On Monday, Academy Award-nominated actor Robert Forster will begin a weeklong residency at the Burchfield Penney Art Center and SUNY Buffalo State that will culminate with the debut of a one-man show about "an important American figure" he is contractually obligated not to mention.
"It's not a secret, but it's confidential," the Rochester-born actor said in a phone interview from his home in Beverly Hills. He was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role as bail bondsman Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino's film "Jackie Brown" in 1997. "It's a one-man play, the subject of which will remain a secret."
Thanks to Google, which does not follow the befuddling terms of theater publicity contracts, it's pretty easy to find out that the subject of Forster's show is almost certainly the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan. Forster, 72, who visited Buffalo several months ago to work on the forthcoming indie film "The American Side," was attached to a play about the former president by David Rambo in 2011 but dropped out to pursue other film and television work.
During his recent visit to Buffalo, he mentioned the play to his friend Anthony Bannon - formerly director of Rochester's George Eastman House and now director of the Burchfield Penney - who immediately invited him to workshop his show in Buffalo. Forster gladly accepted, carving out a week in his schedule between filming for the ABC series "Last Man Standing."
Forster's performance of the one-man show at 2 p.m. next Saturday in the Burchfield Penney is limited to museum members and SUNY Buffalo State students, faculty and staff. But he will also present a version of the inspirational talk he's been giving for some 20 years at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the center's auditorium. The talk is open to the public and will feature stories and lessons from across his long career in theater, film and television.
"There's a John Huston story, which is the first advice I got about acting in front of a camera. There's a chilling Brando story," Forster said, referring to the director of his first big break, the 1967 film "Reflections in a Golden Eye," and his fellow actor Marlon Brando.
After a promising start to his career, he said, "Things fell apart there in the middle."
"I held on, hoping that some young kid who liked me growing up would turn into a movie-maker, and into the coffee shop I was at one day walks Quentin Tarantino," Forster said. "He blah-blahs for a while, and next thing I know he hands me a script, says, 'Read this, see if you like it.' So the long-shot strategy sometimes works."
While Monday's talk will feature tried-and-true material, Forster said, the real challenge will come with the one-man show he'll be refining with the help of students from Buffalo State's theater department led by professors Carlos Jones and Jeffrey Hirschberg.
Monday's conversation, he said, "is never-fail stuff. But the thing that I'm doing at the end of the week is totally untried, and that is the reason that I'm going to Buffalo. So that I can, with the help of the students at Buffalo State's drama department, whip together a production of this. And let's hope that there will be lighting and sound and visual effects, and let's hope that we go off on time."
Unlike a film or television series, where there's a great deal of support around the performers and an unlimited amount of film, a one- man play presents challenges entirely unique to the stage.
"It is the toughest challenge I have ever given myself, where I wondered whether I could handle it," Forster said. "And at this point I'm moderately sure I can handle it, and I want to get into a place where I can get up there, work the stage, work the audience."
Forster said he'd like to find a project similar to Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight!" show, and the show he's debuting next Saturday seems like a contender.
"Look, I'm a 50-year veteran at this point," Forster said, "And at this point I say, let's cap it off with something good."
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