Frederic Forrest, 86, dies; Actor known for 'Apocalypse Now' and 'The Rose'

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Frederic Forrest, 86, dies; Actor known for 'Apocalypse Now' and 'The Rose'
Forrest might have seemed poised at that point to become an A-list star. Yet even though he worked steadily throughout the 1980s and ’90s, he landed only a few leading roles, and those movies didn’t do well.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Frederic Forrest, who appeared in more than 80 movies and television shows in a career that began in the 1960s, and who turned in perhaps his two most memorable performances in the same year, 1979, in two very different films — the romantic drama “The Rose” and the Vietnam War odyssey “Apocalypse Now” — died on Friday at his home in Santa Monica, California. He was 86.

His sister and only immediate survivor, Ginger Jackson, confirmed his death. She said he had been dealing with congestive heart failure.

Forrest began turning up on the stages of La MaMa and other off- and off-off-Broadway theaters in New York in the 1960s. In 1966, he was in “Viet Rock,” an anti-war rock musical by Megan Terry that was staged in Manhattan and in New Haven, Connecticut, and is often cited as a precursor to “Hair.”

In 1970, he moved to Los Angeles and, while working in a pizza restaurant, appeared in a showcase production at the Actors Studio West. Director Stuart Millar saw him there and cast him in his first big film role, as a Ute Indian (though Forrest had only a little Native American blood) in “When the Legends Die,” starring opposite veteran actor Richard Widmark. That film, released in 1972, put Forrest on the map.

“Forrest, a husky, strong-featured actor of great sensitivity who probably won’t escape comparisons with the early Brando, holds his own with Widmark,” Kevin Thomas wrote in a review in the Los Angeles Times.

Among those impressed with Forrest’s performance was Francis Ford Coppola, who cast him in “The Conversation” (1974), his study of a surveillance expert played by Gene Hackman. Five years later, Forrest was on a boat going up a river in search of the mysterious Kurtz in Coppola’s harrowing “Apocalypse Now.”

Critics were divided on the movie as a whole, but Forrest’s portrayal of a character known as Chef (who ultimately loses his head, literally) was widely praised. The film was shot in the Philippines, an experience Forrest found grueling.

“Because we were creating a surreal, dreamlike war, nightmare personal things began happening. Sometimes we would think we were losing our minds,” he told The New York Times in 1979. “I became almost catatonic in the Philippines. I could think of no reason to do anything.”

Less taxing was “The Rose,” in which Midler played a Janis Joplin-like singer who self-destructs. Forrest portrayed a limousine driver and AWOL soldier who became her romantic partner.

Forrest, Janet Maslin wrote in a review in The New York Times, “would be the surprise hit of the movie if Miss Midler didn’t herself have dibs on that position.” The role earned him his only Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor. (Melvyn Douglas won that year, for “Being There.”)

Forrest might have seemed poised at that point to become an A-list star. Yet even though he worked steadily throughout the 1980s and ’90s, he landed only a few leading roles, and those movies didn’t do well. His next project with Coppola was “One From the Heart” (1981), a romance in which he and Teri Garr play a couple who split up and try other partners. Critics savaged the film.

He next played the title role in Wim Wenders’ “Hammett” (1982), a fictional story about mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, but that movie had only a limited theatrical run. His later films included “Tucker: The Man and His Dreams” (1988, another Coppola project), “Cat Chaser” (1989) and “The Two Jakes” (1990), the ill-fated sequel to “Chinatown,” directed by Jack Nicholson. He was also in numerous television movies, as well as the 1989 miniseries “Lonesome Dove.” His most recent film credit was a small part in the 2006 Sean Penn movie “All the King’s Men.”

“This is a fickle town, no rhyme or reason to it,” he said of Hollywood in 1979. ”By the time you go down the driveway to pick up your mail, you’re forgotten.”

Frederic Fenimore Forrest Jr. was born on Dec. 23, 1936, in Waxahachie, Texas, to Frederic and Virginia Allee (McSpadden) Forrest. His father ran a large wholesale greenhouse operation. Young Frederic played four sports at Waxahachie High School and was named the most handsome boy in the senior class.

He graduated from Texas Christian University, with a degree in television and radio and a minor in theater, in 1960, the same year he married his college sweetheart, Nancy Ann Whittaker, though that marriage lasted only three years. He moved to New York shortly after graduating and worked odd jobs while studying acting with Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner and other noted teachers.

His early stage roles in New York included a hunky guy in Ted Harris’ “Silhouettes,” which was staged at the Actors Playhouse in Manhattan in 1969. He reprised the role in Los Angeles the next year, after his move to the West Coast.

“Frederic Forrest is perfect as the lazy stud in what may be one of the sleepiest roles ever written — he never gets out of bed,” Margaret Harford wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

A second marriage, to actress Marilu Henner in 1980, stemmed from a screen test that year for “Hammett” that included a kissing scene.

“Someone almost had to throw cold water on us,” Henner told The Toronto Star in 1993. “The tape is pretty wild.”

They married six months later, but that marriage, like his earlier one, lasted only three years. A third marriage also ended in divorce, Forrest’s sister, Jackson, said.

Barry Primus, an actor who worked with Forrest on “The Rose,” recalled his skill both on-screen and as a raconteur.

“Working with him was a treat and, for me, a learning experience,” he said in a statement. “It was absolutely enchanting to spend an evening hearing him tell stories. So much fun, and in its own way, a kind of performance art. There was a love in them that made you feel how crazy and wonderful it was to be alive.”

In a phone interview, Jackson said her brother was particularly pleased to have been able to bring their mother to the Academy Awards ceremony in 1980, when he was nominated for “The Rose.”

“It was so wonderful for her to be able to see that,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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