A clear and present actor

It was a problem so dire, producer George Lucas was summoned from his Bay Area home to rush to England. There was a glitch involving his film’s star, not atypical for a Hollywood production.

Except this involved an actor who refused to quit working.

While shooting “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”for director Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford had fallen victim to extreme back pain. “He was on a hospital bed on the set,” Lucas recalls. “He could barely stand up, he could barely walk. Yet he was there every day, so shooting would not stop. Steven (Spielberg) and I finally convinced him to go back to L.A. for a back operation. He was in incomprehensible pain, but was still trying to make it happen.”

Ford had his operation and completed the movie, only a few days over schedule, “primarily due to Harrison’s dedication,” says Lucas.

One doesn’t become the “star of the century” as Ford has been designated this year by NATO/Showest, without such dedication, and those who have worked with the world-renowned actor remember a fiercely intelligent, willing collaborator unbending in his integrity and possessing an eye that eternally searches for a way to make each scene in each film a little better.

They also recall a modest man, unchanged by the spectacular dimensions of his international success.

“The first time I worked with him was before he was a major star — on director Robert Aldrich’s ‘The Frisco Kid’ in 1978,” says producer Mace Neufeld, who is working with Ford today on the upcoming summer action film “A Clear and Present Danger,” the latest in the adventures of spymeister Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character. Neufeld and Ford also collaborated on the previous Ryan adventure “Patriot Games.””He worked part-time in carpentry. Now, 15 years later , he’s basically the same guy — except he has a lot more money. You can’t say that about many people.

“When he heard about his being called ‘the star of the century,’ he laughed. He thought it was funny,” Neufeld adds. “But he is the most knowledgable actor I’ve worked with, with respect to production. He understands script, motivation and plotting, and his ability to get to the heart of any action sequence is unparalleled. … As an actor, he makes it look very easy. He’s got great projection, facial and eye expressions — few actors can let a closeup sit on them without saying a word. He can tell the audience what’s going on in his mind — a lot of actors can do that, but very few movie stars. He’s a movie star/actor, as opposed to a movie star.

“He’s very smart about what he picks to do. He doesn’t get labeled as an action star. He tries to stretch himself with movies like ‘Witness’ and ‘Presumed Innocent’ — he shows a lot of versatility within his own persona. And beyond that, he has an uncanny ability to project what a nice guy he is to the audience.”

“He’s probably the classiest lead in the world,” says Andrew Davis, who directed Ford’s latest mega-hit, “The Fugitive.””His talent hasn’t really been recognized, and he’s still growing. In ‘The Fugitive,’ he’s so powerful. If he hadn’t touched you so deeply in the beginning the movie wouldn’t have worked. And where Tommy Lee Jones was flamboyant and had people to play off of, Harrison was alone through much of the movie. But he brought off that unbelievable balance. I feel lucky that he picked me to make that movie.”

“He’s a great colleague and buddy to make a picture with,” offers director Mike Nichols, who was a friend of Ford’s long before making “Working Girl” and “Regarding Henry” with him. “He has the best manners of anyone on the set, he’s the most interested, he’s a joy to work with. He’s a bellwether for everyone on how to behave on a movie set.”

Actress and best-selling author (“Postcards From the Edge,” etc.) Carrie Fisher met Ford when she was 19, and was playing Princess Leia to Ford’s Han Solo in the sci-fi monster hit “Star Wars.” She remembers almost being overwhelmed by his simmering star power.

“He had an epic quality, like Spencer Tracy or Bogart,” she says. “Being a film buff of that sort, and being an unfortunate product of celebrity myself, I was aware of that. He had it in a big way. He was a focus puller — he changed the energy where he was. The first time I saw him, I thought he couldn’t have been anything else. I’ve never had that same impression of anyone else in my life.”

George Lucas gave Ford his first two big breaks — first as the laconic hometown hood in “American Graffiti,” then in “Star Wars.””He was the perfect rough-and-tumble hero,” Lucas remembers. “‘Star Wars’ was a huge leap of faith — a small number had that faith. Most thought it was incomprehensible, that it didn’t make any sense, they couldn’t see how the script would form a viewable movie. But Harrison was one of those with faith.”

“Star Wars” also helped Ford mature as an actor, Lucas says. “He started out as a kind of angry young actor, but evolved quickly into a very professional, high-quality performer,” he says. “During ‘Star Wars,’ he was influenced by Alec Guinness and other British actors, who approach acting differently than most American actors. They’re not quite as concerned with having everything revolve around them. Harrison saw that and became more understanding. He began to respect everyone’s talents.”

It was a deceptively smooth journey from angry young actor to polished veteran. Working with some of the most respected directors in the business — Spielberg, Peter Weir, Mike Nichols, Roman Polanski and AlanJ. Pakula among them — gave Ford such insight into filmmaking that Neufeld swears he would “hire him in a minute” for a directing job.

“He’s worked in so many different styles for so many different directors — he’s a walking encyclopedia of film knowledge,” says Phillip Noyce, Ford’s director in “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger.””He’s a man who in prepping a scene gives detailed thoughts to each sequence — he’ll help the writer, the cinematographer, the director — yet in the execution of the scene, he becomes an actor again, completely cooperative.

“He has earned all of his luck.”

Neufeld offers an example of how Ford’s input immensely improved a scene: “In ‘Patriot Games,’ there was a sequence where Jack Ryan (Ford’scharacter) watches a satellite attack via computer screens — it was a full-blown scene, with a lot of dialogue. Harrison said, ‘I think this scene would be effective if no one says anything. Let the horror of what’s playing out by remote control, thousands of miles away of people getting killed live, let that show on our faces.’ We did it that way, and it was brilliant. It’s that kind of smart dramaturgy that Harrison has that can cut to the heart. Directors ignore him at their own peril.”

Perhaps the best-known example of Ford’s creative contributions is his sugestion for the hilarious bit in the original “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when Indiana Jones, confronted by the sabre-spinning assassin, rolls his eyes, pulls out his gun and plugs the guy rather than get involved in time-wasting fisticuffs.

As for “The Fugitive,” Oscar-nominated producer Arnold Kopelson says Ford contributed to practically every aspect of the film. “Warner Bros. came to us with an Aug. 6 release date, and we had no screenplay in a finished state,” he remembers. “While we were shooting, we would get together at every waking moment to work on the script. Harrison came to the first meeting, and I started realizing he brought so much, he became part of the team.”

Perhaps Mike Nichols’ description of how Ford helped him create the character for “Working Girl” best summarizes the star’s unique ability to contribute, without demanding deference to his stardom. “He doesn’t care who has the best part,” says Nichols, “just as long as his character advances the action.”

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