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Career Arc: Harrison Ford

Maybe he should have stayed a carpenter?

Harrison Ford

Should we start with carpentry? The fact that Harrison Ford spent some years working as a carpenter is one of the cornerstones — one of the load-bearing struts, you might say — of his mythos. He may still be the most famous ex-carpenter since Jesus. He picked up the craft in Los Angeles in the late ’60s, after moving into a fixer-upper on Woodrow Wilson Drive in the Hollywood Hills. He was nearly 30 by then. He’d been a contract player at Columbia Pictures, and when they cut short his seven-year deal there after 18 undistinguished months, he’d signed another one, with Universal, and now that was over, too.

There’d been some close calls. He’d met twice with Mike Nichols when Nichols was casting the Benjamin Braddock part in The Graduate, read for Joe Buck when John Schlesinger was casting Midnight Cowboy. He’d gotten to know the casting director (and future Apocalypse Now producer) Fred Roos, who’d been one of Jack Nicholson’s earliest champions. Roos had lobbied Michelangelo Antonioni, unsuccessfully, to give Ford the lead in Zabriskie Point. But the studios kept sending him out for TV parts — on Gunsmoke, Ironside, Love, American Style — and movies of the week.

He had no more formal training as a carpenter than he did as an actor. But as a way of making a living, how much harder could it be, swinging a hammer? Somehow he got himself hired to build a home recording studio for the Brazilian jazz-funk bandleader Sergio Mendes. Whenever that job would present a problem he didn’t know how to solve, he’d walk three blocks to the Encino public library and check out some reference material. “I’d be standing on Mendes’s roof,” he once told a biographer, “with a textbook in my hand.”

In Graffiti, released in 1973, he’s Bob Falfa, the cowboy in the black ’55 Chevy who spends the night goading Paul Le Mat’s character into a drag race; in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, released one year later, he’s a creepily calm corporate functionary who tries to persuade surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) to turn over an incriminating audiotape. He’s got an easy charisma in both parts, and they happen to have been indisputably great movies by directors who were going places, but they didn’t do much for Ford, careerwise. He’d book a few more made-for-TV movies in the next few years — including a well-received Stanley Kramer courtroom drama about the My Lai massacre — but wouldn’t appear in another feature until 1977.

The next part of the story varies depending on which version you read. The gist is that in 1975, when Lucas and Brian De Palma took up temporary residence in Coppola’s rented offices on the Samuel Goldwyn lot and began auditioning nearly every young actor in town for Carrie and what would become Star Wars, Harrison Ford the carpenter just happened to be there, hanging a door. Or maybe it was a wall panel. Some accounts have Lucas literally tripping over Ford, whom he knew from Graffiti but didn’t know well. Either way: Lucas asked Ford to read lines opposite potential Princess Leias in videotaped screen tests.

Here’s Ford reading opposite teenage Terri Nunn, future lead singer of Berlin …

… and with Carrie Fisher:

The legend is that after days and days of reading a part he believed he had no hope of landing — Lucas had decided in advance not to cast anybody from Graffiti — Ford started getting ornery, and Lucas started to see Han Solo’s wounded pride in him. But watch these tapes, and you’ll also hear Ford doing a pretty amazing job of making unwieldy early-draft Lucas dialogue sound like colloquial human speech — especially in the second clip, with Fisher, in which Ford’s acting is subtle enough to pass for non-acting. Fly casual.

The latter-day entries in the Star Wars saga were uncool enough to call into question how cool the original version actually was; in a way, the same is true of Ford, who’s become such a calcified screen presence of late that it’s possible to forget how good he used to be, how light and loose and charismatic. But watch Star Wars again, and everything that made him the nerd Elvis is right there. Character-wise, he doesn’t get real pitches to hit until Empire, but he gives Solo more personality than any other character on the screen, not to mention more sex appeal. Thirty-five years later, Ford’s Solo looks like the template for a virtual clone army of cynical/masculine pop-fiction protagonists, from Chris Claremont’s version of Wolverine to John McClane, not to mention more obvious homages like Firefly‘s Mal Reynolds and Sawyer from Lost.

Ford stayed busy after Star Wars. Between ’77 and ’80 he made six films, including Heroes (Ford, Henry Winkler, post–Flying Nun Sally Field, all trying to duck typecasting in a road movie about Vietnam vets), the guys-on-a-mission sequel Force 10 From Navarone, and the World War II romance Hanover Street, which he’s said he took after the sexless Star Wars so that audiences could see him kiss a woman onscreen. He had an uncredited cameo as Bob Falfa — now a San Francisco motorcycle cop — in More American Graffiti, and participated in one of nerd culture’s most iconic debacles:

It’s not until Empire — better-written and better-directed than any other Star Wars, because it wasn’t written or directed by George Lucas — that Ford really comes into his own. The movie doesn’t pick up right where the last one left off. Some time has passed since the Battle of Yavin; the characters have been through months or even years of war together, and there’s a closeness between them that ups the emotional stakes almost immediately. In Star Wars, Solo addresses Leia mockingly as “Your worship,” but when he does it here it’s a Sawyer-ish term of endearment. He’s still a badass in this one, cracking jokes to the rescue team that picks him up on Hoth like one of the flyboys from The Right Stuff. But Ford also gets to play some small and subtle human moments amid all the space-opera, like the moment on the Millennium Falcon when Princess Leia calls Han a “scoundrel” and Han immediately realizes she’s fallen for him:

The next five years — ’80 through ’85 — were pretty remarkable. Lucas and Steven Spielberg had intended to cast an unknown in Raiders of the Lost Ark. “Conceitedly,” Spielberg said, “we wanted to make a star out of Johnny the Construction Worker from Malibu.” When a suitable construction worker couldn’t be located, they began leaning toward Tom Selleck. Magnum P.I. was still in the pilot phase at CBS back then; when Spielberg and Lucas called the network and asked them to release the actor from his contract so he could do their movie, CBS realized they had a bird in the hand and immediately picked up the show.

It’s not hard to see why Indy, even more than Solo, is the well (of souls!) that Ford keeps going back to. The original Raiders is an elegantly contrapted perpetual-motion machine of an action movie, but it’s also arguably Ford’s best comedy. The idea of a genius archaeologist who’s also constantly risking death and punching Nazis is absurd, but Ford grounds the picture in reality without weighing it down. Everybody remembers the boulder and the snakes and the melting Nazis; no one talks enough about the beleaguered expression on Indy’s face at the airfield in Cairo when he realizes he’s going to have to climb down off the wing of the plane and fight the Nazi strongman, or his love scene late in the film with Karen Allen’s Marion, which begins with a battered Indy presenting his bruises for Marion to kiss and ends with Indy falling asleep before anything un-PG occurs. He was cornering the market on this kind of hero, bringing vulnerability — that quivering lower lip — into roles that should have been merely archetypal.

Also, the resolution of this fight scene was his idea:

It’s said he didn’t get along with Ridley Scott on 1982’s Blade Runner. They disagreed on whether or not Ford’s hangdog future-P.I. Rick Deckard was a replicant, a fairly fundamental question that fans of the movie — still one of the greatest science fiction films ever made — continue to argue about. You get the feeling Scott may have wanted Ford’s natural reserve to register as blankness onscreen, so that we’d wonder about the precise nature of his consciousness. Ford begged Lucas to kill off Han Solo in 1983’s Return of the Jedi (solid, at least until the action leaves Tatooine); he had another franchise to attend to. The first Raiders sequel, the surprisingly dark Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, hit theaters in 1984; it’s a fine piece of pulp undone by its booga-booga depiction of Hinduism and an as-shrieky-as-you-remember performance from Kate Capshaw, the Jar Jar of the franchise as well as the future Mrs. Spielberg.

Logically speaking, a movie starring Indiana Jones as a cop who finds love while raising barns in an Amish paradise should have been only slightly less ridiculous than a film in which he becomes a thrall of Kali and smacks a kid around. Instead, Peter Weir’s Witness earned Ford his first and only Oscar nomination; a year later, he’d reteam with Weir to play the cranky patriarch who becomes the Colonel Kurtz of his own family in The Mosquito Coast. In less than 10 years, he had become one of the most successful actors alive and transcended his association with the Star Wars universe in ways that none of his costars ever would. He was famous enough to need the seclusion of an 800-acre ranch on the Snake River and rich enough to afford it.

He’d make a second Raiders sequel before the end of the ’80s, but he’d also make two of his best non-blockbusters, Roman Polanski’s Frantic in 1986 and the Scott Turow adaptation Presumed Innocent, for Alan J. Pakula, in 1988. This is the road not taken — two neo-noir thrillers in which Ford brings to mind the haunted men Jimmy Stewart played for Alfred Hitchcock. In Frantic, he’s a jet-lagged American doctor searching Paris for his kidnapped wife; in Presumed, he’s a prosecutor trying to hold his life and career together after he’s charged with the murder of the rapaciously ambitious female colleague he’s been screwing. Watching both films, you’re reasonably sure Ford’s not to blame for his wife’s disappearance or Greta Scacchi’s murder — he’s Harrison Ford, after all — but there’s still something almost existentially guilt-ridden about his presence onscreen, as if he knows from the beginning that clearing his name will cost him a piece of his soul. 1993’s The Fugitive would smooth out the wormy psychological undercurrents of these two films; as Dr. Richard Kimble, he’s wrongfully accused again, but his hunt for the one-armed man ends up becoming an excuse for him to display situational courage worthy of Indy.

By then he’d assumed command of the Jack Ryan franchise from Alec Baldwin with 1992’s Patriot Games, based on the best-selling post–Cold War techno-thriller by noted aircraft-carrier-snapback collector Tom Clancy. Ryan is doggedly capable and really, really hates terrorists; aside from that, he lacks distinguishable human traits. People liked these movies, though. Officially, Ford only played the character once more, but he’s returned time and again to the stern-dad-type-defends-clan-and-country formula — think of the ass-kicking chief executive James Marshall in Wolfgang Petersen’s Air Force One (actually more fun than either of the Ryans) or 2006’s Firewall (as computer-security whiz “Jack Stanfield”). Each time, it’s personal.

DAVID LETTERMAN, 1982: “When you’re going by, and you see an Indiana Jones mug or something, does that … ”
FORD: “Nothin’. I don’t take it personally. I don’t have any relationship to it. I can’t figure out what it has to do with me.”

Like Star Wars itself, the Harrison-the-carpenter-becomes–Han Solo story contains obvious yet important life lessons. Don’t give up on your dreams! You never know! Perhaps you should learn a marketable skill, though, if you have time!

Ford and his costars were paid $1,000 a week for Star Wars, plus expenses. But George Lucas also gave Ford, Fisher, and Mark Hamill 2 percent of the profits to split three ways, which meant that by the end of 1977, Ford was already a millionaire. He has been one ever since; in 2001’s Guinness book, he’s listed as the richest actor alive.

But you have to wonder if he wishes he’d stayed a carpenter — if he imagines a parallel reality in which someone else had gone to Coppola’s office to hang that door and the role of Solo went to one of the other actors in the mix, like Nick Nolte or Frederic Forrest or Glynn Turman, and Ford went on to open a custom-furniture shop or something. Or a reality in which Ford kept acting but maintained the ability to disappear into a part, like he does in his cameo as Colonel Lucas — the grocery clerk who sends Martin Sheen to collect the bill, more or less — in Apocalypse Now, which was shot before Star Wars but not released until 1979.

You don’t get to hide in plain sight like that once you’ve starred in three of the biggest movies of all time. Fame on that level closes as many doors as it opens. Few superfamous actors have ever seemed as uncomfortable with superfame as Ford always has. (Actual Google hit count for “Harrison Ford reclusive”: 28.7 million.) Maybe it was that the break came relatively late for him; maybe the years he’d spent being knocked around the studio system prior to that left him with a cynicism about the business that no amount of success could erode. Maybe he really is cripplingly shy, the way people say; maybe that’s why he’s such a curiously flat-lineish talk-show guest. Or maybe he’s just a guy who hates his job.

“There’s nothing good about being famous,” Ford told an interviewer a few years ago. “It was unanticipated and I’ve never enjoyed it. You can get the table you want in a restaurant. It gets you doctor’s appointments. But what’s that worth? Nothing.”

Question: Can you imagine a less-appealing description of the upside of being a public figure than “It gets you doctor’s appointments”? No wonder Ford looks so glum all the time; he’s been in the game for 50 years and all it represents to him is the express lane to a colonoscopy. And yet the fact that he can take or leave his celebrity doesn’t seem to have freed him to make brash choices careerwise. His last good movie was probably Roger Michell’s Morning Glory, from 2010, in which he’s the grumpy veteran newsman forced to host a fluffy show. (Except for Working Girl, where he’s clearly having a good time as the sex object Sigourney Weaver and Melanie Griffith fight over, comedy’s never really been Ford’s lane, but these days “grumpy” absolutely is.) Before that, well — there’s Kathryn Bigelow’s underrated K-19: The Widowmaker, but that one works in spite of Ford, who plays a Russian submarine captain without really committing to the accent.

Apart from that, he’s spent the last decade or so in junk like Firewall and Hollywood Homicide, uninspired would-be blockbusters like Cowboys & Aliens, and an Indiana Jones sequel that even Steven Spielberg is kind of embarrassed by. Two years from now, he will return as Han Solo in J.J. Abrams’s new Star Wars sequel, or he won’t; in the meantime, his performance as Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey is supposedly the best thing about Brian Helgeland’s 42, out today. If nothing else, the fact that he’s working with facial prosthetics and a Richard Milhous Leghorn accent and a set of Very Hungry Caterpillar–esque false eyebrows indicates a willingness to take on new challenges — more than we’d have expected from an actor who until recently seemed determined to die with Indiana Jones’s boots on.