At 77, Robert Forster is enjoying one of the biggest comebacks in Hollywood history. Besides two superb performances in 2018 — as Blythe Danner’s caregiver husband in the landmark Alzheimer’s drama/comedy What They Had and as Tim Allen’s dad in the hit revival of TV’s Last Man Standing — he’s about to reunite with Pam Grier, 69, his costar in 1997’s Jackie Brown, which earned him his first supporting actor Oscar nomination in 1997, for Old School Gangstas, with Jim Brown and Fred Williamson.
“I got lucky,” says Forster. “If you get nominated, it adds years to your life. It resolves all the worries you may ever have had about whether you’re good enough. And the difference between a nomination and a win is the difference between a 10-pound box of candy and a 12-pound box — they’re both pretty sweet.”
Like Danner, 75, whose husband he also played on TV’s Huff, he started out by nabbing a plum role on Broadway on his first try in the 1960s. Now both have Oscar buzz for What They Had.
But there were lean times in between. After a couple of legendary 1960s films (Reflections in a Golden Eye, Medium Cool), his career tanked shortly after he turned 30 in 1971. “Pretty soon you’re working bad jobs for scale,” recalls Forster. “But I had four kids, so it was, ‘Let’s keep going, Bob!’ So that happened for 27 years. Then I was sitting in a coffee shop across the street from where I’m sitting this minute, every morning for 27 years. In walks Quentin Tarantino. I’d auditioned for Reservoir Dogs. I said, ‘What are you doin’?’ He said, ‘I’m adapting Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, why don’t you read it?'” Retitled Jackie Brown, it reignited Forster’s career. “You put in enough years and every once in a while something terrific comes along,” says Forster. “You’ve got to keep sluggin’ until that happens.”
More good things came along — he’s had 46 major roles since turning 70 — but the best by far was What They Had. “My agent said, ‘I have a gem for you.’ The subject matter aside, it is a thrill for an actor to get a role as nice as this.” But the subject matter of dementia and its effect on a marriage and a family is important to him too. “Life is short, 50, 75 seasons, a hundred maybe,” he says. “Alzheimer’s cuts short the opportunities for love and all the good things of life. But there are smart people working on it, like polio when I was a kid. Polio was a scary thing, but Salk came along and bam! It was over with in a second. I’m hoping that such a thing will happen with Alzheimer’s. I check myself every day. Can I still remember? Can I still learn lines? You ask yourself, ‘Am I losing it or am I still capable?’ It’s one of those things you hope doesn’t hit you. We’re hoping that something will come along and soon. My ex-mother-in-law had it, and it’s certainly sad. But even in her worst, just before the end, she was capable of joy and love.”
Forster’s new life draws on his connection to classic Hollywood, which gives him the aura that made David Lynch cast him in Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks. “I was the last luxury tenant of the Sunset Plaza apartments,” he recalls. “I lived just above where — oh, the guy who killed himself in a Porsche, the big guy who died young after Giant — James Dean, lived, and I was in Carole Lombard’s old apartment. Everybody lived there, Sinatra lived in the penthouse.
Forster got conflicting advice from older actors. “Montgomery Clift said you’ve got to be very careful about what you choose, and you don’t pick right away. Gary Cooper said, ‘Never pass up a job.’ So it doesn’t matter what your theory is — they had approximately the same number of hits. Hits are a very rare thing. And so is getting a job as good as What They Had.” Few actors this year got a scene as sensitive, intelligent and tender as the one where Forster’s character, who’s fighting to remain his wife’s caregiver and prevent their kids (Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon) from sending her to an institution, paints Danner’s toenails, joking that he hopes his poker buddies never find out about this utterly non-macho moment. “We all hope that there is someone who will protect us,” says Forster.
He believes his success in life offers a lesson for people growing older in other lines of work. “I keep working,” Forster says, “And it’s a thrill to work. Any job can be raised to the level of an art form, I don’t care what it is. I used to hate washing dishes. I got so good at it now I tell hostesses, ‘Listen, I’ll wash stemware for you, I never break them.’ I used to hate changing babies, and then I had four. I taught them self-respect and satisfaction. If you’re looking for the good life, these are huge components. And you can get them every day by offering your best effort to whatever it is you’re doing. It’s simple."
Another lesson: be open to new experiences. “One of the good things about this business, you don’t know what’s coming,” says Forster, who spent decades complaining that nobody let him play comedy. “At Rochester Community Theater, we did Come Blow Your Horn, and I got a laugh. How intoxicating is a laugh? It kept me going until I did Tim Allen’s show. Probably 40 or 50 years before I got a second laugh. What a long wait. But we’re not dead yet!"
What They Had is in select theaters Oct. 19 and nationwide Nov. 2.
More on What They Had
- Interviews: Blythe Danner and Hilary Swank on their landmark Alzheimer's film
- Full review: What They Had
- Premiere: Hilary Swank talks caregiving
- Watch: Director Elizabeth Chomko's true-life story behind the film