Thursday 6 July 2023

In memoriam: Frederic Forrest (Telegraph 05/07/23)

Frederic Forrest, who has died aged 86, was exactly the kind of actor who flourished amid the so-called New Hollywood of the 1970s: understated, unshowy, unconventional in his appeal. A long-faced late starter, he earned his sole Oscar nomination for playing Bette Midler’s limo-driving beau Dyer in the musical The Rose (1979), but was only rarely cast in romantic roles, to mild regret. Referencing earlier work in such Westerns as When the Legends Die (1972) and The Missouri Breaks (1976), he once told a journalist “I’d like to get the girl instead of a horse”.

Yet Forrest’s capacity for suggesting ambivalence and ambiguity left him much in demand among directors reassessing the American project. Arguably his most enduring role was as someone more heard than seen: one half of the couple recorded traversing a San Franciscan plaza in Francis Ford Coppola’s still-chilling The Conversation (1974). Its thriller aspect hinged on the actor’s ability to salt a single phrase – “He’d kill us if he got the chance” – with multiple interpretations.

He remained a Coppola favourite, returning as “Chef” Jay Hicks, the extravagantly moustachioed yahoo who meets a sorry end upriver in Apocalypse Now (1979). Chef’s colourful vocabulary helped light up the Conradian darkness, yet even Forrest couldn’t resist the prevailing entropy off-camera: “I became almost catatonic in the Philippines. I could think of no reason to do anything.”

Acclaim for The Rose was recognition for a robust showing against a forceful star turn. Yet at the Oscars, Forrest lost to Being There’s Melvyn Douglas; Douglas and Apocalypse Now co-star Robert Duvall made off with the Golden Globes. Never as bullish as Duvall, Forrest sensed his tenuous position on the spotlight’s outer fringes: “There’s always the possibility you’ll get cut; you have no control. If there’s a scene with a character who isn’t the lead and if it threatens the main story or detracts from it in any way, it doesn’t make a difference how good it is. It goes.”

Even leads could prove a tricky business. Forrest was front and centre in One from the Heart (1981), Coppola’s studio-bound folly about lovers separated in the Las Vegas night, although reviews were less than kind. In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael was especially scathing: “[Forrest] looks like a serious, deeply exhausted man… until he opens his mouth and talks like a sheepish dumb slob.”

One from the Heart’s commercial failure bankrupted Coppola and signalled the end of the New Hollywood era. Yet it stands as a phosphorescent fragment of the more fragile, personal American cinema obliterated by Star Wars (1977) – a stone-cold blockbuster for which Forrest auditioned unsuccessfully. The actor could but shrug at the industry’s vicissitudes, telling The New York Times: “This is a fickle town... By the time you go down the driveway to pick up your mail, you’re forgotten.”

He was born Frederic Fenimore Forrest Jr. on December 23, 1936 in Waxahachie, Texas to garden wholesaler Frederic Fenimore Forrest and his wife Virginia (née McSpadden). A keen sportsman, he was voted most handsome in his senior year at Waxahachie High School, but he found auditioning for plays so nerve-racking that he took to running from the room.

He persisted, however, taking theatre classes while studying radio and TV at Texas Christian University. A postgraduate fascination with James Dean carried him to New York, where he studied with acting guru Sanford Meisner and worked as a pizza chef to make ends meet. Theatre eased him into the movies. There were films of the musical Viet Rock (1966), an influence on the later Hair, and Futz (1969), an off-Broadway jape about a farmer’s unwholesome relationship with his prize pig.

Forrest worked consistently in the Eighties and Nineties without ever regaining the quality of material that served him best. He was good as Dashiell Hammett in Wim Wenders’ playful noir reimagining Hammett (1982) and reprised the role in the superior TV movie Citizen Cohn (1992), giving James Woods’ bloviating Roy Cohn the runaround as an exemplar of free speech. After reuniting with Coppola for Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), he played the prosecutor in Costa-Gavras’s Music Box (1989) and a white supremacist shopkeeper in Falling Down (1993).

TV provided him with his strongest late roles: he was the Cherokee outlaw Blue Duck in beloved Western saga Lonesome Dove (1989) and won favourable notices as a PI investigating the abduction of Miranda Richardson’s children in the Paula Milne-scripted Die Kinder (1990). He also took meaty roles in veteran director John Frankenheimer’s made-for-cable period dramas Andersonville (1996) and Path to War (2002), where he played the hawkish General Earle G. Wheeler. His final film was the remake of All the King’s Men (2006).

In 2014, Forrest reflected on his career: “I fell into movies… I didn’t feel like I had a talent. I wasn’t good at anything people considered important. I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I felt if I could make a living doing something I liked, I’d be very blessed.”

He married twice, first to his college sweetheart Nancy Ann Whitaker, and later to Hammett co-star Marilu Henner; both ended in divorce.

Frederic Forrest, born December 23, 1936, died June 23, 2023.

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