October 16, 2019

Robert Forster, 1941-2019

As Max Cherry, the stand-up bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, Robert Forster watches Jackie, played by Pam Grier, walk out of jail in a real movie star moment. He watches the triple-cross money exchange from every angle. In the film’s final scene, he watches Jackie walk out of his office and out of his life forever — one of those faraway, unrequited looks.

Forster didn’t just watch. He watched like Gary Grant listened, like James Dean leaned, like Jack Nicholson raised an eyebrow. He was Jack Webb, except with a pulse and a soul.

Robert Forster, who played strong, sturdy, silent types in more than 150 movies and television series, died Saturday of brain cancer. He was 78.

“Today the world is left with one less gentleman,” Tarantino said Sunday. “One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had. … All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life.”

Forster’s career-defining turn in Jackie Brown (1997) was no comeback, because he was never previously a commercial or critical success.

His breakout role was as a television cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool in 1968, which was about the resting temperature of his enduring career. Often too cool, like during his two-decade losing streak filled with television guest shots and B-movies. But mostly medium, even after his Academy Award nomination for Jackie Brown.

Forster starred in the detective series Banyon (1972-73), which ended after one season when showrunner Ed Adamson died, then Nakia (1974) in which he played a Native American deputy sheriff. He was the spaceship captain in Disney’s high-concept disappointment The Black Hole (1979) and the lead in Alligator (1980), produced by Roger Corman, from a script by John Sayles. He was the main terrorist in the Chuck Norris vehicle Delta Force (1986), marking a low point for him.

“First time I ever played a bad guy,” Forster told AV Club in 2011. “I didn’t want to do it. … I was broke, my agent had lent me money.”

He continued downward in straight-to-video titles like Satan’s Princess (1989), Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1993), Body Chemistry III: Point of Seduction (1994) and Scanner Cop II (1995).

“Every time it reached a lower level I thought I could tolerate, it dropped some more, and then some more,” he told the Chicago Tribune last year. Near the end, I had no agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing. I was taking whatever fell through the cracks.”

But Tarantino remembered Forster — watching him in Medium Cool and Banyon. He asked him to audition for Reservoir Dogs, but Lawrence Tierney got the part. He recommended him to director Tony Scott for True Romance, which Tarantino wrote, but Christopher Walken got the part.

Then Tarantino asked Forster to read Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, then his script based on the book.

Forster tells the story best:
I could not believe that he was talking about the Max Cherry role. And I know that Pam had the same exact experience when she read it. I read it, and I couldn’t figure out what part he had in mind for me. But when I called him, he said, “Let’s have breakfast again,” so the following morning we had breakfast again, and because I’d had the experience before of getting close to a good role and having the distributor say, “No, no, no, we want somebody else,” I said to him, “Look, I appreciate it, but I don’t think they’ll let you hire me.” And he said, “I hire anybody I want.” And that’s when the world stopped. I know that Pam had the same experience, because we’ve talked about it. I could not believe that I was going to get another shot at this business.
His Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor was one of the great Cinderella stories in a business full of unbelievable storylines. The first congratulatory calls he received were from his two ex-wives.

After Jackie Brown, Forster no longer had to act. No longer had to perform. Or audition. Or prove himself.

Forster just was. The lines on his face did most of the work. The deep timbre of his voice told his backstory. He just watched.

He was in four or five movies a year, including Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (1998), the Farrelly Bros. Me Myself & Irene (2000), David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) and Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011). On television, he was in Karen Sisco (2004) and Heroes (2007-08), working with Lynch again in Twin Peaks (2017) and recurring as Tim Allen’s father in Last Man Standing (2012-18). He was never the lead. He was always that guy that gave a scene some weight. A square shooter.

Forster’s final role was the identity specialist in El Camino — which opened last weekend — reprising his part from Breaking Bad.

No spoilers here. He plays the kind of guy who gives people a new life. The kind that Tarantino gave him.

October 15, 2019

My favorite albums (1990s), vol. 3

I wasn’t listening to most of these albums in the 90s. I was born in 1984. I was paying attention to a few of these albums when they happened, but for the most part this list was formed in the 2000s with me looking over my shoulder. Now that I’ve finished my list, I notice how little I wrote about the albums themselves. Like most folks, the music I love is tangled up with my own life. I guess that’s why it seems reasonable to me to begin a discussion about Nevermind in a computer class six years after it was released.
— Chris Harrell

10. NEVERMIND (1991) Nirvana

I know by all rights this should be at the top of the list. Probably number one or, at least, two or three. It makes my defense much easier that this is a list of my 10 favorite albums of the 90s rather than a list of the greatest. You can judge me, but you have to take my word that this list is accurate. I’m picking Nevermind to represent Nirvana, but I wouldn’t argue with In Utero or, assuming live recordings count, Unplugged. What a way to kick off a decade of music.

I remember listening to Nirvana a lot in seventh grade, especially in computer class. Timmy, one of the first kids in our grade to start learning guitar, got us listening. We all knew the album, because everyone who grew up in the Nirvana explosion knew it. But now we were getting old enough to flirt with teenage angst. Now it mattered for us. I associate this album with Timmy, because he’s a great real-life example of a new generation picking up guitars and getting interested in a new kind of music. Even if that “new” kind of music was six years old.

October 8, 2019

My favorite albums (1990s), vol. 2

As someone born in 1975, I should be a musical child of the 1980s. And in many ways, I am. Those were the formative years that shaped my tastes. However, it was the 1990s where my musical proclivities were fine-tuned. Those were the years of growth and development; that was the decade of high school and college, of becoming a man. My favorite music of that era reflects the period.
— Matt Lail


Right in the midst of grunge taking over the music scene, the boys from Athens, Ga., decided to zig while everyone else zagged. Of course, in true R.E.M. fashion, they weren’t necessarily pivoting in response to what was going on in the world. Instead, R.E.M. decided to transition from what R.E.M. had been doing. So, in 1992, on the heels of a monster hit in “Losing My Religion” and the album Out of Time, R.E.M. unleashed Automatic for the People. It’s essentially an album about death and loss. With a couple of exceptions, there is very little electric guitar on this album. But there are a lot of strings, arranged courtesy of Led Zeppelin’s version of Mike Mills, John Paul Jones. Automatic for the People — for the reasons just mentioned — is HIGHLY unconventional, especially for a band that was at their creative peak AND at the top of their commercial selling power. Oh, and they didn’t tour for this one. (Warner Bros. must have been having a cow.) But what an album it is. It still managed to spawn major commercial hits (“Drive,” “Man on the Moon,” “Everybody Hurts”), as well as critical and fan favorites (“Nightswimming” and “Find the River,” to name just two). When the dust had settled, R.E.M. was still arguably America’s greatest band. And they had done it their way. As Michael Stipe sings in “Drive”: “Hey kids, rock and roll / Nobody tells you where to go, baby.”

October 1, 2019

My favorite albums (1990s)

By the early 1990s, Johnny Cash had spent almost two decades in creative and commercial decline, playing in front of disappearing audiences at banquet halls and dinner theaters. He had been dropped by both Columbia and Mercury Records. His final resting place: Branson.

Enter record producing buddha Rick Rubin. Drop the needle on the greatest comeback in the history of popular music — and I don’t mean maybe.

The 30-year-old Rubin had produced almost exclusively rap and heavy metal artists, like LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Slayer and Danzig. His production style was minimalist, putting little space between artist and listener. The back cover of LL Cool J’s Radio read: “Reduced by Rick Rubin.”

But he wanted to work with a mature artist, a great old artist who had not been doing their best work. Rubin approached Cash.

The result was American Recordings, a stripped-down Johnny Cash, and the closest he had come to his earliest work at Sun Records. The album was universally praised, winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. “Delia’s Gone,” the album’s controversial first single, made MTV’s rotation.

It became fashionable to say that Johnny Cash was cool. Or cool again. Which was, of course, complete bullshit. Because a man and his guitar, with a Biblical voice, wearing black, standing up for what’s right, never stopped being cool. Because Johnny Cash was the walking, talking definition of cool.
— Kevin Brewer

1. AMERICAN RECORDINGS (1994) Johnny Cash

American Recordings might be the most handmade, most organic, most Johnny Cash album of them all. It was recorded in Cash’s Tennessee cabin, Rick Rubin’s living room and The Viper Room in Los Angeles. No studio. Cash, in his autobiography: “We experimented with added instrumentation, but in the end, we decided that it worked better with me alone. We bore down on it that way and got our album: no reverb, no echo, no slapback, no overdubbing, no mixing, just me playing my guitar and singing. I didn’t even use a pick; every guitar note on the album … came from my thumb.” Essential tracks | “Delia’s Gone,” “Drive On,” “Tennessee Stud”