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R.I.P. Robert Forster, from Jackie Brown and nearly 200 other roles

Photo: David Livingston (Getty Images)

Robert Forster has died. A veteran performer whose career-re-making appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown served as one of the most enduringly satisfying of the director’s efforts to revive the careers of actors of an earlier generation, Forster had a resumé that stretched all the way from crime-heavy offerings and mob movies in the late ’60s to today’s release of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. He was 78.

Born to a performance-adjacent family—his dad was an elephant trainer for Barnum & Bailey—Forster began acting seriously in college, giving up plans to pursue the law. He gained his first breakout role in 1968, when he played the cool-eyed cameraman at the bleak heart of Haskell Wexler’s media drama Medium Cool, entering the movie’s memorable opening by calmly and casually stepping over the body of a dying woman in order to get the most lucrative possible shot. It wouldn’t be the last time—remotely—that Forster’s talent for projecting interested dispassion would mesmerize audiences.

But despite a strong early start, Forster’s career soon began to enter a long and slow decline. After spending most of the ’70s in the world of TV—starring first in the detective series Banyon, and then for a season as the Native-American-even-though-he-wasn’t-remotely-Native-American main character of police series Nakia—Forster’s once-rising star reversed its trajectory. He increasingly found himself relegated to side rolls—heavies, authority figures, and increasingly minor parts. By the time he was taking on bit roles in direct-to-VHS Maniac Cop sequels, it was clear Hollywood no longer knew what to do with an actor whose greatest gift relied on calmly combining stoicism with an irresistible light behind his eyes.

But such are the building blocks that Quentin Tarantino casting dreams are made of. Although Pam Grier (rightly) got a great deal of focus for the renewed energy she brought to the film’s title role, it’s Forster’s Max who gives Jackie Brown its heart, falling in love with Grier’s put-upon flight attendant from pretty much the first moment he sees her—albeit in a taciturn, Robert Forster sort of way. Forster got the job after being beaten out for a part in Reservoir Dogs by Laurence Tierney, but his audition landed him a spot in Tarantino’s Rolodex of older performers still capable of hypnotizing an audience. Jackie Brown netted Forster the only Oscar nomination of his career; it also reminded Hollywood how much power lay in the ways he knew how to hold still.

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The turn that took place in Forster’s career, pretty much overnight, was remarkable; the year before, he’d been booking occasional episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger, and didn’t have an agent; now he was working with Gus Van Sant, Jim Carrey, and especially David Lynch, a man who’s never met a weathered character actor face he didn’t like. Robert Forster was a professional, and he was happy to make the most of a “warm” streak kicking in 30 years past the start of his career. A villain role on Heroes, voice turns on shows like Justice League, a guest spot on The Simpsons—the longer it went on (and the more prolifically it ran), the more it seemed like Forster’s post-Jackie Brown career was less a late-life revival, and more of merely a higher-profile second half.

It’s not for nothing that Forster ended up having major roles in two of the biggest TV shows of the last decade (even if he only appears briefly in the first). Even viewers who know nothing of Tarantino’s Elmore Leonard adaptation can sense the sheer give-no-fuck cool radiating off of Forster’s “guy,” Ed, in Breaking Bad, the man who memorably whisks Walter White away from his fate—at least, for a time. And his late-career-long association with Lynch hit a high point when he had a notable recurring part in Twin Peaks: The Return.

Robert Forster never shied away from the fact that Jackie Brown revived a career that was functionally dead. Here he is talking to us about it in 2011, for a Random Roles interview that also covers topics ranging from hair maintenance, to his affection for Jim Carrey, to his very tight uniform on Disney’s The Black Hole—all of which arrives with the good cheer of a man extremely happy to be doing the work he did:

I’d had the experience before of getting close to a good role and having the distributor say, “No, no, no, we want somebody else,” I said to him, “Look, I appreciate it, but I don’t think they’ll let you hire me.” And he said, “I hire anybody I want.” And that’s when the world stopped. I know that Pam had the same experience, because we’ve talked about it. I could not believe that I was going to get another shot at this business. But this guy gave it to me. He gave me a gift, the size of which cannot be exaggerated…Jackie Brown pulled me out of the fire.

But it’s vital to remember that Tarantino’s gift for reviving the careers of older performers—impressive though it is—is not about kindling something that was never there; rather, it’s about recognizing those qualities that other agents and directors have chosen not to see. It wasn’t just that Forster could project coolness like nobody’s business—a quality that got him pigeon-holed playing bad guys for something like 13 years of his career. It’s that he was capable of letting you see beyond the coolness to the warmth just barely hiding underneath. That’s what kept audiences coming back—and happy that he’d managed to make a comeback, too.

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