copy of the Banyon pilot online, but am still hoping to see a DVD release of all 15 episodes someday soon. If you’d like to revisit the opening title sequence from Banyon, click here; the very different credits from the Banyon pilot can be enjoyed here.

While The Hollywood Reporter’s recap of Forster’s diverse career may be the best one to date, let me also point you toward Marty McKee’s interview with the actor, which appears in the blog Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot. It features a nice, if too-short section about Banyon. Worth looking up, too, are obituaries in The New York Times and Slate. Another fine remembrance, in The Washington Post, includes this memorable bit of background information:
Robert Wallace Foster Jr. was born in Rochester, N.Y., on July 13, 1941. (He later added an “r” to Foster after learning another actor shared his name.) His father was a Ringling Bros. elephant trainer who became an executive at a baking supply company; his mother was a homemaker.

They divorced when Mr. Forster was 8, and his mother later killed herself after Mr. Forster received his draft notice in 1966. In part, he told the
New York Times, “she was hysterical about the thought of my going to Vietnam.” Mr. Forster received a deferment, partly through medical statements describing the “devastating psychological effects” of his mother’s death.

Mr. Forster studied history and psychology at the University of Rochester, where he was mulling a career as a lawyer, when he spotted a young woman in a black leather raincoat. “As I was trying to think of what to say, I followed her into an auditorium,” he recalled in a Rochester alumni magazine interview.

Students were auditioning for a production of “Bye Bye Birdie”; the woman, June Provenzano, was a crew member. Mr. Forster landed a role in the chorus and fell in love with both acting and Provenzano, whom he married in 1966. They later divorced.
Rest in peace, Mr. Forster. You deserve it.

READ MORE:Pilot Programs,” by J. Kingston Pierce (The Rap Sheet).


Mark Coggins said...

Very nice, Jeff.

Todd Mason said...

Tarantino's best film, and Forster a big part of that. Remarkable he couldn't get arrested, after such brilliant early work (actually all but being arrested in MEDIUM COOL doesn't count).