Robert Forster: From Alligator Hunter to Bail Bondsman

Acting is a funny business. An actor’s career tells one story on the surface, showing how they rose to stardom from small town obscurity, how they transitioned from one big role to the next, but just as often there are stories left underground – stories that have to do with coincidence, dumb luck, or the relative miracle that some scrap of oneself left behind twenty, thirty years ago might suddenly put a life-changing idea into someone’s head. Such was the case in 1998, when 57 year-old actor Robert Forster – who considered himself just about retired from acting – found himself nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actor category for his role as Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997).

It didn’t matter that the part was fully deserving of Best Actor recognition, or that it was that bona fide rarity – a signature role, or that the prize ultimately went to Robin Williams for his performance in Good Will Hunting. What mattered was that Max Cherry – a middle-aged bail bondsman who wears his solitude like a broken-in pair of slippers, whose routine life becomes deeply surprised by his involvement in a genuinely warm romance with the film’s title character, played by Pam Grier – rejuvenated Forster’s career and extended his license to act for the remaining years of his life. This is no exaggeration; Forster passed away on the very day that his last feature film – Vince Gilligan’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie – debuted on Netflix.

This month at the New Beverly Cinema, extensive tribute is being paid to Robert Forster, who succumbed to brain cancer on October 11 at the age of 78. The retrospective is being launched with a special double bill running from November 4 – 7 , pairing Jackie Brown with an earlier surprise hit, Lewis Teague’s unabashed monster movie Alligator (1980). Though the two films may strike a jarring note on a marquee for some viewers, the story behind their unlikely relationship is one that needs to be told.

Robert Forster’s screen career began in 1967 with an important supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, which was followed by secondary male leads in Robert Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon (1968) and George Cukor’s Justine (1969). His breakthrough male lead in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) was tempered commercially by the film’s X-rating but also by the veracity of his and co-star Verna Bloom’s performances, which gave the semi-documentary film the complexion of a full-fledged documentary in the minds of many movie-goers. It was Forster’s approach to seek out not only established directors like Richard Fleischer (The Don Is Dead, 1973) but ambitious young directors like Daniel Haller (Pieces of Dreams, 1970), Noel Black (Cover Me Babe, also 1970), and Corey Allen, who cast him in Avalanche (1978), B-movie legend Roger Corman’s shot at making a disaster film with an A-list cast topped by Mia Farrow and Rock Hudson. Though it is not looked back upon as a turning point in Forster’s career, this project actually laid the groundwork for a badly-needed career renaissance that wouldn’t happen for another 20 years.

While making Avalanche, Forster’s earnest acting style caught the eye of Lewis Teague, who shot and cut the film’s special effects and second unit material. During a break, he approached the always-approachable actor and told him that, if he ever got a directing opportunity, he’d love to work with him again. Forster graciously invited him to send along a script when the time came – and it came not long after, when Corman gave Teague the opportunity to direct The Lady In Red (1979), a sexy period gangster picture. The picture frankly could not afford Forster, and his representation was against his accepting it, but he was impressed by the quality of John Sayles’ screenplay and wanted to be part of it, so he agreed to play a small but pivotal role without screen credit. When Teague’s next directorial offer came along – a $4,000,000 Jaws spoof called Alligator – he accepted on the condition that Sayles could rewrite the script, and used that improved draft to offer Forster the lead, this time for top billing and real money.

In the 1980s, in the wake of mega-hits like Jaws and Star Wars, the term “B-pictures” was redefined. Originally referring to the co-features on double bills, it became a handy term applied to low-budget pictures made in response to Hollywood blockbusters. Thus, Alligator has come to be recognized as one of the most satisfying B-pictures of its era, thanks to Teague’s lively direction, Sayles’ politically satirical script, and Forster’s down-to-earth cop protagonist David Madison, who not only tangles with a radiation-embiggened alligator stomping through Chicago’s sewer system but gets involved in a delightfully plausible romance with reptile expert Robin Riker.

In an audio commentary for Lionsgate’s 2007 DVD of Alligator, Forster explained his basic approach to acting:  “If [a role] doesn’t require me being anybody other than me, I bring myself to the set – as opposed to some constructed character. This way, you have the full depth of who you are and what you mean, that resonates simply. Picture a diamond ring on your finger and the facets all the way around; the facet that’s looking directly at me, that’s who I am. But those other guys that I didn’t make myself into are [also] there – the jerk, the wise guy, and the real miserable bastard who doesn’t care anything about you and would kill you for what you’ve got in your pocket. It’s in me… I’ve just got to look for it.”

“I think of a character as nicely balanced,” he later elaborated on the same track. “Take a piece of string and pull it between your fingers so it’s nice and straight. If there’s stuff that’s really, really heavy, it’s pulling that string down – so you’ve got to provide something that’s buoyant… [some humorous touches] that will make that line straight.” To lend that buoyancy, that necessary human quality to David, Forster suggested to director Teague that they foreground something about David – actually about himself – that most actors, indeed most men, would go out of their way to disguise. Forster’s hair was starting to thin out, so rather than cover it up, he proposed that his onset of male pattern baldness become an unwelcome, sensitive topic of discussion for everyone in David’s orbit. Teague wasn’t entirely sold on the idea but agreed to film the relevant scenes with and without the humor, which helped him to appreciate the value of what his star had proposed. The resulting humor provided audiences with an outlet for their tensions, giving them a chance to exhale just before the movie’s biggest shocks were dealt.

Forster didn’t care that it was a B-movie, a genre film. “This picture – delightfully – required no more than [me] being [myself] – a believably simple human being with values – so I brought myself to the set, a couple of hair jokes, and there you go!”

Despite its unmistakable quality, if we look at the IMDb’s overview of Forster’s filmography, Alligator can be seen as the beginning of the actor’s stumble out of the mainstream into a streak of increasingly cheap genre pictures, beginning with William Lustig’s Vigilante  (1982). But don’t be too quick to write off Bill Lustig. There was kismet in this relationship; not only did Lustig know a good thing when he saw it, welcoming Forster back for roles in his Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1993) and Uncle Sam (1996) – he was also Forster’s first connection to Quentin Tarantino. As the actor told National Public Radio’s Terry Gross in 2003: “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 Lustig called me up one day and said… 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. 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. I didn’t even get close to it.”

Forster had certain standards and one of them was an admitted aversion to “bad guy” roles; he turned them down, preferring to give performances that would show the “full depth” of himself, rather than “some constructed character.” However, after Alligator, his only available route back to prominent pictures was by agreeing to play the terrorist Abdul in the 1986 Chuck Norris actioner, The Delta Force. He wasn’t pleased about it.  “I didn’t want to do it,” he admitted to AV/Club in 2012. “I was broke, my agent had lent me money. He said, ‘You’re going to have to go to Israel and play the bad guy.’ Which I did – and I got stuck for 13 years, playing bad guys – until Jackie Brown pulled me out of the fire.”

During those thirteen years, Forster’s range of directors included such genre notables as Bert I. Gordon (Satan’s Princess, 1989), Jess Franco (Esmeralda Bay, also 1989) and Jim Wynorski (Point of Seduction: Body Chemistry III, 1994), but the resulting films were no one’s best. His once-promising career floundered. In Spain, actor Antonio Mayans even adopted the screen alias “Robert Foster” to conceal the fact that he was sometimes starring in as many as a dozen pictures in a single year – pictures with titles like Lilian the Perverted Virgin. So Robert Forster not only lost his representation and his opportunities, but even his control over his once-good name. “My career, by then, was dead,” Forster said. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing.”

Forster may have been deserted by most of what then passed for his career support, but the seeds sown in his past work were quietly blooming on his behalf. At the time of Alligator’s original release in November 1980, a review by Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas caught the eye of a young Quentin Tarantino. Not really known for his generosity toward genre pictures, Thomas summarized his report by noting that Alligator “is, of course, all stuff and nonsense, but it’s tight, smart, and looks good. It’s the kind of film tat leaves you feeling certain that it’s only a warm-up for bigger things from its makers.”[1]

“The things he highlighted,” Tarantino remembers, “were Robert Forster’s and Robin Rikers’ performances – but also the John Sayles script. Sayles was riding high critically at that time due to his hit indie flick Return of the Secaucus 7 [1979].  And something he said that stuck [in my mind] was,  even though the film was about a giant alligator, Forster and Riker were real enough to be characters in Secaucus 7. I saw the movie, loved it – loved both of them in it. I started following Forster’s B-movie career from then on. I saw Medium Cool, his show Banyon [1972], and even a few episodes of his other show Nakia [1974]. I watched Vigilante, Walking The Edge, Delta Force, Hollywood Harry, then even in stuff like The Banker, or the third lead in Goliath Awaits. Or his two part Missing in Action-inspired Magnum P.I. episode. But when I started following Forster in earnest it was due to his performance in Alligator.

“Cut from 1980 to 1995,” he continues. “I read Elmore Leonard’s  book Rum Punch and I discovered the character of Max Cherry. Reading that character, I decided there were four actors who would be really terrific in the part: in no order, those four actors were Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, John Saxon, and Robert Forster. Newman, Hackman , and Saxon seemed like natural choices for the character in the book, but the one who seemed the rightest for Max Cherry was Forster, because , in a way, I’d already seen him play the character – in Alligator.”

It’s helpful to see what Quentin saw by referring back to Rum Punch itself, whose second chapter includes a beautiful description of Max and his office: “This looked more like a man’s den than a bail bond office: a whole wall of shelves behind where Max Cherry sat with books on it, all kinds of books, some wood-carved birds, some beer mugs. It was too neat and homey for this kind of scummy business. The man himself appeared neat, clean-shaved, had his blue shirt open, no tie, good size shoulders on him. That dark, tough-looking type of guy like Lewis, dark hair, only Max Cherry was losing his on top.”

Reading those words, I can actually hear Robert Forster reading them – but more important than the cadence of those words is what they visualize, and what they make us visualize is Robert Forster’s male pattern baldness. So, yes, it would seem that Robert Forster owed his late career renaissance (at least in part) to the fact that he once had the courage to play up the very thing about himself that every imagemaker in Hollywood would have advised him to play down.

Serendipity also played a part. It was originally Tarantino’s plan to reach out to all four of his choices, but one day – carrying his copy of Rum Punch with him – he happened to stop at a West Hollywood eatery known as Silver Spoon.

“Sitting there was Robert Forster,” he recalls. “I knew him a little bit, he had auditioned for Joe Cabot [the Lawrence Tierney role in Reservoir Dogs] , so he said ‘Hi’ and I joined him. I told him he should read the book. He did. Then we had breakfast together a little later, and we discussed it. Then I went off to write the script. Six months later, I finished the script. And now my plan was to get in touch with those four actors, [but] I walked into the same place and there sat Bob. I took it as a sign – little did I know he ate breakfast there every morning! So I gave him the script and the part.”

“I could not believe that he was talking about the Max Cherry role [for me],” Forster recalled. He had been in the business long enough to know the way it worked. “I said, ‘Look, I appreciate it, but I don’t think they’ll let you hire me.’ Tarantino replied, ‘I hire anybody I want.’ It was a gift, the size of which cannot be exaggerated.”

Tarantino, who calls Forster’s casting as Max Cherry one of his best ideas, admits there was also an underlying strategy to the offer. “The reason I gave him the part that early was, I knew if I went the normal way, a big name actor would come along who wanted it and I’d be seduced into giving it to him. But if I gave Bob my word, then – from that point on – it would be out of my hands.”

The rest is history – indivisible from film history.  “Once I cast Bob,” Quentin summarizes, “at least in my mind, he was the guy from Alligator. Cherry was an ex-cop in Los Angeles, so, in 1980, Cherry had the big fight with the Alligator. Blew it up. Then quit the force. Got hair plugs. Became a bail bondsman in  Carson. And we pick up his story 17 years later.”

Follow this fascinating continuity yourself on the Big Screen at the New Beverly.

© 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.


All Quentin Tarantino quotes from email correspondence with the author, October 18-19, 2019.

[1] Thomas, Kevin. “’Alligator’ Mixes Gore, Humor.” The Los Angeles Times, 14 November 1980, p. 111.

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