Even though the Oscar-winning writer/director was praising a recently deceased actor, he could have been speaking about all of us.
Quentin Tarantino was honored by the Los Angeles Press Club on Sunday for his distinctive and colorful storytelling. The night was dedicated to character actor Robert Forster who died of brain cancer in October at 78 after spending five decades in movies and television.
Forster’s career started off with a bang. In his film debut in 1967 he appeared in “Reflections in a Golden Eye” which starred Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. He soon got leading roles in film and TV. But in the late-’70s he struggled professionally and took any role he could, including in B-movies. He was an actor. Period. He wanted to work. So he worked where ever he could.
Many Angelenos in and out of show business can probably relate: taking odd jobs, working side hustles, all so they can do the thing they are truly called to do.
One of the small films Forster took in the late ’70s was “Alligator,” a movie that would change his life… nearly two decades later. It just so happened that a young Quentin Tarantino saw the movie, thanks to a positive review in the Los Angeles Times, and it stuck with him. And when it was time for Tarantino to cast for “Jackie Brown,” his directorial follow-up from “Pulp Fiction” (1994), he remembered Forster’s realistic acting in the low budget film.
It’s a testament to the idea that nothing goes unseen and hard work often gets rewarded, though, unfortunately, not always immediately.
After Forster got the role on “Jackie Brown,” he earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the crusty bail bondsman. His career rebounded and he never had trouble finding work again.
Tarantino, who will be lauded with accolades over the next few months as his latest work “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” is expected to clean up during Awards Season, spent the majority of his time at the recent LA Press Club Awards honoring those who influenced him before the spotlight shone on him: the obscure films that he loved, the filmmakers that created those films, the actors that brought them to life, the Laemmle art houses, the critics of his local paper, and in particular Mr. Forster.
Below is Tarantino’s speech, lightly edited for clarity.
Since I am getting a Storyteller Award, and the night is dedicated to Robert Forster, I thought I would tell a Robert Forster story. It’s gonna be a kinda my kind of story. It’s gonna be kinda long and rambling, and many pages. And it’s going to seem pointless for a long, long period of time. But then all of a sudden it’s going to snap into focus right at the end.
As a matter of fact, Robert Forster isn’t going to come into it until the very end.
Before that it’s going to be about a young me and it’s going to be about a critic in Los Angeles and it’s going to be about a humungous alligator named Ramon.
Since 1978 I started getting the Los Angeles Times at my house and I started reading the Calendar section, once we started getting it, every morning… and on Sunday you’d see the big, full-page ads of the movies that would be coming out next Friday. And it was like no one could talk to me. It was the Sunday Calendar of what I would see. It was a thing.
I never read any other part of the paper. I never read the headlines. I definitely never read the sports page.
Now when I first started reading it, the head critic was a guy named Charles Champlin, who was a very distinguished, white-haired kind of guy.
Now it was the second-string critic who I really, really loved. His name was Kevin Thomas. The thing about Kevin Thomas was his beat was he would do the A-list movies that Charles Champlin or Shelia Benson (later the head critic) didn’t want to do. But his main beat was he did the exploitation movies that came out every week, and the foreign language films that played the Laemmle circuit.
That meant in the late-’70s and early ’80s that he did all the real autre works —people like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Lina Wertmüller and the Italian actor Nino Manfredi. He did all those reviews. At the same time he also did the reviews for “Empire of the Ants,” “Piranha,” “The Pom Pom Girls” and “Ninja III: The Domination.” I read them all. I saw them because Kevin Thomas reviewed them — I saw them anyway. But if he said they were really good I would make a point to see them.
So it’s 1980 there’s an exploitation movie that Kevin Thomas wrote a review for. The movie is part of the sub-genre of horror films that are known as “Jaws” Rip-Offs. The movie is called “Alligator.” It’s about a giant alligator in Los Angeles that’s living in the sewer. They used the old urban legend about kids getting a baby alligator and the parents getting frustrated and flushing it down the toilet and years later they found that there were alligators living in the sewers.
In this movie there’s an evil corporation testing a growth serum on dogs and throwing them into the sewers. This alligator is eating these dogs with the growth serum until he becomes this huge alligator, like Jaws, except he’s terrorizing Los Angeles.
Now in the movie, Robert Forster plays a cop who has to go into the sewer and his partner gets eaten by the alligator. No one believes an alligator ate his partner. And then he meets a gal by the name of Robin Riker who plays an alligator expert. And she says, “no, alligators don’t get that big. Alligators don’t do that.” But then finally photographic proof where people realize, no there’s an alligator in the sewer and it’s huge.
So Robert Forster and Robin Riker team up to stop this alligator. Now the thing is, they actually have this really charming love affair. And it grows. As they fight the alligator together they get to know each other more and they’re very sweetly drawn.
And the movie is written by John Sayles and he does a really good job of it. The characters are really well-defined, really put together. One of the things about Robert Forster’s character is he’s a beleaguered cop, but he’s also (because this was happening to him at the time) losing his hair. People keep bringing it up and he’s really sensitive about it. It makes this burgeoning love affair with Robin Riker a nice thing.
I’m reading Kevin Thomas’s review about “Alligator.” And it was one of the best exploitation movies of 1980 and he’s giving it a really good review. Around this same time John Sales had done another movie, “Return of the Secaucus Seven” (1979) and all the critics loved it because he did it for like $60,000.
He shot it on 16mm, blown up to 35mm and it got a hint of the Laemmle circuit. All the critics loved this movie because it had this quality of lived-in relationships. They seemed like real people, not actors.
So Kevin Thomas is reviewing “Alligator” and he says that these two characters, despite being in this wild genre movie that they’re doing, these characters are so well-defined and so well-drawn and so well-acted by Forster and Riker that they could be characters in “Return of the Secaucus Seven.” They could have been there, but now they’re finding an alligator in this movie.
That’s a pretty darn good review so I went, and I’ve seen it a bunch of times.
Cut to 17 years later, I’ve just read the Elmore Leonard book “Rum Punch,” and I’m writing the script for “Jackie Brown.” I know I’m going to cast Pam Greer as Jackie Brown. That’s 99% of the reason I’m doing the damn movie in the first place. But when it comes to the character Max Cherry, the bail bondsman, I’m thinking “who could play this character?”
I had four names. Four guys who I thought could do a really good job. I thought Paul Newman at that time, 1997, could do a good job with it. I thought Gene Hackman. I’ve always liked the idea of working with Gene Hackman… and I still like the idea of Gene Hackman saying my dialogue. I thought Robert Forster and I though John Saxon would do a really good job.
But then I was thinking, “let me watch ‘Alligator’ again.” Because, frankly, the character that Robert Forster plays… it’s so well-drawn, it’s so lived-in, I could imagine that guy being Max Cherry. So I watch “Alligator” again and I forget about the other three guys.
I think, not only is Robert Forster the guy who could play Max Cherry, but I watched “Alligator” twice and I thought “Max Cherry is this guy! I’m now making Max Cherry this guy. What happened is this guy is a guy from Chicago, he moved to Los Angeles, he became a cop, he started losing his hair, he met this alligator named Ramon, he fought the alligator, he met Robin Riker, [spoilers], he quit the police force, he became a bail bondsman, he got plugs in his hair, he opened a bail bondsman’s office in Carson, he got divorced from Robin Riker, and we pick up the story 17 years later.