Frederic Forrest, a malleable, wide-ranging screen actor who found his greatest fame in supporting roles, memorably playing a high-strung Navy machinist in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and snagging an Oscar nomination as Bette Midler’s love interest in “The Rose,” died June 23 at his home in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 86.
He was in hospice care for congestive heart failure, said his sister, Ginger Forrest Jackson.
Mr. Forrest, an unpretentious Texan who spent his boyhood summers baling hay and picking cotton, appeared in more than 80 movies and television shows, often playing lawmen, killers and psychopathic heavies. He could be coldblooded and threatening, as when he starred as the bandit Blue Duck in “Lonesome Dove” (1989), a miniseries adapted from the Larry McMurtry novel, but also showed a more delicate touch in movies like “Valley Girl” (1983), as the proprietor of a health-food restaurant and the hippie father to Deborah Foreman.
Although he was seldom cast in leading roles, Mr. Forrest found critical acclaim as a character actor, including in several films by Coppola.
The two first worked together on “The Conversation” (1974), a contemplative thriller that echoed through the Watergate era with its story of privacy, guilt, paranoia and conspiracy. The film hinged on a cryptic conversation recorded by surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), who tracks a young couple (Mr. Forrest and Cindy Williams) as they walk the noisy streets of San Francisco. A bit of sophisticated audio filtering allows Caul to hear Mr. Forrest’s ominous words, “He’d kill us if he got the chance,” shortly before a murder takes place.
Mr. Forrest teamed with Coppola again on “Apocalypse Now” (1979), a Vietnam War epic that starred Martin Sheen as Willard, an Army captain tasked with hunting down a renegade Special Forces operative (Marlon Brando). As Jay “Chef” Hicks, a former saucier from New Orleans, Mr. Forrest played one of several men enlisted to accompany Willard on a voyage upriver, into an increasingly violent jungle landscape.
When his character leaves the boat to forage for mangoes, he finds a snarling tiger, an animal that pushes him past his breaking point.
“Never get outta the boat, never get outta the boat,” he shouts after rejoining his comrades. Ripping off his shirt and “bugging out,” as he puts it, he delivers a profanity-laced tirade while seeming to speak for other disillusioned troops in Vietnam: “I didn’t come here for this. I don’t … need it! I don’t want it. I didn’t get out of the … eighth grade for this kind of [thing]! All I wanted to do is … cook. I just wanted to learn to … cook, man.”
Mr. Forrest said he spent more than a year in the Philippines making the film, and “became almost catatonic” during the tumultuous production. When he returned to California, he increasingly got blackout drunk, functioning only “two days a week,” by his count, and tending to his hangovers with help from soup and steam baths. “I’d get depressed and drink. Now I’ve drunk enough to last me a lifetime,” he told the New York Times in November 1979, announcing that he had sworn off drinking.
That same month, he played a limousine driver in “The Rose,” which starred Midler as a drug-addicted rock singer in the mold of Janis Joplin. As Huston Dyer, an Army sergeant turned chauffeur, Mr. Forrest swept her off her feet and into his car, driving his newfound partner from a performance in Texas to the recording studio in New York.
“Mr. Forrest, who is one of the underacknowledged assets of ‘Apocalypse Now,’ is an extremely fine actor whose presence gives unexpected balance to what might otherwise have been considered a star vehicle,” wrote Times film critic Vincent Canby.
“The Rose” received four Oscar nominations, including best actress for Midler and best supporting actor for Mr. Forrest. He lost to Melvyn Douglas for “Being There,” but the National Society of Film Critics named him the best supporting actor of 1979, jointly honoring his performances in “Apocalypse Now” and “The Rose.”
Mr. Forrest appeared poised for greater success when he was cast as the leading man in Coppola’s “One From the Heart” (1981), a big-budget musical romance that paired him with actress Teri Garr. But the film was a commercial failure, helping bankrupt Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, and critics said that Mr. Forrest was miscast or misdirected. His follow-up, “Hammett” (1982) — a neo-noir mystery directed by Wim Wenders and executive produced by Coppola — also flopped, although Mr. Forrest was praised for his performance as the cigarette-smoking title character, detective writer Dashiell Hammett.
By then Mr. Forrest was accustomed to the boom-and-bust cycle of Hollywood. Lacking work on-screen, he sometimes turned to the stage, playing Marc Antony without pay in a 1979 Los Angeles production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” simply because the part interested him.
“I don’t expect much. I’ve been around too long to have expectations,” he told the Times after the release of “The Rose.” “This is a fickle town, no rhyme or reason to it. By the time you go down the driveway to pick up your mail, you’re forgotten.”
The older of two children, Frederic Fenimore Forrest Jr. was born in Waxahachie, Tex., on Dec. 23, 1936. His father ran a successful greenhouse and flower business — for Christmas one year, Mr. Forrest and his sister were given Shetland ponies — and his mother was a homemaker turned schoolteacher.
As a young man, Mr. Forrest would ride a horse to the local movie theater, where he was mesmerized by the naturalistic performances of young stars like Marlon Brando and especially James Dean. After serving in the Army, he studied radio, TV and film at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1960. He moved to New York, where he said he trained under Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner and Irene Dailey, and made his stage debut in the 1966 off-Broadway rock musical “Viet Rock.”
Supporting himself with a job as an NBC page, he worked with theater director Tom O’Horgan, appearing in avant-garde plays at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. When one of his plays, “Silhouettes,” traveled to Los Angeles for a West Coast run, Mr. Forrest decided to stay. This time he found a job baking pizzas, and took classes at the Actors Studio West before being cast in his first major film role, as an orphaned Native American opposite Richard Widmark in “When the Legends Die” (1972).
Mr. Forrest was then a youthful-looking 35, playing a rodeo-riding character who was supposed to be 18. “Hollywood never knew how to peg me,” he told interviewer Alan Mercer decades later. “I had to learn to lie and ask them, ‘How old do I look?’ They’d tell me I looked 24 so I’d say ‘No, I’m 25’ and they’d go, ‘I thought so.’ If I had been honest and said I was 35, they would have told me I was too old.”
Mr. Forrest starred in TV movies including “Larry” (1974), as a man who was wrongly confined to a mental hospital, and “Ruby and Oswald” (1978), as assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. He later had featured roles in miniseries including “The Deliberate Stranger” (1986), as a Seattle detective chasing serial killer Ted Bundy, and played a police captain in the first season of “21 Jump Street” (1987).
His film credits included supporting roles in the western “The Missouri Breaks” (1976), starring Brando and Jack Nicholson; the “Chinatown” sequel “The Two Jakes” (1990), also with Nicholson; and Coppola’s “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988), with Jeff Bridges. He also played a prosecutor investigating war crimes in Costa-Gavras’s “Music Box” (1989) and the white supremacist owner of a military surplus store in “Falling Down” (1993).
His last screen appearance was in the 2006 remake of “All the King’s Men,” as the father of a populist Southern politician (Sean Penn).
Mr. Forrest was married and divorced three times, to Nancy Whitaker, his college sweetheart; Marilu Henner, his co-star in “Hammett”; and Nina Dean, a British model turned photographer. His sister is his only immediate survivor.
Even after he began appearing in movies and stopped working odd jobs — pizza baker, beer truck driver — Mr. Forrest maintained an unassuming approach to acting, scoffing at questions about craft or technique. “This one big writer said, ‘What kind of actor are you?’ I said, ‘Strawberry.’ How do you answer question like that?” he told the Times in 1973. “She got very uptight, she said I lacked a sense of humor. Wrong, man — baking pizzas, you’ve got to have a very large sense of humor.”