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In Memory of Robert Forster: Nate’s Top Ten Performances

Robert Forster passed away yesterday and the realms of Hollywood, television, exploitation and indie features will never be the same. This was a guy you knew even if you didn’t know his name, a pillar of supporting performances for decades, a man who radiated talent and charisma even if he was only onscreen for three minutes of any given production. My buddy saw him in an airport once but couldn’t think of his name for months and it drove us both nuts for awhile. He described the fellow as a “world weary detective type with kind eyes and a vaguely sad demeanour.” We eventually figured out who he meant when I kept showing him a rogues gallery of IMDb profile pictures to try and solve the conundrum, but my point is that this was a guy whose essence and persona just sticks with you no matter the role or project. I will miss him dearly and revisit many of his excellent performances again but for now here are my top ten favourite:

10. Steve Yendel in the Nelms Brothers’ Small Town Crime

The ultimate pissed off dad, Steve takes quirky revenge on the assholes who killed his daughter in this violent but good natured black comedy, teaming up with a persnickety pimp (Clifton Collins jr) for some off the books war games. “I wanna tie them to the back of my Bentley, drag them around a bit.” His delivery of that pithy little sentiment is both droll and priceless.

9. Marshall Sisco in ABC’s Karen Sisco

Not the first Elmore Leonard adaptation on this list sees him playing father, mentor and friend to Carla Gugino’s badass federal Marshall Karen Sisco in this televised version. Dennis Farina and Jennifer Lopez played these roles in Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight and rocked it but Robert and Carla find their own laidback, easygoing groove and have terrific chemistry. Word of warning though this show was never released onto DVD and is absent from any streaming services anywhere (which someone should really do something about) so basically your only hope is chopped up versions on YouTube.

8. Burt in Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had

Forster frequently finds himself in gritty genre stuff so I always get in line when he does something gentler like this hilarious and heartbreaking family drama. He’s brilliant here as a patriarch whose wife (Blythe Danner) is slipping into dementia. He’s nonchalant about it while his kids (Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon) unravel. His refusal to admit that she’s slowly losing herself is sort of sad and funny at the same time and the performance is perfectly pitched between the two.

7. Detective Murphy in Paul McGuigan’s Lucky Number Slevin

His character here is only onscreen for a minute or two but he’s got the biggest monologue in a film already thick with dense dialogue, and the dump truck level of exposition he delivers is something to see as he nails it while giving his idiosyncratic NYC cop role attitude to spare even though none of the dialogue is even about him. If you’ve seen the film you know what a brilliant, labyrinthine house of twists it is and he gets to impart the final wisdom that brings the narrative home, subsequently leaving a lasting impression amidst many other quirky performances.

6. Detective Harry McKnight in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr

Another quick cameo but one of the finest moments of eerie gravitas in the film. As a horrific limo crash kicks off the films inciting incident, Harry and his partner (Brent Briscoe, another Lynch favourite who is no longer with us) stand by the roadside and look out over the nocturnal LA dreamscape, wondering just what happened. The quiet, contemplative look in his eyes suggests many mysteries to come without saying anything, and his scene remains one of the films most atmospheric and memorable.

5. Arthur Petrelli in NBC’s Heroes

He always rocked the kinder roles but did some wicked nasty villain turns too, here playing the utterly evil and sociopathic ringleader of the troubled Petrelli clan. Not above terrorizing and murdering his own family for incredibly nefarious gains, he heads up the mysterious corporation that is pretty much responsible for most of the shitty things that happen on the show. Underplaying for chilling effect, he was essentially the big bad of the entire series run and wielded it wonderfully.

4. Scott Thorson in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants

Another aging family man looking after an ill wife, he plays father in law to George Clooney’s grieving real estate tycoon in a wonderfully emotional and intimate interpersonal drama. He doesn’t approve of his son in law and makes it very clear in a series of wry commentaries that lead to a confrontation that the actor gives the power of an open wound.

3. Sheriff Frank Truman in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return

Taking over the character in spirit from Michael Ontkean but also playing a new rendition of the upright lawman archetype, Robert plays Frank as a straight arrow who has begun to dim and get a bit weary. He’s a thoughtful man, a tired husband and you can sense a spiritual crisis in him when things begin to get weird because this is Twin Peaks and they inevitably must. One of my favourite scenes in the entire Peaks saga is a pine rimmed computer popping out of his desk so he can skype Doc Hayward (Warren Frost) on his fishing trip about vital information and share pleasantries while he’s at it. It’s such a lovely scene full of light and goodness, Robert’s contribution to the Peaks world is really something special.

2. Jake Nyman in Paul Chort’s American Perkekt

This is a weird one but essential because the director wrote this role specifically for Forster and he’s absolutely fucking terrifying in it. Jake is a psychiatrist, or says he is anyways, but he’s on a demented road trip where every decision is determined by the flip of a coin, and with each flip he seems to lose his grip on sanity a bit more. The final act sees him completely go over the edge and terrorize a drifter (Fairuza Balk) into submission. It’s a very strange film with many characters and has that oddball ‘psycho indie road flick’ vibe but his performance is the sickened heart of it and he really lets that ripcord of uninhibited mania go.

1. Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown

The crown jewel of his career saw Tarantino revive his Hollywood career to play bail bondsman Max, a keen Everyman who is deeply in love with Jackie (Pam Grier) from the moment he lays eyes on her and determined to help her escape homicidal gun runner Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson). The pacing of both the film and particularly his performance really sells this story, you can watch the wheels turning as he observes characters around him interact, and the blossoming look of adoration on his face when he sees Jackie for the first time is truly remarkable.

Thanks for reading and please feel free to share your favourites from Robert’s fantastic career!

-Nate Hill

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