Independent by nature: Harrison Ford
September 19, 2006
All movie lovers have their own version of Harrison Ford.
To devotees of the “Star Wars” series, Ford will forever be Han Solo, the wry and reckless space pilot. For lovers of around-the-world action and adventure, he is the smirking archaeologist hero of Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the “Indiana Jones” sequels.
Ford earned a following among futuristic sci-fi freaks as the android hunter Rick Deckard in “Blade Runner.” For those who prefer their thrills against a more contemporary, realistic backdrop, Ford has memorably portrayed Tom Clancy’s CIA agent Jack Ryan in a pair of films, and the forever on-the-run Dr. Richard Kimble in “The Fugitive.”
And Ford has satisfied filmgoers who look more for acting chops than action. Ford earned an Academy Award nomination for his role as the determined, smitten Det. John Book in the crime drama “Witness,” and turned in solid performances in the thrillers “Presumed Innocent” and “Frantic.” Even in the rare comedy he has done, Ford has earned fans, picking up a Golden Globe nomination for his work in “Sabrina.”
Ford, who made his primary residence in Jackson, Wyo. some years ago, and longs to make a fulltime return to the mountains, has even made a place for himself among the snowboarding set. Ford appeared as Jethro the Bus Driver in the downhilling comedy “Water to Wine,” shot in Jackson and featuring Ford’s son, Malcolm, as a snowboarder.
It’s little wonder, then, that Ford chooses not to look at his body of work as a being of a single piece. For three decades, he has survived as a top name in Hollywood. It is a stretch of endurance that has made Ford the most successful actor ever; movies featuring Ford have raked in more box office dollars than those of any other actor. It might be that, with some three dozen leading roles, from cops to criminals, romantic lovers to secluded loners, it is too much to get one’s arms around, even for the actor who embodied the characters.
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“I choose to do these films, and I don’t bring anything general or abstract to the nature of the character,” said the 64-year-old Ford, from his home in Los Angeles. “I tend to think of my characters in particular, not in any general way.”
A hefty number of Ford’s characters, especially of his most memorable creations, have staked their turf on the outside, looking in. Han Solo started as a mercenary, reluctant to join the Rebel Alliance, before seeing the wisdom of communal spirit. Indiana Jones prefers to travel solo; not by accident does he go by the name “Indy.” His wrongly hunted Richard Kimble is forced to live in the shadows; in “Mosquito Coast,” his Allie Fox chooses to drop out entirely of a United States he sees in decline, and relocates his family to the jungle. In “Witness,” John Book is a double outsider: an “English” living among the Amish, and a straight cop in a crooked department.
Still, with all that evidence, Ford declines speaking in generalities about his roles. “I don’t know if I would have chosen the word ‘outsider,'” said Ford. “But I take your point.
“But if I accept that generalization, I have to take out ‘Sabrina,’ ‘Clear and Present Danger’ and ‘The Devil’s Own.'”
If there is a common thread that runs through all his choices, it is that Ford has been able to relate to them. From the business-minded investment banker Jack Trainer in the Oscar-nominated “Working Girl,” to the swashbuckling Indiana Jones, whom Ford is set to reprise again in a fourth episode set for release in 2008, he can see something of himself in the character.
“Every single one of them I’ve done, I’ve felt I could relate to the character and the circumstances,” he said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it.”
Maybe because he has such an affinity with those characters, Ford won’t play favorites. “I just don’t think that way,” he said. “Some characters are more interesting because the language is better, some are better because the circumstances are dramatic. Some are unforeseen characters.”
Most unforeseen was Ford’s first iconic character. Prior to starring as Han Solo in 1977’s “Star Wars,” Ford had played supporting roles in such standout films as “American Graffiti” and “The Conversation,” and worked more frequently in television. (Prior to his acting career, the Chicago area product worked as master carpenter.) When he was called to read for “Star Wars,” Ford believed that he was being asked merely to read lines for the actors actually auditioning.
“I didn’t understand that I was being considered for the role,” he said. “I was there to feed lines to the other actors. It was not clear to me that I had the opportunity to play Han Solo.”
“Star Wars” became a mega-hit, and Ford an actor in demand. “It was just about an unimaginable break,” he said. “It began my career.”
Immediately, though, Ford determined that his career would not be defined by that break-through role. Han Solo, says Ford, was “terribly thin, not terribly demanding,” and he wanted to use his momentum to demonstrate what else he could do. So his first file after the galaxy-sweeping “Star Wars” was “Heroes,” a warm-hearted romantic comedy about a Vietnam vet moving on with his life. Ford took third billing to Henry Winkler and Sally Field, but showed that he could handle a more demanding role. Leading up to the next “Star Wars” installment, 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” Ford took a small part in a different sort of Vietnam film, “Apocalypse Now,” and leading roles in the World War II romance “Hanover Street” and the offbeat comedy “The Frisco Kid.”
“I set off to do other things,” said Ford. “I did ‘Heroes’ because I wanted people to understand that I had ambitions beyond the kind of character Han Solo was. I also was determined to get my price and recognition up before the second ‘Star Wars’ film.”
Ford followed that period of name and character expansion with an amazing run: “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1981, “Blade Runner” in 1982, “Return of the Jedi” in 1983 and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” in 1984. Concerns about his price presumably disappeared, but Ford was still looking to stretch and avoid being pigeonholed. “Witness,” from 1985, was a tense thriller, but under the direction of Peter Weir ” with whom Ford would team again for 1986’s “Mosquito Coast” ” it was nearly as much of a study of the character, John Book.
“I saw it as an acceptance of what I could do,” he said. “There was a chance to display a degree of subtlety that wasn’t available in other films. And Peter brought a great intelligence in telling that story.”
Ford is set to break more new, personal ground. “No True Glory: The Battle for Fallujah,” set for release in 2008, is as historical drama, based on recent events. The screenplay is by Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and now a foreign correspondent covering the war in Iraq. Ford plays Jim Mattis, a marine corps commanding officer who leads the assault on Fallujah.
Ford’s reticence on his career might be a reflection on what it is to be a Hollywood leading man. The camera, the media, the public pay such close attention to Ford that it is difficult, or even impossible, for him to gain perspective on his cinematic self.
“The camera is too close; especially in the role of a leading man, the camera is awful close,” he said. “It’s not my thing to think of these things from an outsider’s point of view. I can’t be an observer of my own career. I don’t want to be.”