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Western Film Fair corrals actor Michael Forest

by Mark Burger

Among the guests at the 32 nd annual Western Film Fair last month in Winston-Salem was actor Michael Forest, remembered of course for his Westerns but also for a variety of roles on the large and small screens that span more than half a century. Born Gerald Michael Charlebois in North Dakota 80 years ago, he became Michael Forest when he decided he wanted to be an actor. Living in Seattle, he began doing stage work before he turned 20 and studied under the noted actor and acting teacher Jeff Corey. Corey, who had a burgeoning career as a character actor in the 1940s and early ’50s, was one of the “named names” who found themselves unable to work in show business, his name relegated to the infamous Hollywood Blacklist. Although it might have meant saving his career, Corey refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Commission, citing his privilege under the First and Fifth Amendments. HUAC wasn’t impressed, and Corey was blacklisted. Not to be defeated, the resilient Corey hung out his shingle and became an acting teacher whose students included the likes of Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates and James Dean… and Michael Forest. In fact, Forest was investigated by the FBI — as were many of Corey’s students. “I’m about as political as this table here,” he said, rapping on his display table. “I was 19 years old, out of Seattle, having done only a few theater pieces — and I’m being investigated!” Years later, Corey would re-emerge as a premier character actor on television and film, with a long list of credits including as Seconds (1966), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and even Surviving the Game (1994), in which he played the ill-fated homeless friend of star Ice-T’s. He also became a director for television. Forest bemusedly recalls the last time he encountered Corey (who died at 88 in 2002), at a birthday party for another of Corey’s acting students: Leonard Nimoy. Both Forest and Corey had appeared on the original “Star Trek” series, Forest memorably as the god Apollo in the episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?” — which is one of the most popular autographed photos he sells at shows.

Having not seen each other in many years, Forest and Corey embraced and began talking over old times. But Corey was irate that he wasn’t getting many auditions. Forest laughs. “Here was someone who had a list of credits as long as my arms, and he was angry he wasn’t working as much anymore, but as I told him, ‘Jeff, there just aren’t that many roles for 80-year-old actors.’” Nevertheless, Forest holds his former teacher in the highest regard. “Jeff was a great actor and a great teacher.” And, as hokey as it might sound, “if it weren’t for Jeff, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” he says. Like many actors and directors, Forrest first found big-screen success working in the lowbudget world of Roger Corman on such films as Beast from Haunted Cave (1959), Ski Troop Attack (1960), Atlas (1961) and the memorably titled The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957), which marked his screen debut. Forest and Corman had met in one of Corey’s acting classes. And, as befits a guest at the Western Film Fair, Forest’s film work was mixed with quite a few guest spots on such popular prime-time Westerns as “Wagon Train,” “Rawhide,” “Laramie,” “Cheyenne” and “Gunsmoke.” Forest also saddled up for big-screen action in 100 Rifles (1968) opposite Jim Brown, Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch; Requiem for a Bounty Hunter (1972); and The Last Rebel (1971), which starred gridiron great Joe Namath (!) in the title role. “That was fun,” Forest recalls. “We shot that in Spain, with Woody Strode, Ty Hardin and Jack Elam.” Forest encountered yet another survivor of the Blacklist when he worked with director Joseph Losey on the 1972 film The Assassination of Trotsky, which starred Richard Burton as the exiled Russian politician and Alain Delon as the man who killed him. Unfortunately, Burton was enduring one of his periodic bouts with the bottle at the time, and the situation became so troubling that Elizabeth Taylor was called in to help defuse the situation. “Elizabeth was great, just lovely,” Forest recalls. “We’d be going to work in the mornings and she’d walk by. ‘Hello, everybody!’ ‘Good morning!’” Despite his struggle with drink, “Burton was great to work with,” says Forest. “So was Alain Delon, and Joe Losey — I’d would have loved to work with him again.” A few years later, Forest was “recruited” by the director of an Italian comedy filming in Yugoslavia to keep an eye on another leading man who also had a fondness for spirits. “Now, I like my drink, too,” Forest says, “but I couldn’t have one, because then he’d have one — and he wouldn’t stop!” Forest also had his hands full dealing with the Yugoslavian crew. Forest, who lived in Rome for 10 years, doesn’t speak Yugoslavian but was proficient in Italian, which they also spoke. There was just one problem…. “The Yugoslavians did not like Italians,” he says, “so when I started speaking Italian, their eyes narrowed and went black. When I explained that I was an American living in Rome who spoke the language, the hate left their eyes… a little bit.” If it sounded like Forest sometimes had to play one-man United Nations on an international production, “I did!” he laughs. “Sometimes that was the only way to get things done.” Returning to the United States in 1978 after a 10-year stay in Italy, Forrest continued to work in film and television, including stints on the popular daytime soaps “The Young and the Restless,” “Days of Our Lives” and “As the World Turns,” while still notching the occasional big-screen role, including that of the Seattle millionaire “loved” to death by Madonna in Body of Evidence (1993) and the ill-fated cargo pilot opposite Tom Hanks in Robert Zemeckis’ blockbuster hit Cast Away (2004). He has also worked extensively in voiceovers, and still works regularly as a voiceover actor for video games and Japanese anime. Whether it’s talking “Star Trek” or “Gunsmoke,” spaghetti Westerns or video-game voiceovers, Michael Forest has clearly enjoyed his ride on the show-biz merry-go-round. Meeting the fans, he says, “is always fun — and it never ceases to amaze me how well they remember things!” The official Michael Forest website is: celebhost.net/michaelforest.

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