Skip to main content

Remembering 'Jackie Brown' Actor Robert Forster

The Oscar-nominated actor, who died Oct. 11, often played police officers and private eyes. "These guys are straight shooters," he said in 2003. "I take the mantle of that and pretend it's me."


Other segments from the episode on November 5, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 18, 2019: Tribute to Anita O'Day and an interview with her; Obituary for Robert Forster; Review of the film Jojo Rabbit.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Singer Anita O'Day was born 100 years ago today. We'll mark the occasion with a tribute by jazz critic Kevin Whitehead, and we'll listen back to Terry's 1987 interview with O'Day. Anita O'Day inspired the so-called cool jazz singers of the 1950s. Music critic Will Friedwald described O'Day as, quote, "always the greatest, the coolest, the hippest and the swingingest (ph)," singing with bands led by Gene Krupa, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman and others. In her 1981 autobiography, "High Times, Hard Times," O'Day explained that her last name was Colton, but she changed it to O'Day because in pig Latin, that meant dough, and she hoped to make plenty of it.

O'Day died in 2006. Kevin Whitehead says O'Day is probably best remembered for singing a sultry "Sweet Georgia Brown" in the film "Jazz On A Summer's Day," shot at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. But he says she made her name long before and kept making it after.


ANITA O'DAY: (Singing) You torture me, zoot, are we living? I'm thinking of leaving him flat. He says, dig dig the jumps. The old ticker is giving. Now, he can talk plainer than that. He says murder, he says. Every time we kiss, he says murder, he says. Keep it up like this, and that's murder, he says in that impossible tone. It will bring on nobody's murder but his own.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Of all the singers who came up in the big, white swing bands, Anita O'Day was the coolest. She was at ease with slangy novelty tunes and with her own independent style. On tours with Gene Krupa, she wore a band jacket on stage like the guys and, she said later, carried her own bags and picked up her dinner checks.

Her tough, hip persona echoed in Barbara Stanwyck's character, Krupa singer Sugarpuss O'Shea in the screwball classic "Ball Of Fire." O'Day made her reputation with Krupa's hit "Let Me Off Uptown" in which the audibly white singer hipped the audibly black trumpeter Roy Eldridge to happenings in Harlem. The premise is so comic, you could overlook how subversive their easy rapport across racial lines was in 1941.


O'DAY: Hey, Joe.

ROY ELDRIDGE: What do you mean Joe? My name's Roy.

O'DAY: Well, come here, Roy, and get groovy. You've been uptown?

ELDRIDGE: No, I ain't been uptown, but I've been around.

O'DAY: You mean to say you ain't been uptown?

ELDRIDGE: No, I ain't been uptown. What's uptown?

O'DAY: (Singing) If it's pleasure you're about, and you feel like stepping out, all you've got to shout is let me off uptown. If it's rhythm that you feel, then it's nothing to conceal. Oh, you've got to spiel is, let me off uptown.

WHITEHEAD: Starting in 1944, Anita O'Day spent a year with Stan Kenton's band, helping them break through with the queasy-making hit "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine." The lyric appears to make light of a wife's abuse at the hands of a violent, two-timing husband. But in the end, she gets the last laugh - sort of.


O'DAY: (Singing) He got mixed up with a Maisie. He got mixed up with a Flo. So Flo shoved him in the river. He'll not get mixed up no more. His wife then draped herself in black that showed her figure fine. Then she cussed him out, the two-faced guy. No insurance could she find.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) And her tears flowed like wine. Yes, her tears flowed like wine. She's a real sad tomato. She's a busted Valentine.

WHITEHEAD: After the swing band's collapse in the mid-1940s, Anita O'Day's career ran alternately hot and cold for decades, partly due to drug and alcohol problems. In the 1950s, she signed with record producer Norman Granz. That resulted in her most substantial recorded legacy, though she and Granz didn't get on. He put her in front of strings and limber small groups, but she often sounded most at home fronting big bands, as in the '40s.


O'DAY: (Singing) If I love again, though it's someone new, if I love again, it will still be you. In someone else's firm embrace, I close my eyes and see your face. If I love again, I'll find other charms. But I'll make believe you are in my arms.

WHITEHEAD: In the 1950s, Anita O'Day mined The Great American Songbook of Broadway and movie tunes. Since those were familiar to listeners, she could take liberties with the melodies, demonstrating superb timing and how sensitive she could be with a lyric. O'Day always said she sang without vibrato, but you could spot her light vibrato on ballads. This is from "Early Autumn."


O'DAY: (Singing) There's a dance pavilion in the rain all shuttered down, a winding country lane all russet brown. A frosty window pane shows me a town grown lonely.

WHITEHEAD: Anita O'Day kept recording occasional novelties like "Rock And Roll Waltz" in the '50s or "Your Red Wagon" in the '60s. Then she was up and down again. You could blink and miss her in the 1973 Robert Duvall flick "The Outfit," where she sings for nobody during daylight hours in a Bakersfield bar back when the real O'Day was living in a $3 hotel room with no phone.

But soon she was back for a successful third act, fronting small groups. Her voice had gotten heavier, but she could still work it and inhabit a lyric and savor an introductory verse. Here she is in 1975.


O'DAY: (Singing) My story is much too sad to be told, but practically everything leaves me totally cold. The only exception I know is the case when I'm out on a quiet spree, fighting vaguely the old ennui. Then I suddenly turn and see your fabulous face. I get no kick from champagne. Mere alcohol doesn't thrill me at all. So tell me, why should it be true that I get a kick out of you? Some get a kick from cocaine. I'm sure that if I took even one sniff, it would bore me terrifically, too. But I get a kick out of you.

WHITEHEAD: Anita O'Day kept singing, if less often, and in 2006 put out her last gasp, the CD "Indestructible!" It made Billie Holiday's croaking late phase sound girlish. O'Day's take on "A Slip Of The Lip," a wartime advisory from 1942, is as strange as anything from late-period Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan's "Basement Tapes."


O'DAY: (Singing) Don't talk too much. Don't you jive too much. Jack, don't be too hip 'cause a slip of the lip might sink a ship. Walls have ears. Night has eyes. So let's be wise and trick those past guys.

WHITEHEAD: In her autobiography "High Times, Hard Times," Anita O'Day insisted she wasn't a singer but a song stylist. And she was stylin' right till the end. She passed away late in 2006, 65 years after joining Gene Krupa, a good long run for any singer or song stylist.


O'DAY: (Singing) Skylark, have you anything to say to me? Won't you tell me you where my love can be? Is there a meadow in the mist where someone's waiting for a kiss? Skylark, have you seen a valley green with spring where my heart can go a-journeying over the shadows and the rain to a blossom-covered lane? And in your lonely flight, haven't you heard the music of the night? Wonderful music, faint as a will-o'-the-wisp, crazy as a loon, sad as a gypsy serenading the moon. Skylark, I don't know if you can find these things, but my heart is riding on your wings. So if you see them anywhere, won't you lead me there?

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. We'll listen back to our 1987 interview with Anita O'Day after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're celebrating the centennial of the birth of jazz singer Anita O'Day. Let's listen to the interview Terry recorded with her in 1987.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Throughout your career, you've always not wanted to be the, quote, "girl singer," the person who's accompanied by the band, accompanied by the orchestra. You've always said you wanted your voice to be part of the band.

O'DAY: Right.

GROSS: Would you explain some of the things that you did and didn't want as a singer with a band?

O'DAY: Well, the things I did want was to be there because you learn, and you earn while you learn (laughter) - nothing wrong with that one. The band work is really very simple work. It's called pattern work. And you mostly sing quarter notes, and the band fills with patterns - (singing) pleasure, you're about - the band goes, doo-wah (ph), doo-wah, you know what I'm talking about?

GROSS: Uh-huh (ph).

O'DAY: So it's called pattern work. And then, well, after Gene Krupa orchestra for five years and Stan Kenton for one year - this is a few years back - I decided that I would like to try for a small group, which is different kind of work.

GROSS: You have a very unique voice, and physically one of the reasons for part of the uniqueness of your singing is that you don't have a uvula, which is that...

O'DAY: Oh, you read my book. I can tell.

GROSS: I did read your book. What - can you tell us about how you lost your uvula? And I should say that that's the little fleshy overhang in the back of your mouth.

O'DAY: That's that little thing that hangs down in the back of the throat. When you see the cartoons, and it shows they're singing, and that little thing's going, la-a-a-a-a (ph), well, that's gone.

GROSS: (Laughter).

O'DAY: I was in the hospital for just regular big tonsils or something. I think it was 7 years old. And my mother said - years later, I said, you know, I want to be a singer. And what - and I've really got a problem. I can't get any vibration going. I have to make a different type. And that's when she told me about this uvula having been - it was a slip of the knife.

GROSS: During the tonsillectomy.

O'DAY: Yeah, during the, like, you know, tonsillectomy, right.

GROSS: So...

O'DAY: That's how that went down.

GROSS: How did that change your singing?

O'DAY: Well, not knowing about it from 7 years old and not knowing I was going to be singing at 20 and still singing at 68 years old, it didn't make much difference (laughter) because you find a way to do it because where there's a will, you know.

GROSS: Before you even sang professionally, you picked up some money in walkathons...

O'DAY: That's right.

GROSS: ...And dance marathons during the Depression.

O'DAY: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Did you have an endurance record? Do you remember what your record was for number of hours danced or walked?

O'DAY: Well, I was in six contests, and I came in four out of six contests. And the longest one I was in that I can remember, Red Skelton was the night emcee. And June Haver was in the show, and Frankie Laine was in the show, and we were all in the show - whatever. But we were still in the show 2,328 hours.

GROSS: That's a lot. Do you think this was good practice for being on the road (laughter)?

O'DAY: (Laughter) Well, you got to learn something from it. I hope I did (laughter).

GROSS: You used to sing duets with trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Was there any resistance at that time - and this is the early 1940s - to having a black performer and a white performer singing duets on the same stage?

O'DAY: Well, I think it - there was some - something going on out there. Didn't bother me. I'm from Chicago. I went to colored schools. You know, that didn't bother me. When we played the South, it was really horrendous at that time, right.

GROSS: There were negative reactions from the audience or from the club owners? Who caused the problems?

O'DAY: In the South, it was just the people for him to get into the theater, let alone perform. You know, in New York City, there was no problem.

GROSS: You played with several other big band leaders in addition to Krupa. You performed briefly with Benny Goodman, and you described him as a bandleader who always tried to distract attention from the performers so that - why? So that they wouldn't take attention away from him?

O'DAY: Yeah. Well, that was just his style. I don't think he did it maliciously. That - you know, that was just his way.

GROSS: How would he do it?

O'DAY: Well, for instance, if I was scheduled to do four tunes, and the people are giving me too much attention, he would just automatically go into "Sing, Sing, Sing," which is his tune. And I'd have to leave the stage waving goodbye (laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter).

O'DAY: Yeah.

GROSS: You describe Stan Kenton as being incapable of swinging.

O'DAY: Yeah, Stan couldn't swing. I mean, I love Stan, and I love his upbeats. And he was the artistry and rhythm, and that's funny because when I was with the band, I was there for a year. I sat on the stage like the Gene Krupa Orchestra, and at the end of these extravaganzas, Stan would go, da-da da-da, or whatever.

The band is holding this note, and he'd look over at me like, when do I cut it off, you know? If he did it on his own, he'd cut it off at six and seven-eighths - I never heard of it - but I'd get him to cut it off on four. So I did that for a year, you know, just trying to be helpful.

GROSS: You've had a lot of hard drinking in your time, and you've also done a lot of drugs in your time. Do you think that your involvement with alcohol and drugs had anything to do with wanting to keep up with the men and wanting to be as tough as they were?

O'DAY: That's a good question. I never thought about it that way. No, I do it because I enjoy it. You know, everybody has their things, and that's what I do. You know, I didn't want to have a family. I didn't want to sit at home. I didn't want to be a housewife and own property, and I didn't want to work in an office from 9 to 5. And so I was just out there looking to find something that I could, like, go along with, you know, and maybe contribute to the people in the world.

GROSS: You started smoking grass when you were 12 or 13 years old, and that was...

O'DAY: It wasn't against the law then, Terry.

GROSS: That's the amazing thing, you know? It's hard for me to think of a time before...

O'DAY: That it was not against the law.

GROSS: ...Marijuana was illegal. Yeah.

O'DAY: Yeah. Well, I didn't look for it. Just the people that were going my way - that's what they were doing, you know?

GROSS: There was a period of, I guess, close to 15 years when you were using heroin and still performing most of that time.

O'DAY: True.

GROSS: You were convicted several times on drug charges. How difficult did that make it for you to get bookings in certain cities that had...

O'DAY: It helped. That's showbiz (laughter).

GROSS: Seriously? It helped? I can't tell if you're kidding or not.

O'DAY: No, I'm not getting. That's showbiz. It does. It helps you. They come to look at the girl that went to jail for smoking dope. Man, I'd work at club, and they'd be standing out down the street around the corner getting in to see the girl just got out of jail. Yeah.

GROSS: Did that make you pretty angry?

O'DAY: It didn't make me angry. Business was great.

GROSS: Right.

O'DAY: Come on. Where were you?

GROSS: (Laughter) How did you finally kick after doing drugs?

O'DAY: Oh, I went to Hawaii. I went to Hawaii, and I didn't know anybody in Hawaii. And when you get the chills, I just laid in the hot sun, and when you get the sweats, I jumped in the water. I did it for five months - cool, cold and straight ever since.

GROSS: Did you have to almost relearn how to sing straight after you'd been performing high for so many years?

O'DAY: Oh, yeah. You kind of have to work around it. Right. That's why I went back to this nostalgia thing. It's because I'd been doing bebop and whatever else, and so I went back to before that time, and that's what I'm doing now.

GROSS: I recently had the opportunity to see a movie that I suspect a lot of our listeners have seen, "Jazz On A Summer's Day," which was a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival.

O'DAY: Oh, I was feeling no pain that day.

GROSS: You wearing these great white gloves in it - these, like, I think wrist-high white gloves - and it's very sharp-looking. I don't know how many women were actually wearing those gloves back in 1958, but how did you decide to wear them? I think it almost became a trademark for a while.

O'DAY: I went to George Wein, who was the promoter of the whole thing. And I said, what night am I on?, because it was Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday nights. And he says to me, oh, you're on Sunday afternoon, and I said, oh, thanks a lot. You know, what am I going to wear on a Sunday afternoon? I'm not going to wear a frock to the floor, and I'm not going to wear an off-the-shoulder.

So I got to thinking, and so I lied prone and I kind of, like, thought, what would you wear? It was due at 5 o'clock. So I wore a cocktail afternoon cocktail party dress with the black sheath and the white peplum and little glass slippers and the little white gloves and this black hat with the ostrich feathers, and that worked out apropos for the time o' day. That's a joke.

GROSS: (Laughter).

O'DAY: Terry? Terry, are you there? Yeah, that's what happened, love.

GROSS: Oh, goodness.

O'DAY: That was it.

GROSS: OK. Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

O'DAY: Well, I want to thank you for even considering me. It's very nice of you to bring me forward to all the listening fans of your age, and I appreciate it. Thank you, Terry, and my best to FRESH AIR. Is that what it's called?


O'DAY: Let's have some FRESH AIR, and I'm with you, babe. I'm with you, babe. Check it out.

DAVIES: Jazz singer Anita O'Day speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. O'Day was born 100 years ago today. She died in 2006. Coming up after a break, we remember journeyman actor Robert Forster and we have a review of the new satirical film "Jojo Rabbit." I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Actor Robert Forster, best remembered as the bail bondsman in the Quentin Tarantino film "Jackie Brown," died last Friday in Los Angeles. He was 78.

Forster's 50-year career in film and TV was marked by a long dry spell after some early success. He starred in the now-classic 1969 film "Medium Cool" as a TV news cameraman who remains detached from the cultural upheaval he's reporting. He starred in a couple of TV series in the early '70s, then struggled for work for more than 25 years, appearing in B-movies and guest roles on television.

Quentin Tarantino noticed Forster's talent, though, and had him in mind when he wrote the character Max Cherry, a bail bondsman, into the screenplay for "Jackie Brown." Forster earned an Oscar nomination for that performance, reviving his career. After that, he appeared in the films "Me, Myself And Irene," "Like Mike," "Lakeboat" and "Mulholland Drive" and the TV series "Twin Peaks" and "Breaking Bad."

Terry spoke to Robert Forster in 2003.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Now, it was "Jackie Brown" that really revived your career, the Quentin Tarantino movie. Had you seen Quentin Tarantino's earlier films? I know he'd seen your work, and that's why he wrote the part of the bail bondsman for you, but had you seen his work?

ROBERT FORSTER: Sure. Strangely, when my career was at its lowest and I had been doing, you know, dopey exploitation movies for a few different guys who would hire me - Bill Lustig was one of them, and Fred Williamson was another, and they made, you know, low-budget movies - cop sort of - or horror or whatever.

And Lustig called me up one day and said, you know, I just bought a really great script from a guy you never heard of. His name is Quentin Tarantino, and this guy Tarantino claims there's a part in this script that - Lustig, he said, was supposed to give to me.

And I thought, oh, boy, something to grab onto. My slide is over here. I'm going to get traction with this one. And I read it, and it was great. And before the picture could get made, they grabbed it away from Lustig and gave it to a big director, Tony Scott, and he made "True Romance" out of it. Then I got a call from my agent.

GROSS: So you didn't get the part in that after all?

FORSTER: No, I didn't even get close to it. This picture was made with real people, real stars. Then about a year later or so, my agent called me - when I had one - who said, I've got - there's a guy you're going to meet for a picture called "Reservoir Dogs." You never heard of this guy - Quentin Tarantino. And they sent me the script, and I thought, oh, boy. My slide is over. This thing is going to be good. This guy likes me. I'm going to get this part.

And I went in there to - at Fox. I remember the reading, and I read this thing good. I knew what I was doing, and after I read it, I walked out of the room. He followed me out of the room, and he said, hey. Listen. He said, you know, I've seen everything you ever did. And he started reeling off everything, and he'd seen everything, even the little picture I made, "Hollywood Harry." And he said, but look. This thing is not going to work, he said, because I'm going to give this part to the guy that I dedicated the script to, Lawrence Tierney.

So I didn't do that. Following that, he made "Pulp Fiction" and became a great big director. Years go by. I have breakfast at a place in Hollywood, West Hollywood, and I went into breakfast one morning. I'm sitting there, and in walks Quentin. And I call him over, and he comes over, and we blah, blah for a few minutes. And I ask him what he's doing, and he said he's adapting "Rum Punch," an Elmore Leonard novel, to a movie. He said, why don't you read it? That was that.

About six months later, I walk into the same restaurant. I turn the corner into the patio to look - to go toward my own spot. Quentin's sitting in my seat. As I approached, he picks up a script. He hands it to me. He says, read this. See if you like it. Now, there has never been such a gift. He gave me a gift the size of which cannot be exaggerated.

GROSS: Did you feel like you should be talking him out of it because you felt washed up? Do you know what I mean?

FORSTER: I didn't feel washed - no, I - you know, listen. I knew that if I hung in there long enough - I had a long-shot strategy, and that was that someday, some kid who liked me growing up would turn into a moviemaker and give me a good part.


FORSTER: How do you like that?

GROSS: It worked.

FORSTER: I mean, yeah. It worked.

GROSS: Well, let me play a scene from "Jackie Brown." This is a scene from early on. You're a bail bondsman, and Samuel Jackson, who has lived a life of crime, is coming to you to get a bail bond for Jackie Brown.


FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) All right. You want another bond, you want to move the 10,000 you got on Beaumont over to the stewardess. That means paperwork. I've got to get a death certificate, present it to the court, make out a receipt for return of bond collateral, type up another application...

SAMUEL L JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) Hey, hey, hey, man. Jackie ain't got time for all that [expletive].

FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) I'm telling you what I have to do. What you have to do, in case you forgot, is come up with a premium of a thousand bucks.

JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) I can do that. You know I got the money. I just ain't got it with me.

FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) Come back when you do. I'll bond out the stewardess.

JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) Look. you get to look at this with a little compassion, all right? Jackie ain't no criminal. She ain't used to this kind of treatment. The gangsters, they don't give a [expletive], but your average citizen - a couple of nights in county get to [expletive] with their minds.

FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) Ordell, this isn't a bar. You don't have a tab.

JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) Listen to me, all right? You got a 44-year-old gainfully employed black woman falsely accused...

FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) Falsely accused? She didn't come back from Mexico with cocaine on her?

JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) Falsely accused the intent. Now, if she had that [expletive] - and mind you, I'm saying if - that was her own personal [expletive] to get high with.

FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) Is white guilt supposed to make me forget I'm running a business?

JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) Oh, it's like that, huh?

GROSS: That's Samuel L. Jackson and my guest Robert Forster in a scene from "Jackie Brown," a film by Quentin Tarantino. You know, one of the things I love about this film is this part of the story between you and Pam Grier, who's your female co-star in the movie. And it's a great love story because you never know if she's really on the level, and also, it's a real, like, middle-aged love story, you know? She's middle-aged. You're middle-aged. And it's also interracial love story, and it really works.

What did you think the odds were that when you were coming out of this long phase where you weren't getting work, you'd get this kind of leading man role? And it's not leading man role in the sense that, you know, it's, like, James Bond or, you know, the hunk.

FORSTER: No, it's better than that. It was real.

GROSS: It's real. Exactly.

FORSTER: It was human, and it was believable stuff.

GROSS: It has so much feeling in it. Yeah.

FORSTER: You know, and that is sort of what Elmore Leonard is about - real characters. He has affection for his characters. They're human, and even if they're bad guys, he has affection for them and knows that they - you know, knows they have a real life and laugh once in a while and are not just bad guys.

Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino - and Tarantino, of course, I know quite well at this point, and I know what his dialogue is like. He took it from Elmore Leonard, but it's really his own. And this guy has a real ear for knowing what people speak like, especially characters and, well, you know, neighborhood characters and people from different places. He's got a real ear for it.

GROSS: There's a kind of air of depression and loneliness that hangs over your character in "Jackie Brown." And I'd just be interested in hearing what you did to get in the right frame of mind for the role.

FORSTER: I had a 28-year slide to my career.


FORSTER: Oh, boy. Listen - you know, I must have asked myself 400 times, are you going to survive this Bob? Are you going to be able to save the house? Are you going to get the kids through college? Are you going to, you know, survive a relationship? Will anybody love you at the end? Is it going to be all lonely? Or is it going to be - you know, who knows what. And, you know, you survive it, and you keep on slugging, and you refuse to quit.

GROSS: During that period when you weren't making - working much, you were still making some movies. And some of them sound like they were, you know, real cheap films, like "Satan's Princess" and...

FORSTER: Oh, what a cutie that was.

GROSS: Was it?


GROSS: What are some of the other titles from that period?

FORSTER: Oh, boy. Oh, boy. There were some - you know, there's a series - if you look on the Internet, it used to be on - I think they've taken them off now, but for a couple of years after "Jackie Brown," there were still a couple of Spanish titles on my website - not my website, but the database.

And those pictures were made by an actor who, in Spain, about - I don't know - 20 years ago, used my name. Somebody told him that he looked like me, and so he used my name in Spanish pictures, one of which is called - and you could find it, and it's a better title than I'm going to tell you - "The Witch Nymphomaniac From The Rio Grande."

GROSS: (Laughter).

FORSTER: And at least two or three of those kind of titles and a few other titles of my own that, you know, equally terrible and forgettable. But there are some little pictures made during those years that I loved.

DAVIES: Actor Robert Forster speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2003. Forster died last week. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with actor Robert Forster, who died last week at the age of 78. Forster's career began strong in the late '60s but stalled out for decades until Quentin Tarantino cast him in his 1997 film "Jackie Brown." That turned around his career. His last role was in the "Breaking Bad" movie "El Camino."


GROSS: You actually started your career with a splash. In 1969, you were the star of "Medium Cool," and you played a - you know, a TV cameraman.


GROSS: It was set in the present. In fact, there were - more or less the present. There were scenes that were actually shot at the demonstrations at the Chicago convention and inside the Chicago convention. Were there things about the movie that surprised you, such as having to film in the context of the real Democratic convention?

FORSTER: This movie was one of my great learning experiences. Up until then, I didn't realize that an actor might be called upon to improvise. There was an awful lot of this movie that was improvised, and I hadn't a clue. I thought they wrote the words for you. So now I'm with Haskell, and he hands me a camera and says, OK, do an interview with that person over there.

And with nothing more than, well, let's see how we do this, I started talking. And the next thing you know, you're improvising and bringing the character that you imagine you are supposed to be. I had gotten a great lesson from John Huston.

GROSS: He directed you in "Reflections In A Golden Eye."

FORSTER: Yes, my first picture. I met him in a hotel room. I arrived from L.A. I had read the book, "Reflections In A Golden Eye." I showed up. I walked into the lobby of this hotel. And I looked around, and everywhere, everywhere, there were guys - they all look like me. I thought he wanted to meet me for "Reflections In A Golden Eye."

This was a cattle call. They called my name. I was escorted up the elevator. We waited outside of a room. Somebody left. I walked in. I'm introduced to this tall, old guy. He says, what have you done? What have you done?

I said, listen - I haven't done much. I did one Broadway play. It wasn't bad, but I don't make myself an actor. I never did a movie. I don't know how they're made. I don't know what the tricks are. But if you hire me, I'll give you your money's worth. He gave me the job.

On the first day of production, I get out of the car. I walk it over to where he's standing. He says, now's the time, Bobby. I say, shoot. I'm all ears. He says, go take a look through the lens. I walked over to the camera. The cameraman stepped aside. I looked through the lens.

I turned back to Huston. He's got his hands shaped in the form of a rectangle. He said, you see those? Those are the frame lines. I looked again through the lens. I said, yeah, you mean that line that shows the cameraman what the audience sees? He says, those are the frame lines. Now, ask yourself this - what needs to be there? Wow. In 14 words, this guy gives me the secret. The actor is supposed to understand and imagine what is supposed to be inside that frame and deliver it and deliver what the writer needs and what the director may need.

And it's got to be there because the guy who set the lights wants you to be in them, and you've got to hear - the ones who are listening for the words got to hear them correctly, otherwise somebody at the end of the shot says, no good for sound; start again. And if you do something too big for the frame you're in, somebody says, no good for composition; start again. And if you put the cup in the wrong spot, somebody says, no good for continuity. You've got to deliver a stroke which advantages everybody's needs at once. And when you do that, you get to hear cut, print, move on to the next shot.

John Huston gave me a great piece of advice, and I took that to Haskell Wexler's picture. And I said to myself, OK, what's supposed to be here? And then he would say, action, and I'd throw something out there.

GROSS: One of the things you had to do in "Medium Cool" was be naked (laughter).


GROSS: How did you feel about that?

FORSTER: You know - OK, here comes the first thing. Oh, what a - what a funny thing this was. I got the script to "Reflections In A Golden Eye." That's where it started. And I read this thing, and here it says, yeah, the guy rides around naked on a horse. And I'm thinking to myself - and I'd never made a movie, I hadn't a clue. And I said, gee, I wonder how they do that, probably trick photography or something.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FORSTER: Yeah. So I remember the day I was in Rome. And when I came out to the set, and here was an Italian extra riding around the horse naked, and I thought to myself, gee, that's supposed to be me. And I was so taken in the moment, I said to John Huston, I said, I could do that. I could do that. He said, could you, Bobby? Could you really? I said, yeah, I could do that.

I didn't want the other guy to be in the picture. I wanted to do that thing. It was my own. So the next thing I know, the wardrobe department hands me a little tiny triangle cut from a jockstrap - all right - and a roll of tape. And they handed this to me. And that was supposed to give me some...

GROSS: A little bit of cover.

FORSTER: ...My modesty, yes. And, of course, it unpeeled immediately. So you know what? I said, Bob, if you don't give yourself permission to do this, then why do it? After that, in "Medium Cool," it wasn't that hard. Round two. I say OK, Bob, let's go. You're not that afraid of it. Let's try. And bingo, bango (ph).

GROSS: You know, I read that your father, before World War II, was - worked with Ringling Bros. Circus as an elephant trainer.

FORSTER: He was on the Ringling, yeah. Oh, what a good guy this guy is. I remember when I went to him - at the end of my senior year at the University of Rochester, I went to him. And I said, Dad - I said, you know what? I don't think I want to be a lawyer. I want to be an actor. And he, who had, as you know, been an elephant trainer on the Ringling before World War II, did not miss a beat. He said, I think you could do that, Bob.

And this guy pulled for me for over 30 years. And he died just before "Jackie Brown" was released. But he saw some of the shooting. He came out for a circus event. In the last 10 years or so of his life, we did a lot of circus events together. And he came here to Los Angeles. And on the night before he went back to Rochester - and he was ill at the time.

He was really on his last legs. And I was worried that he wasn't going to - man, I was worried that I wasn't to see him again when I put him on that plane. But the last night before he went back to Rochester, he was on the set. We had a night shoot. And at the end of that, when I was taking him to the airport, he said, you know, this picture is going to do you a lot of good, Bob. This guy's very, very good.

Quentin - you want to know what a good guy he is? - cut some scenes together when the picture was over. In days, he cut some scenes together and sent them to me on videotape to show to my father, which is only days before he passed.

GROSS: That's really nice.

FORSTER: This is a good, good guy.

GROSS: Just a question about your accent. I always assumed you were from Chicago. Maybe that's because I saw you in the movie adaptation of David Mamet's "Lakeboat."

FORSTER: I'm from Rochester, which is a Great Lakes accent. So Rochester, Buffalo, Erie - not Detroit so much - but Chicago, and almost all those cities have a similar accent, a long A. I know I sound that way. Not much to do about it, just got to live with what you got.

GROSS: Are there times when you feel that really works for you and other times when you feel you should play it down?

FORSTER: You know, I never try to play it down. I figure that's what you - that's what they hired, and that's what they're going to get. It's easier to deliver yourself than it is to make up somebody. If you try to make somebody up, you know, it's pretty thin. It's kind of a veneer. You got your real self to deliver, and what could be better than that?

DAVIES: Actor Robert Forster speaking with Terry Gross in 2003. He died last week at the age of 78. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "Jojo Rabbit," a satirical film about a boy at a Hitler youth camp whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Screenwriter and director Taika Waititi earned a cult following with comedies like "What We Do In The Shadows" and "Hunt For The Wilderpeople." Then he directed the hit Marvel superhero movie "Thor: Ragnarok." His new film, "Jojo Rabbit," is a satire set in Nazi Germany and features Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Waititi himself playing an imaginary version of Hitler. Waititi is from New Zealand. His father's side of the family is indigenous Maori. His mother's side is Jewish. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: At a time when anti-Semitism and white supremacy are on the rise globally, I'm hardly opposed to the idea of a movie like "Jojo Rabbit." The posters are billing it as an anti-hate satire, a flippant sendup of Nazi Germany that also pushes a message of love and tolerance. But for all its good intentions, I found the movie painfully one-note as comedy, bogus and manipulative as drama, with an archly whimsical visual style that feels like imitation Wes Anderson.

It's the self-congratulation that rankles me most of all. "Jojo Rabbit" is so enamored of its alleged audacity that it doesn't realize how timid and conventional it is. The story, liberally adapted from Christine Leunens' novel "Caging Skies," shows us the final days of World War II through the eyes of a 10-year-old German boy, Jojo Betzler, who dreams of fighting for his country and making Hitler proud.

Jojo is played by Roman Griffin Davis, a newcomer of such infectious charm that he quickly wins you over, even when Jojo starts spewing vile, anti-Semitic nonsense. Sure, he's been severely indoctrinated, but look at what a good, adorable kid he really is, the movie seems to be saying.

At Hitler Youth Camp, when his counselors ordered him to kill a rabbit with his bare hands, Jojo proves too gentle a soul to go through with it. And from that day forth, everyone mocks him by calling him Jojo rabbit. He opens up about this humiliation to his imaginary friend, who takes the form of none other than Adolf Hitler, played by the movie's writer and director, Taika Waititi.


TAIKA WAITITI: (As Adolf) Poor Jojo. What's wrong, little man?


WAITITI: (As Adolf) Want to tell me about that rabbit incident? What was all that about?

DAVIS: (As Jojo) They wanted me to kill it. I'm sorry. I couldn't.

WAITITI: (As Adolf) Don't worry about it. I couldn't care less.

DAVIS: (As Jojo) But now they call me a scared rabbit.

WAITITI: (As Adolf) Let them say whatever they want. People used to say a lot of nasty things about me. Oh, this guy's a lunatic. Oh, look at that psycho. He's going to get us all killed. I'll let you in on a little secret. The rabbit is no coward. The humble, little bunny faces a dangerous world every day, hunting carrots for his family, for his country. My empire will be full of all animals - lions, giraffes, zebras, rhinoceroses, octopuses, rhinoctopuses (ph), even the mighty rabbit. Cigarette?

DAVIS: (As Jojo) Oh, no, thanks. I don't smoke.

WAITITI: (As Adolf) Let me give you some really good advice. Be the rabbit. The humble bunny can outwit all of his enemies. He's brave and sneaky and strong. Be the rabbit.

CHANG: You can appreciate the impishness of having Waititi take on the role of history's greatest monster. As the director himself said in a tweet, what better way to insult Hitler than having him portrayed by a Polynesian Jew? And while some have lambasted the movie for making comic light of Nazism, there is, in fact, a grand and honorable cinematic tradition of Hitler mockery, from "The Great Dictator" and "To Be Or Not To Be" to "The Producers" with its immortal "Springtime For Hitler" sequences. I wish "Jojo Rabbit" were worthy of their company.

Waititi's Hitler isn't offensive or outrageous. He's a slapdash, one-joke buffoon with barely enough comic dimensions to pad out a "Saturday Night Live" sketch. There's a similarly hit-and-miss feel to the other Nazi caricatures in Jojo's midst, like the hangdog Hitler Youth Camp counselor played by Sam Rockwell or his zealous assistant played by the usually hilarious Rebel Wilson. If a lot of the humor feels tacked on, that's because it's part of the movie's bait-and-switch.

"Jojo Rabbit" isn't much of a comedy. It's more like a tear-jerker pretending to be a comedy. The story's true dramatic agenda becomes clear when Jojo stumbles on a Jewish teenager named Elsa hiding in a secret room in his house. He's both scared and intrigued by Elsa. And a barbed but eye-opening friendship begins.

Elsa is played by Thomasin McKenzie, the New Zealand-born actress who gave a wonderful performance last year in the drama "Leave No Trace." She's very good here as a tough-minded survivor who forcefully dismantles every cruel lie that Jojo has been fed about the Jews. Scarlett Johansson is good, too, as Jojo's mother, who is sheltering Elsa and clearly isn't the loyal servant of the Third Reich she appears to be.

But all the goodwill generated by these characters is ultimately undone by an emotional third act twist that's been engineered to vacate your tear ducts. I found it so ghastly in its calculation that for the first time in this unfunny comedy, I almost burst out laughing.

But "Jojo Rabbit" has its fans. It recently won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, a prize that has often heralded the future winner of the Oscar for best picture. That's what happened last year with "Green Book." And as different as the two movies are in form and subject, the comparisons are not entirely unfounded. Both movies use slick, crowd-pleasing comedy to confront the injustices of the past and leave you feeling better about the injustices of the present.

"Jojo Rabbit" bills itself as a provocation. But what it's really selling is reassurance, a kid's perspective on war that treats the viewer like a child.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. On Monday's show, our guest will be Holly George Warren, author of a new biography of Janis Joplin, the uncompromising, barrier-breaking female rock star. She says Joplin made it all look effortless, though it was very hard work. George Warren is also the co-author of "The Road To Woodstock." Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our engineer is Charlie Kaier, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue