Robert Forster was born Robert Wallace Foster, Jr. in Rochester, New York, to Grace Dorothy (Montanarella) and Robert Wallace Foster, Sr., who worked as an elephant trainer and baking supply company executive. He is of English, Irish, and Italian descent. Forster first become interested in acting while attending Rochesters Madison High School, where he performed as a song-and-dance man in musical revues. After graduating in 1959, Forster attended Heidelberg College, Alfred University and the University of Rochester on football scholarships and continued to perform in student theatrical revues. After earning a BA in Psychology from Rochester in 1963, Forster took an apprenticeship at an East Rochester theater where he performed in such plays as West Side Story. He moved to New York City in 1965, where his first big break came when he landed the lead in the two-character play Mrs. Dally Has a Lover opposite Arlene Francis. However, after the play ran its course work was hard to find in the theater. Forster returned to Rochester, where he worked as a substitute teacher and construction worker until an agent from 20th Century-Fox offered him a five-picture deal. His movie debut was a small part in the drama Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando.