Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a new biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.
Harrison Ford is the sort of star that people who don’t care much for Hollywood like. Amidst an industry known for its artificiality and self-absorption, Ford has always seemed uninterested in the machinery of fame. Interviews for him are a chore, and he doesn’t like talking about his “process.” He just does the work. There’s a regular-guy lack of pretension to the man that’s wholly genuine. It’s informed his performances and his stardom—even his current role as a fading box-office draw.
Born in Chicago in July 1942, Ford came from a family with some background in performing. His grandfather acted in vaudeville and on the radio, and his father did a little acting, as well. But Ford went to college for philosophy and English, only turning to acting when he was desperate. (Needing to boost his poor GPA, he enrolled in a drama class.) But from there, an interest in performing developed, although Ford didn’t necessarily have the temperament to suggest he was born to act. “My only ambition was simply to work as an actor,” he told the Los Angeles Daily News in 1986. “But it didn’t come naturally at all. I was shy. I had a fear of getting up in front of people to overcome. It certainly helped when you could put on a mustache or dye your hair black and become somebody else.”
In the early going, he had to support himself while hustling for gigs in Los Angeles, so he hit upon the idea of becoming a carpenter. He taught himself the trade, gaining enough confidence that he was able to convince Brazilian music legend Sérgio Mendes to let him build his studio. According to Laurence Caracalla’s coffee-table book Harrison Ford, Ford recalled of the conversation, “I had the right costume, I had the right attitudes, he forgot to ask me if I’d ever done it before.”
But after landing small parts in movies like Zabriskie Point and appearing on TV shows such as Love, American Style, Ford began breaking through in the early 1970s. He appeared in George Lucas’s American Graffiti and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. (Lucas and Ford had first met through the actor’s carpenter services.) And although Lucas hadn’t initially considered Ford for the role of Han Solo in his subsequent Star Wars—he didn’t want to repeat actors from American Graffiti—Ford won him over.
Most know what happened then: Star Wars was a sensation, and Ford became a star. It’s common that when actors transform into A-listers, their blockbuster work proves less interesting than their roles in smaller, more nuanced films. But with all due respect to Ford’s non-tentpoles, several of which are gems, he’s an exception to this truism. Ford’s finest moments are his popcorn films: Few actors have understood better how to imbue a big role with charm and gravitas, to make larger-than-life seem deeply relatable.
Generations of filmgoers have loved Han Solo because they adore the rascal that he is—and as they get older, they pick up on the very lightly mocking tone that Ford brought to the role, never placing himself above the material but nonetheless acknowledging that the Star Wars movies could be awfully silly. (And Ford certainly has a history of being dismissive of the character—and the franchise—in interviews.) But that slight snark may be in part a reflection of Ford’s lack of preciousness about his work in general—he takes his process seriously, but not all the talk talk talk surrounding his process. “As a friend once said, the collar around my neck is blue,” he once said. “I know what it is to work and work hard. Acting is a job, a responsibility, a complex task—all those things. I approach all work from a workman’s point of view. I expect to get my hands dirty, get into a sweat and work overtime.”
He got his hands dirty and broke a sweat repeatedly during the Indiana Jones films. Though history sometimes squishes Han Solo and Indiana Jones together because the same actor plays them, the sexy swagger that Ford brought to Indy (especially in Raiders of the Lost Ark) was a new wrinkle. Doing his own stunts, projecting not just action-hero bravado but also vulnerability and intelligence, Ford presented audiences with an everyday-superstar persona that would be a precursor to Bruce Willis’s John McClane and a refreshing contrast to the later bulked-up heroics of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ford recognized that playing Han and Indy—strong, simple archetypes—required less acting, not more. He didn’t perform these roles, he inhabited them, and with great panache.
And in the process, they came to define him. He would have hits later with the Jack Ryan movies, The Fugitive, and Air Force One, but he was drawing from the same dedicated-workman ethic that he had demonstrated with those earlier franchises. He made being a marquee name look like a solemn calling. He didn’t get involved in paparazzi scandals, and he didn’t have diva-ish temper tantrums. Instead, he moved out of Los Angeles, decamping to a ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “I need balance,” he once explained. “I need to be in a situation where my every whim is not attended to, where I have to fetch my own nails, do my own shopping, and wash my own dishes. … Being normal is a kind of victory. I’ll fix a fence, repair a piece of equipment, or plough the driveway if there’s snow. There’s always plenty of work to do.”
His blockbusters have somewhat obscured his other roles. He may be a bit too withdrawn and robotic in Blade Runner, even if that’s the point, but there’s great feeling in his portrayal of a big-city cop who falls in love while hiding out with the Amish in Witness—to date, his only Oscar nomination. He brings intensity to Frantic and Presumed Innocent. But probably his best piece of pure acting comes in the little-seen, little-loved The Mosquito Coast, the follow-up film from Witness director Peter Weir. Based on the Paul Theroux novel, The Mosquito Coast stars Ford as Allie Fox, who’s decided that he’s cutting all ties to American society and moving his family to the Belizean rain forests to live a more civilized, less technologically dependent existence. Ford is simply brilliant: The surliness on display in movies like Blade Runner and the Star Wars trilogy is here given free rein as he plays a man becoming a monster. Allie’s single-minded, loathsome drive to leave everything behind is an unlikely antecedent to Daniel Day-Lewis’s equally obsessed Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. The Mosquito Coast was a critical and commercial disappointment, but it’s ripe for rediscovery: It shows that while Ford was a magnificent franchise star, he could also do the heavy lifting in thoughtful, complex films, as well.
Ford has been such a huge name for so long, the last 15 years have been particularly difficult to absorb. He was in Six Days Seven Nights. He was in K-19. He was in Firewall, Hollywood Homicide, the atrocious Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull … one head-scratching decision after another. It is quite possible that his most famous role in the 21st century is the one he didn’t take: Initially, he was in talks to play the part of the U.S. drug czar in Traffic that later went to Michael Douglas. Of late, Ford has struggled, whether it’s to maintain his commercial standing or to find worthwhile parts. He seems to have made peace with his downsized box-office allure. He was the supporting act to Daniel Craig in the forgettable Aliens & Cowboys. He was the inspirational father figure in the earnest 42. Most enjoyably of all, he’s the gruff, morally complicated teacher to Asa Butterfield’s impressionable kid in Ender’s Game, which represents Ford’s finest performance in far too long. “[N]ow that I’m out of the ‘leading man’ business, I’m getting a chance to play both good guys and bad guys that bear no resemblance to Harrison Ford,” he told The Huffington Post. “And that’s great. That’s the fun of it.”
He’s going to be in Anchorman 2 and The Expendables 3. There’s talk he’ll be in the forthcoming Star Wars sequel—just don’t ask him about it. (“I think even to say it’s unresolved is kind of an enhancer,” he told a Hollywood Reporter journalist about the Star Wars rumors. “I prefer not to have to be confronted with?that.”) He has an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. He can rest on his laurels. Just know that he doesn’t care if he’s developed a reputation for being a difficult interview, for being someone who doesn’t like playing the usual Hollywood PR game. “I’m a kinder, gentler, Harrison Ford than I was,” he said to a reporter in September of this year. “Am I grumpy? I might be. But I think maybe sometimes it’s misinterpreted. I’ve always been an independent son of a bitch, so if I’m grumpy, then call me grumpy. I’m all right with that.”
How else would you expect a carpenter to respond to such silliness?
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.