“Now is the only moment there is to be creative in, it’s a realization, this is it. You can’t anticipate what may come, you can only wonder about what has happened, this is the moment you can do something about.” This is the motto of Robert Forster, revered actor who’s been in the business for almost fifty years, whose career has had ups and downs, and experienced a renaissance when Quentin Tarantino strongly wanted him for the role of Max Cherry in Jackie Brown. That role won him an Academy Award nomination.
We sat together at his favorite restaurant for a delightful chat about his Italian side of the family. “I think of myself as Italian,” he says. “My grandmother came over in early 1900s. She had one child with her, a baby; all the others were born here. My mother was the third child.” Forster was born in Rochester, New York and grew up in a very Italian-American community. “The culture I was brought up in was southern Italian. My grandmother was from Amalfi, below Naples; her name was Montanarella. She ran a little grocery store for at least fifty years all by herself, my grandfather died right after World War II. I was five or four; I remember the day.” Forster proceeds to narrate how the tiny store held the family together; a two story house that featured the store in the front and the members of the extended family upstairs and in the back.
Although Robert was an only child he had plenty of cousins to play with. “The store was a big part of me growing up and it was never closed, even on Sunday when everybody came over, when the bell rang somebody would go out and take care of customers. When I was in the 11th grade my grandmother went back to her village for three months and I watched the store. I did a terrible job. I don’t know how she did it.”
A typical strong Italian woman, the grandmother really helped shaping Robert’s personality. He gained his strength from her, a quality very much needed to navigate all the Hollywood nonsense. “The very first movie I made, called Reflections in a Golden Eye, was in Italy, with Dino De Laurentiis, at his studios in Rome. I thought – I’m here right away I’ll get back many times – I never got back. It was Christmas Eve of 1966, we did the movie and flew back home; there was no time to do anything else. I took a trip to Venice once; I haven’t gotten back to Italy since, which is a shame.” De Laurentiis was a larger than life character, but Forster has only good things to say about him, “He was warm to me. I almost did another movie for him in New York City. There were two movies offered to me, one was a De Laurentiis picture, where I would have played second part and there was another movie called Vigilante where I was going to be the lead. I looked at the two and I chose the lead. Vigilante still gets shown at retrospectives and festivals. It’s a viable movie of the period, of the seventies, about gangs in New York City.”
Forster did a lot of genre pictures in his career, like The Don is dead, a poor man’s Godfather. “Anthony Quinn, lots of Italian actors in it. It wasn’t nearly as good as The Godfather. For those of us who did it, we refer to it as The Don is dumb because there’s one Don after the other that gets killed, I’m one of them. I saw it just recently; I hadn’t seen it in forty years. Quentin Tarantino played it at his Beverly Theatre.” Forster’s career was dead in the water when Jackie Brown came along and it changed his life. “I did not audition for Quentin. There was a coffee shop I was used to go to every day and one day Quentin came in. I had once auditioned for Reservoir dogs, for the old guy played by Lawrence Tierney. The script was dedicated to Tierney, so it couldn’t have worked out, but Quentin kept me in mind. I was with another actor, we all sat together and kid around for a while. At the end I asked – what are you working on? He said he was adapting Rum Punch and I should read it. About six months later I walked in a cold, misty morning, they had all the curtains down, I didn’t see him right away and I walked out in the patio and he was sitting in my spot. He said – read this – and handed me the script. I couldn’t believe that he was offering me the part of the bail-bouncer, there was nothing else in this thing I could do. My heart dropped. I told him, I don’t think they are gonna let you hire me and he said – I hire who I want. There was no chasing it, no kissing ass. It was like wrapping yourself in a coat when it’s cold, it was very warm and I was very grateful.”
When he’s not on set he does motivational speaking, upon request, for free. He sees it as a way to express himself, “I started this before Quentin; I had been doing it for some years. I have a very good program: short bits, they all have a punch line, they deliver the truth. I do them for free because the truth is free; it’s only bullshit that costs a lot of money. It’s an honor for me to be asked, everybody gets something out of it.” In recent years Forster made a jaw-dropping cameo on the popular series Breaking Bad, an appearance that was kept under wraps so that it would be a surprise to the audience. “Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan called and explained they had been saving this role for me, but I had a conflict. I had to go back to Rochester to be at the Eastman museum, a film museum inside the George Eastman house. I was the host of the event. They rearranged the schedule for me. I kept my mouth shut except for one or two in my immediate family, the people that needed to know where I was. I have yet to be asked to be in Better Call Saul, one of these days perhaps.”
As for his heritage, Forster has kept the Italian traditions alive. For many years every Sunday he made tomato sauce from scratch. A recipe that starts with sautéing salt pork, which was his grandmother’s and that Robert has now passed on to his children.