Robert Forster has co-starred in films directed by John Huston (Reflections in a Golden Eye), Robert Mulligan (The Stalking Moon), David Lynch (Mulholland Drive), and Alexander Payne (The Descendants). He was the top name in Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s landmark feature film debut, Medium Cool. For Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, Forster nabbed an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. So what film does he remember most fondly? Forster told me, over breakfast last December, that “Alligator is as good a picture as I have in my career.”
Alligator, directed in 1980 by Roger Corman alumnus Lewis Teague, has many familiar Corman components. There are car crashes, explosions, wry humor, and (oh yes) a large, scary alligator that bares its fangs and reduces people to a bloody pulp. The film’s screenwriter, now a respected indie filmmaker, also got his start at Corman’s New World Pictures. Of course I mean John Sayles, who was discovered by my good friend Frances Doel when he was publishing short stories in Esquire. This was the era when Jaws, the biggest hit movie around, was called “a Roger Corman movie on a big budget.” Roger being Roger, he wanted to capitalize on Jaws’ box office success. But for Roger’s cheapie sensibilities, a movie about a giant scary fish was too expensive to contemplate. That’s why he put his money (all $600,000 of it) into a movie about small scary fish. He asked Frances, his ace assistant, to find a promising screenwriter, and she came up with Sayles. In-house Corman editor Joe Dante was drafted to direct, and the result was Piranha, a potent combination of horror and humor, scares and laughs.
Alligator, shot two years later, has more of the same, though it was not made on Corman’s dime. As a Jaws spoof it got extremely strong reviews: the New York Times chose it as one of the summer’s three best movies. And it did especially well on television. For Forster it proved to be “the only movie in my entire career I got paid a back end.” In civilian speak, this means that ABC-TV (which bought and then did a great job of publicizing the film) earned enough on it that Robert was entitled by contract to reap some of the profits. As every actor in Hollywood knows, a profit participation pay-off is something that’s hugely coveted, but only rarely collected.
Forster’s affection for Alligator is not purely mercenary, though. As an actor who enjoys playing good guys, he’s fond of his character, a down-and-out police detective whose partners keep meeting a bad end. Despite the workplace trauma with which he grapples, he’s capable of wit and humor, though not about his thinning hair. (According to Sayles, it was Forster who suggested that his personal struggle with male pattern baldness be used as a running gag.) Sayles’ trademark social commentary makes an appearance, as do some of Hollywood’s best character actors: Michael Gazzo, Dean Jagger, Jack Carter, and Sydney Lassick (someone I’d worked with decades before he was featured as Cheswick in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). There’s a budding love relationship with a pretty herpetologist played by Robin Riker (later to star in Corman’s Stepmonster). And there are some genuinely scary moments, like the alligator exploding out of a manhole to terrorize pedestrians.
One of my favorite characters, aside from Forster’s David, is a self-styled Great White Hunter (Henry Silva) who treats local ghetto kids like native bearers as he stalks his prey—with predictably tragicomic results. No wonder Stephen King once told Forster at Cannes that Alligator was his favorite horror film.