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UPDATED 02/02/1998 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/02/1998 at 01:00 AM EST

>Robert Forster

SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS

DIRECTOR QUENTIN TARANTINO CRAFTED Jackie Brown as a comeback vehicle for '70s action queen Pam Grier. But costar Robert Forster was happy to hitch a ride. The role of Max Cherry, the bail bondsman who falls for Grier, is getting the 56-year-old actor noticed for the first time in years—making it, says Forster, a "life-changer."

Forster's first run at celebrity came in the late '60s, when the Rochester, N.Y., native shot from Broadway to leads in Reflections in a Golden Eye and Medium Cool. But after a successful hitch as a sharp-dressing shamus in the 1972-73 TV series Banyon, Forster became mired in a B-movie rut, playing "bad guys, mainly, in mostly dopey pictures." When fan Tarantino plucked him from near obscurity, "I was dying to play a good guy again," he says. Critics applauded the gamble: The New York Times called Forster "a wonderfully strong presence."

Forster's banner year was marred only by the death last summer of his father, a former circus elephant trainer. (In his honor, Forster decorated Cherry's office with his dad's old equipment.) Twice divorced and with four grown children, the L.A. resident squired his exes to the film's premiere. "They're still in my corner, and I'm in theirs," he says. He stands by the lesson of his lean years: "Whatever the job at hand, do your level best. And never quit until it's over."

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