If you ever find yourself hosting a dinner party in the company of Robert Forster, you can expect that your dishes will be taken care of.
If you ever find yourself hosting a dinner party in the company of Robert Forster, you can expect that your dishes will be taken care of. “When I go to someone’s house, if there is a party, I volunteer to be the dishwasher,” he assures. “I do a beautiful job with stemware. I am very careful, you will not have a broken dish and I knock ’em out quick,” he adds with pride. Which is surprising, given that at age 9, he hated doing dishes so much that when he put up a fuss about the job his Italian mother assigned him to, she told him, “Stand by the sink, Bob, maybe they’ll do themselves,” and he actually stood by the sink for quite a long time, waiting.
Eventually, when it was clear that the dishes were absolutely not going to do themselves, Robert obeyed his mom and got to washing.
Then in college at the University of Rochester, when he was the pot and pan guy in the cafeteria, he learned how to do dishes efficiently and well. Dishwashing became a task that offered a surprisingly great life lesson: that any job can be raised to the level of an art form.
“Even something you hate,” Forster clarifies. “And once you’re good at it, you get that reward that you always get when you deliver excellence to any job of any kind: self-respect and satisfaction.”
This effort-reward formula proved solid again in Forster’s senior year of college, when he found himself auditioning for the lead part in a musical without the slightest forethought.
“I pulled into a parking spot and before I could even open the door, I saw a beautiful brunette woman. She was wearing a black London Fog raincoat and high heels,” Forster’s hand instinctively spreads over his heart, “and I was struck by lightning. I leapt out of the car and followed the girl into the auditorium, where there was an audition happening. I had only seen the trailer for ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ and I knew it was about a guy in a gold suit doing a parody of Elvis Presley. I thought that’s for me. I think I could do that.”
When he didn’t get the part but was cast in the chorus, he thought about quitting but then reconsidered.
“How are you gonna meet the girl, Bob?” he wondered. So he stayed.
Not only did he meet the girl, later marry the girl and have three children with the girl, but he also caught the attention of a guy who was putting up a one-act Irish comedy and wanted Forster to audition. After playing the lead role in the small production, Forster went home to his father.
“I don’t want to be a lawyer or anything like that,” he told him. “I want to be an actor.”
A lot of fathers might have discouraged a life decision that spawned from one college chorus experience and one lead role in a one-act play, but Forster’s father, who, in 1934 trailed the Ringling Brothers Circus until they hired him, didn’t miss a beat and said, “I think you could do that.”
So, without really knowing what he was up against, Forster began his acting career. He spent the first few years commuting between Rochester and New York City, which was sort of like commuting between two different lives: upstate, he was a husband and father keeping afloat as a substitute teacher; in The Big Apple he was auditioning and performing on stages all over town.
“I would take the bus home from the city, teach a few days or a week and go back,” he explains. “It was a way to keep going.” He pauses, waggles a paternal finger, “Because there’s always a way to keep going.”
This is one of the many anecdotal lessons that Forster will bestow in a single hour. Maybe it’s his voice, or the knowledge of his success, or his age—but there’s something about him that tells me, “Listen up! This is important!”
Perhaps, and most likely, it’s that he’s just a guy from Rochester, chatting openly and honestly about life over coffee and eggs.
“The truth is free,” he tells me. “It’s only bullshit that costs a lot of money. So. There you have it.
“We hung around and ate a lot of meals at Nick Tahou’s,” Forster remembers of growing up in the city and spending time with his high school friends. “You could walk in the back and yell to the guys on the line ‘doleeryting!’” To the grill cooks this meant “double everything,” and to Forster and his pals this meant that by the time they got around to the counter, paper plates loaded with elbow macaroni salad, beans and two hots were ready for them. Forster laughs before softening reminiscently. “When I think of myself I think of Madison High School. I think of playgrounds—there have always been playgrounds in my life.”
Forster recalls a particular night of his youth, hopping the fence to the playground on Campbell Street. “I was lying in the grass on the infield, looking at the stars and wondering things that you wonder when you’re of a certain age. I started asking myself all the important questions: Where did I come from? What’s my purpose? How do you be a man?” Forster pauses, leans in a bit, “Rochester is a place that I have great personal fondness for,” he says. “I know where I come from.”
And, it was where he stayed for quite a while. Even after a screen test in 1965 led him to 20th Century Fox, where he became one of the last contract players in the business, he didn’t flee to Hollywood. His commute just changed. When he wasn’t filming a picture, he was back in Rochester. Then, despite acting in films alongside Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and starring in lead roles, by 1973 things weren’t so good.
“I was busted,” is how Forster puts it. He and June, the girl in the black raincoat, had divorced and there were no jobs on the horizon. It seemed a good time to make the move to what most actors consider the Land of Opportunity.
“Three or four of my friends chipped in some money—it was about $600 together—and I drove across the country.”
Now, if you take a look at his filmography, Forster was a consistently employed actor from then on. But work doesn’t always mean success, and Forster will unabashedly admit so.
“My career goes like this for about five years,” he shoots his hand upwards like a rocket, “and then like this for about 26 years,” he says as he plummets his hand steeply down.”
In the early ’90s, after being in show business for more than 30 years, Forster was walking through a park to meet a friend for a tennis match. As he passed a playground, the weight of the world was on his shoulders.
“I wasn’t getting good jobs—just crumbs, scraps, whatever fell through the cracks. I was asking myself how I was going to survive, how could I do this? Was I gonna have to do something different?” And then he saw his tennis partner, who was more than 20 years his senior—and who could still beat him in a game—warming up, practicing his swing. “I had a real epiphany,” Forster assures, “I saw Joe hitting the ball and I said to myself: “No, no, no, Bob. Never quit. You can win it in the late innings if you never ever quit.”
Two years later, Forster was having breakfast at his usual spot and in walks Quentin Tarantino, who, at the time, was at the top of his game. “I had auditioned for “Reservoir Dogs” years before so I called him over and we bullshit awhile. He mentions he’s adapting a novel. We just talk,” he says with a shrug. “Then, six months later I walk in and he’s in my spot. My usual spot. He hands me a script and says read this, see if you like it.”
It was “Jackie Brown,” the adaptation of “Rum Punch” that they had spoken about earlier. Forster sits back and considers this as if it is happening all over again. “Without having to chase, without having to kiss ass or any of the other things you normally have to do in this business, he just hands me the best job I’ve ever had.” Forster, quite obviously, is forever grateful for this. “Now that’s a long shot,” he acknowledges. “There is a giant component of luck in my life.”
Luck, in this case, is invaluable unless you have the chops to reckon with it. And Forster did. His performance in “Jackie Brown” earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. He took everybody to the awards. “June, my then-girlfriend, all my children, my manager, my agent. I think I had 10 people with me. We all went,” he remembers happily. “It was a big family affair.”
And that’s what makes Robert Forster, the actor, seem most like Robert Forster, a guy from Rochester. He’s a family kind of man—and not just to his own family. He’s the kind of person who brings a gift to a meeting (a lovely envelope opener), who makes sure you’re satisfied with your coffee (Do you need that warmed up?), who is as interested in you as you are he (What street did you grow up on?), who even assures you that you’re a good parent (There is no such thing as a perfect upbringing), and that everything will work out just as it should (I’m sure you did the right thing).
So if you take away the sweltering October sun, the bustle of the West Hollywood neighborhood, and the mountain peaks in the distance, we may as well be just shooting the shit in any of Forster’s favorite Rochester haunts.
Robert Forster continues to act and is also a motivational speaker, sharing anecdotes from his life that are funny, endearing, and poignant. He lives in West Hollywood, where he eats breakfast at the same cafe every single morning. “You gotta have a spot,” he says.