DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Actor Robert Forster, best remembered as the bail bondsman in the Quentin Tarantino film "Jackie Brown," died last Friday in Los Angeles. He was 78.
Forster's 50-year career in film and TV was marked by a long dry spell after some early success. He starred in the now-classic 1969 film "Medium Cool" as a TV news cameraman who remains detached from the cultural upheaval he's reporting. He starred in a couple of TV series in the early '70s, then struggled for work for more than 25 years, appearing in B-movies and guest roles on television.
Quentin Tarantino noticed Forster's talent, though, and had him in mind when he wrote the character Max Cherry, a bail bondsman, into the screenplay for "Jackie Brown." Forster earned an Oscar nomination for that performance, reviving his career. After that, he appeared in the films "Me, Myself And Irene," "Like Mike," "Lakeboat" and "Mulholland Drive" and the TV series "Twin Peaks" and "Breaking Bad."
Terry spoke to Robert Forster in 2003.
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TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Now, it was "Jackie Brown" that really revived your career, the Quentin Tarantino movie. Had you seen Quentin Tarantino's earlier films? I know he'd seen your work, and that's why he wrote the part of the bail bondsman for you, but had you seen his work?
ROBERT FORSTER: Sure. Strangely, when my career was at its lowest and I had been doing, you know, dopey exploitation movies for a few different guys who would hire me - Bill Lustig was one of them, and Fred Williamson was another, and they made, you know, low-budget movies - cop sort of - or horror or whatever.
And Lustig called me up one day and said, you know, I just bought a really great script from a guy you never heard of. His name is Quentin Tarantino, and this guy Tarantino claims there's a part in this script that - Lustig, he said, was supposed to give to me.
And I thought, oh, boy, something to grab onto. My slide is over here. I'm going to get traction with this one. And I read it, and it was great. And before the picture could get made, they grabbed it away from Lustig and gave it to a big director, Tony Scott, and he made "True Romance" out of it. Then I got a call from my agent.
GROSS: So you didn't get the part in that after all?
FORSTER: No, I didn't even get close to it. This picture was made with real people, real stars. Then about a year later or so, my agent called me - when I had one - who said, I've got - there's a guy you're going to meet for a picture called "Reservoir Dogs." You never heard of this guy - Quentin Tarantino. And they sent me the script, and I thought, oh, boy. My slide is over. This thing is going to be good. This guy likes me. I'm going to get this part.
And I went in there to - at Fox. I remember the reading, and I read this thing good. I knew what I was doing, and after I read it, I walked out of the room. He followed me out of the room, and he said, hey. Listen. He said, you know, I've seen everything you ever did. And he started reeling off everything, and he'd seen everything, even the little picture I made, "Hollywood Harry." And he said, but look. This thing is not going to work, he said, because I'm going to give this part to the guy that I dedicated the script to, Lawrence Tierney.
So I didn't do that. Following that, he made "Pulp Fiction" and became a great big director. Years go by. I have breakfast at a place in Hollywood, West Hollywood, and I went into breakfast one morning. I'm sitting there, and in walks Quentin. And I call him over, and he comes over, and we blah, blah for a few minutes. And I ask him what he's doing, and he said he's adapting "Rum Punch," an Elmore Leonard novel, to a movie. He said, why don't you read it? That was that.
About six months later, I walk into the same restaurant. I turn the corner into the patio to look - to go toward my own spot. Quentin's sitting in my seat. As I approached, he picks up a script. He hands it to me. He says, read this. See if you like it. Now, there has never been such a gift. He gave me a gift the size of which cannot be exaggerated.
GROSS: Did you feel like you should be talking him out of it because you felt washed up? Do you know what I mean?
FORSTER: I didn't feel washed - no, I - you know, listen. I knew that if I hung in there long enough - I had a long-shot strategy, and that was that someday, some kid who liked me growing up would turn into a moviemaker and give me a good part.
FORSTER: How do you like that?
GROSS: It worked.
FORSTER: I mean, yeah. It worked.
GROSS: Well, let me play a scene from "Jackie Brown." This is a scene from early on. You're a bail bondsman, and Samuel Jackson, who has lived a life of crime, is coming to you to get a bail bond for Jackie Brown.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JACKIE BROWN")
FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) All right. You want another bond, you want to move the 10,000 you got on Beaumont over to the stewardess. That means paperwork. I've got to get a death certificate, present it to the court, make out a receipt for return of bond collateral, type up another application...
SAMUEL L JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) Hey, hey, hey, man. Jackie ain't got time for all that [expletive].
FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) I'm telling you what I have to do. What you have to do, in case you forgot, is come up with a premium of a thousand bucks.
JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) I can do that. You know I got the money. I just ain't got it with me.
FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) Come back when you do. I'll bond out the stewardess.
JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) Look. you get to look at this with a little compassion, all right? Jackie ain't no criminal. She ain't used to this kind of treatment. The gangsters, they don't give a [expletive], but your average citizen - a couple of nights in county get to [expletive] with their minds.
FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) Ordell, this isn't a bar. You don't have a tab.
JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) Listen to me, all right? You got a 44-year-old gainfully employed black woman falsely accused...
FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) Falsely accused? She didn't come back from Mexico with cocaine on her?
JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) Falsely accused the intent. Now, if she had that [expletive] - and mind you, I'm saying if - that was her own personal [expletive] to get high with.
FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) Is white guilt supposed to make me forget I'm running a business?
JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) Oh, it's like that, huh?
GROSS: That's Samuel L. Jackson and my guest Robert Forster in a scene from "Jackie Brown," a film by Quentin Tarantino. You know, one of the things I love about this film is this part of the story between you and Pam Grier, who's your female co-star in the movie. And it's a great love story because you never know if she's really on the level, and also, it's a real, like, middle-aged love story, you know? She's middle-aged. You're middle-aged. And it's also interracial love story, and it really works.
What did you think the odds were that when you were coming out of this long phase where you weren't getting work, you'd get this kind of leading man role? And it's not leading man role in the sense that, you know, it's, like, James Bond or, you know, the hunk.
FORSTER: No, it's better than that. It was real.
GROSS: It's real. Exactly.
FORSTER: It was human, and it was believable stuff.
GROSS: It has so much feeling in it. Yeah.
FORSTER: You know, and that is sort of what Elmore Leonard is about - real characters. He has affection for his characters. They're human, and even if they're bad guys, he has affection for them and knows that they - you know, knows they have a real life and laugh once in a while and are not just bad guys.
Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino - and Tarantino, of course, I know quite well at this point, and I know what his dialogue is like. He took it from Elmore Leonard, but it's really his own. And this guy has a real ear for knowing what people speak like, especially characters and, well, you know, neighborhood characters and people from different places. He's got a real ear for it.
GROSS: There's a kind of air of depression and loneliness that hangs over your character in "Jackie Brown." And I'd just be interested in hearing what you did to get in the right frame of mind for the role.
FORSTER: I had a 28-year slide to my career.
FORSTER: Oh, boy. Listen - you know, I must have asked myself 400 times, are you going to survive this Bob? Are you going to be able to save the house? Are you going to get the kids through college? Are you going to, you know, survive a relationship? Will anybody love you at the end? Is it going to be all lonely? Or is it going to be - you know, who knows what. And, you know, you survive it, and you keep on slugging, and you refuse to quit.
GROSS: During that period when you weren't making - working much, you were still making some movies. And some of them sound like they were, you know, real cheap films, like "Satan's Princess" and...
FORSTER: Oh, what a cutie that was.
GROSS: Was it?
GROSS: What are some of the other titles from that period?
FORSTER: Oh, boy. Oh, boy. There were some - you know, there's a series - if you look on the Internet, it used to be on - I think they've taken them off now, but for a couple of years after "Jackie Brown," there were still a couple of Spanish titles on my website - not my website, but the database.
And those pictures were made by an actor who, in Spain, about - I don't know - 20 years ago, used my name. Somebody told him that he looked like me, and so he used my name in Spanish pictures, one of which is called - and you could find it, and it's a better title than I'm going to tell you - "The Witch Nymphomaniac From The Rio Grande."
FORSTER: And at least two or three of those kind of titles and a few other titles of my own that, you know, equally terrible and forgettable. But there are some little pictures made during those years that I loved.
DAVIES: Actor Robert Forster speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2003. Forster died last week. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with actor Robert Forster, who died last week at the age of 78. Forster's career began strong in the late '60s but stalled out for decades until Quentin Tarantino cast him in his 1997 film "Jackie Brown." That turned around his career. His last role was in the "Breaking Bad" movie "El Camino."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: You actually started your career with a splash. In 1969, you were the star of "Medium Cool," and you played a - you know, a TV cameraman.
GROSS: It was set in the present. In fact, there were - more or less the present. There were scenes that were actually shot at the demonstrations at the Chicago convention and inside the Chicago convention. Were there things about the movie that surprised you, such as having to film in the context of the real Democratic convention?
FORSTER: This movie was one of my great learning experiences. Up until then, I didn't realize that an actor might be called upon to improvise. There was an awful lot of this movie that was improvised, and I hadn't a clue. I thought they wrote the words for you. So now I'm with Haskell, and he hands me a camera and says, OK, do an interview with that person over there.
And with nothing more than, well, let's see how we do this, I started talking. And the next thing you know, you're improvising and bringing the character that you imagine you are supposed to be. I had gotten a great lesson from John Huston.
GROSS: He directed you in "Reflections In A Golden Eye."
FORSTER: Yes, my first picture. I met him in a hotel room. I arrived from L.A. I had read the book, "Reflections In A Golden Eye." I showed up. I walked into the lobby of this hotel. And I looked around, and everywhere, everywhere, there were guys - they all look like me. I thought he wanted to meet me for "Reflections In A Golden Eye."
This was a cattle call. They called my name. I was escorted up the elevator. We waited outside of a room. Somebody left. I walked in. I'm introduced to this tall, old guy. He says, what have you done? What have you done?
I said, listen - I haven't done much. I did one Broadway play. It wasn't bad, but I don't make myself an actor. I never did a movie. I don't know how they're made. I don't know what the tricks are. But if you hire me, I'll give you your money's worth. He gave me the job.
On the first day of production, I get out of the car. I walk it over to where he's standing. He says, now's the time, Bobby. I say, shoot. I'm all ears. He says, go take a look through the lens. I walked over to the camera. The cameraman stepped aside. I looked through the lens.
I turned back to Huston. He's got his hands shaped in the form of a rectangle. He said, you see those? Those are the frame lines. I looked again through the lens. I said, yeah, you mean that line that shows the cameraman what the audience sees? He says, those are the frame lines. Now, ask yourself this - what needs to be there? Wow. In 14 words, this guy gives me the secret. The actor is supposed to understand and imagine what is supposed to be inside that frame and deliver it and deliver what the writer needs and what the director may need.
And it's got to be there because the guy who set the lights wants you to be in them, and you've got to hear - the ones who are listening for the words got to hear them correctly, otherwise somebody at the end of the shot says, no good for sound; start again. And if you do something too big for the frame you're in, somebody says, no good for composition; start again. And if you put the cup in the wrong spot, somebody says, no good for continuity. You've got to deliver a stroke which advantages everybody's needs at once. And when you do that, you get to hear cut, print, move on to the next shot.
John Huston gave me a great piece of advice, and I took that to Haskell Wexler's picture. And I said to myself, OK, what's supposed to be here? And then he would say, action, and I'd throw something out there.
GROSS: One of the things you had to do in "Medium Cool" was be naked (laughter).
GROSS: How did you feel about that?
FORSTER: You know - OK, here comes the first thing. Oh, what a - what a funny thing this was. I got the script to "Reflections In A Golden Eye." That's where it started. And I read this thing, and here it says, yeah, the guy rides around naked on a horse. And I'm thinking to myself - and I'd never made a movie, I hadn't a clue. And I said, gee, I wonder how they do that, probably trick photography or something.
FORSTER: Yeah. So I remember the day I was in Rome. And when I came out to the set, and here was an Italian extra riding around the horse naked, and I thought to myself, gee, that's supposed to be me. And I was so taken in the moment, I said to John Huston, I said, I could do that. I could do that. He said, could you, Bobby? Could you really? I said, yeah, I could do that.
I didn't want the other guy to be in the picture. I wanted to do that thing. It was my own. So the next thing I know, the wardrobe department hands me a little tiny triangle cut from a jockstrap - all right - and a roll of tape. And they handed this to me. And that was supposed to give me some...
GROSS: A little bit of cover.
FORSTER: ...My modesty, yes. And, of course, it unpeeled immediately. So you know what? I said, Bob, if you don't give yourself permission to do this, then why do it? After that, in "Medium Cool," it wasn't that hard. Round two. I say OK, Bob, let's go. You're not that afraid of it. Let's try. And bingo, bango (ph).
GROSS: You know, I read that your father, before World War II, was - worked with Ringling Bros. Circus as an elephant trainer.
FORSTER: He was on the Ringling, yeah. Oh, what a good guy this guy is. I remember when I went to him - at the end of my senior year at the University of Rochester, I went to him. And I said, Dad - I said, you know what? I don't think I want to be a lawyer. I want to be an actor. And he, who had, as you know, been an elephant trainer on the Ringling before World War II, did not miss a beat. He said, I think you could do that, Bob.
And this guy pulled for me for over 30 years. And he died just before "Jackie Brown" was released. But he saw some of the shooting. He came out for a circus event. In the last 10 years or so of his life, we did a lot of circus events together. And he came here to Los Angeles. And on the night before he went back to Rochester - and he was ill at the time.
He was really on his last legs. And I was worried that he wasn't going to - man, I was worried that I wasn't to see him again when I put him on that plane. But the last night before he went back to Rochester, he was on the set. We had a night shoot. And at the end of that, when I was taking him to the airport, he said, you know, this picture is going to do you a lot of good, Bob. This guy's very, very good.
Quentin - you want to know what a good guy he is? - cut some scenes together when the picture was over. In days, he cut some scenes together and sent them to me on videotape to show to my father, which is only days before he passed.
GROSS: That's really nice.
FORSTER: This is a good, good guy.
GROSS: Just a question about your accent. I always assumed you were from Chicago. Maybe that's because I saw you in the movie adaptation of David Mamet's "Lakeboat."
FORSTER: I'm from Rochester, which is a Great Lakes accent. So Rochester, Buffalo, Erie - not Detroit so much - but Chicago, and almost all those cities have a similar accent, a long A. I know I sound that way. Not much to do about it, just got to live with what you got.
GROSS: Are there times when you feel that really works for you and other times when you feel you should play it down?
FORSTER: You know, I never try to play it down. I figure that's what you - that's what they hired, and that's what they're going to get. It's easier to deliver yourself than it is to make up somebody. If you try to make somebody up, you know, it's pretty thin. It's kind of a veneer. You got your real self to deliver, and what could be better than that?
DAVIES: Actor Robert Forster speaking with Terry Gross in 2003. He died last week at the age of 78. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "Jojo Rabbit," a satirical film about a boy at a Hitler youth camp whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. This is FRESH AIR.
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