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An action actor of character

If high-tech pirates ever got their crummy paws on any of the time machines out there and a couple of the devices hit the black market, it’s possible that Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Jack Ryan could swing into action in their respective eras and eventually cross trails in some sweltering banana republic dive.

Sitting in a dark corner and quaffing a beer, Solo, the seat-of-the-pants flyboy first seen in “Star Wars” (1977), and Jones, the intrepid hero of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) and its sequels, and Ryan, the trouble-shooter of “Patriot Games” (1992) and the upcoming “Clear and Present Danger,” would eyeball each other with suspicion. One would have a hat, two would have stubble and all three would have peculiarly similar chin scars.

Solo would be the first to sound off with a wisecrack, Jones would be the first to smell impending danger and Ryan, the CIA-connected espionage attache would be the first to advise caution. Their adventure would probably include mistaken identity, abused vehicles and splintered furniture.

But which one of these guys would win the war of wills, solve the mystery and maybe get the girl?

The question is put to the source, to the man who essayed all three franchise characters’ rugged exploits into movie and box office history.

There’s a lengthly you-must-be-joking laugh on the other end of the telephone line in Wyoming.

“Hey, I just work here,” the notoriously press-shy Harrison Ford finally says.

C’mon. The situation is tense. The bartender is backing up slowly through the smoke. The joint is loaded with disguised Nazis, profiteers of every stripe, probably a few androids and some swell dame.

“OK, but you asked for it,” says Ford. “I have to say, first of all, that I think Han Solo is too dumb to make the cut. When Indiana Jones and Jack Ryan are included, he’s not a factor. So, Han Solo is out of it.

“On the one hand, Indiana Jones is incredibly resolute. On the other, Jack Ryan has all of the devices of the modern espionage world and the full resources of modern weaponry at his disposal. One phone call and it’s all over.

“But Indiana Jones would have to do it himself along with George Lucas’ willingness to define the logic in the story and Steven Spielberg’s skill to make you believe it. Indiana Jones has that great faith in himself. But it would probably be too much for him in the face of all of Jack Ryan’s resources. Indiana Jones would give it a great try, but Jack Ryan would probably win.

“Now that I’ve given you an intensely serious answer to that question, I really feel dumb.”

Not when you consider the characters’ importance in movie history and to Ford’s career as well as to thousands of other moviemakers’ careers, from carpenters, among whose ranks Ford once toiled, to Steven Spielberg. They all contributed to the addition of the third “F” to the adventure-picture legacies of Fairbanks and Flynn.

Jones, Ryan and Solo represent the classic American man of action in, respectively, the past, present and future. Two of them are established pop-culture icons and Jack Ryan is getting there, especially if “Clear and Present Danger,” which recently wrapped up production in Mexico, lives up to expectations.

“Danger” marks Ford’s second stint as Ryan after “Patriot Games” (Alec Baldwin played same Tom Clancy-created character in “The Hunt for Red October.”)

The portfolio on each of Ford’s three intrepid heroes isn’t without character flaws. And each relies on measures of luck and intuition as well as great courage, which doesn’t always mask inherent fear — a Ford specialty.

When there’s a boulder barreling through a cave or nothing but an actual leap of faith to go on, Indiana Jones can look as rattled as Don Knotts. It’s one of the sources of Ford’s appeal not just in America, but around the world.

“He does it like an ordinary guy,” says Nicholas Saada, a film critic for the Paris-based Cahiers du Cinema. “I feel like I would react the same way to the extraordinary situations his characters get in if I were facing the same things. ‘Witness’ was like this as was ‘The Fugitive’ and Roman Polanski’s ‘Frantic.’ He is perfect as the ordinary man in the extraordinary situation. This is what makes him an original and wonderful and popular actor.”

In retrospect, one of the key steps to international stardom came when George Lucas cast Ford as Han Solo in “Star Wars.” In that movie, Ford was an unkempt wiseacre maverick who also happened to be capable intergalactic adventurer, complete with a furry sidekick, Chewbacca, and a second-rate brand of tough-guy patter on the level of outtakes from Bogart pictures.

By the time of the first sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), Solo had changed. He went sweet on Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia and the continuing saga suddenly had the edge of a potential love triangle, which included Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker.

Unexpected depth and dimension emerged in Solo’s personality. The undertone of the role assumed almost tragic proportions, which, in the early Ford canon, anticipated “Blade Runner” (1981).

Then, by “The Return of the Jedi” (1983), Solo seemed distant as the former trio of unlikely cohorts evolved again with a “Jules et Jim” dynamic, wherein Solo drifted to fringe status. Maybe Ford didn’t have had his heart completely in this one, something that you never felt about any of the Indiana Jones movies.

The match of Ford and Jones produced the quintessence of movie heroism in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Other serial heroes had lived many kinds of adventures in a variety of action movies, from Flash Gordon to James Bond. But never before had one hero lived so many kinds of adventures so spectacularly as the series continued with a more mercenary undertone in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) and a valedictory flourish in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1979).

Borrowing from his encyclopedic knowledge of action-film techniques, and applying his skill to his ideas about heroism, Steven Spielberg threw the book — as well as knives, bullets, boulders, tanks, scimitar-wielding thugs, a variety of chasms, reptiles and tarantulas, to name a few other things — at Ford.

“Obviously, we’ve been very lucky together,” says Ford of his collaborations with Spielberg. “Doing ‘Indiana Jones’ was a good time from the very beginning. I had a great time with him talking about ideas to make that character work. I have the greatest respect for his skill and judgment.”

Other serial heroes were courageous, intelligent, handsome, humorous, rugged, frank, quick-witted and equal to any situation that cropped up, no matter how imposing. Indiana Jones accommodated all of those qualities, plus he had Harrison Ford’s undisguised emotions.

“You believe in who he’s supposed to be, you believe he is Indiana Jones,” says Hy Smith, senior VP of marketing for United International Pictures, the distributor of Paramount, Universal and MGM/UA movies throughout the world. “Because you believe in him, you identify with him. He projects humanity.

“He’s a good-looking man who comes off as very real, and he’s quite an actor. But he’s not like some of the actors of the ’40s and ’50s who were actually beautiful men — Robert Taylor, for instance.”

Wayne Duband, president of Warner Bros. International Theatrical Distribution , also puts Ford in the pantheon of film stars. “He rates in my book among the top two or three stars in the business. If you take his success alone in the ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Indiana Jones’ and Jack Ryan movies, you’re neglecting the fact that when he stands alone — like in ‘The Fugitive’ — he also carries the show.”

As for the “secret” of Ford’s success, Duband is succinct. “He’s probably the cleverest star in choosing what he does,” explains Duband. “This is not to say that he doesn’t take risks. He does. Yet he also manages to pick commercially, too. If I had to one-line it, the difference between him and other stars is his choices. He always chooses well.”

Film critic Saada sees Ford as a connecting link between generations of movie stars.

“He is a compendium of the American acting generations,” says Saada. “He has the classic American actor sensibility of Cooper, Grant and Lancaster with the physicality of the recent generation of stars. He is at the crossroads of American movie actor styles. He is a tremendously physical actor who has a real elegance.”

Jack Ryan in “Patriot Games” is the slickest of Ford’s three repeat characters. Despite his advance on middle age, he is just as physically capable as his frayed cousins, Han and Indy. And he faces challenges with the confidence of an official who is thoroughly equipped with, as Ford says, the backing of the military and intelligence establishments. He also has a contemporary sensibility and is the most modern of Ford’s three serial characters, since Han Solo, despite his futuristic status, is really a throwback to the cynical Americans of past pulp culture.

Ford’s believability as an adventure hero is also aided by the obvious fact that he does most of his own stunts, which adds to the credibility of his characters and detracts from his health. He required surgery after “The Fugitive” to correct a torn cruciate ligament in his right knee.

“I don’t particularly look for running, jumping, falling-down movies, even though I’ve had some luck with them,” says Ford. “It’s just that the scripts I have happened to pick have a lot of running, jumping and falling down in them.”

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