Last action hero: DeMille Honoree Harrison Ford

Swashbuckling star's career continues to evolve

This year’s recipient of the Golden Globes career achievement award, Harrison Ford, is still, he admits, “surprised that I have a career.”

While this may sound a tad ludicrous, especially to the steady stream of moviegoers that has lapped up his roster of ordinary-guy heroes, quick-thinking adventurers and complex modern-day protagonists to the tune of over $2 billion in worldwide box office, Ford isn’t kidding.

“Generally I don’t think much in terms of career,” the 59-year-old star says with a kind of polite deliberation. “When I’m on a picture, I think about what’s on my plate, and how to make that character and story the best I can.”

The only big-picture thinking this big-picture guy does is “trying not to do the same thing too many times.”

Looking back over his 25 years as a top-draw actor, the tendency is to label Ford the franchise action guy: Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan. But right after he finished making “Star Wars” — and before the film could come out and do away with his anonymity — he initiated a career-long pattern of switching course.

Explains Ford, “I was determined to have something that people in the business would have as an example of a different character, so I went off and did a little film with Jeremy Kagan called ‘Heroes,’ in which I played the small part of a Vietnam vet still suffering from his experience. I’ve always tried to take advantage of the broadest variety of characters.”

The record speaks for itself. Characters like agent-among-the-Amish John Book in “Witness,” romantic businessman Jack Trainer in “Working Girl” and Michelle Pfeiffer’s philandering husband in “What Lies Beneath” are all nestled comfortably between the derring-do in Ford’s repertoire.

For him, the reward of stretching isn’t a question of box office. “They may have paid off for me while they might not have been as commercially successful as others,” says Ford, adding, “I’m glad I did ‘The Mosquito Coast,’ which was a worthy project.” The uncompromising 1986 Peter Weir film about an idealist husband and father losing his wits in a remote Central American village fizzled with audiences but is a personal favorite of Ford’s.

Pushing characters ahead

“Sometimes the risk is in playing a character with unattractive aspects, pushing the character as far as you can go.”

Ford was a philosophy major at Ripon College in Wisconsin when he turned to theater as a way to improve his grade-point average, but he’s never been one to let theory dominate his acting style. His approach to what he does is less that of a pupil than of a practitioner. “It’s a discipline more than a study, I suppose,” he says. “I think of it as a craft, a skill you continue to develop.” Anyway, he admits, he was a “pretty poor student.”

Ford takes all parts seriously, even the ones he returns to a second and third time. To those actors who find themselves in sequels, his advice is to “build on what has gone before, but make yourself responsible for extending the character by whatever means.” His last sequel, the Jack Ryan saga “Clear and Present Danger,” was eight years ago, and he’s since handed that franchise’s reins to Ben Affleck for “The Sum of All Fears,” but Ford would be more than amenable to donning Indy’s hat for a fourth go-round.

“The longer it takes to develop, the less hope I have, but I’d very much like to do it if there was a script I was confident in,” he says. “I’d love to work with Steven (Spielberg) and George (Lucas) again.”

A vulnerable man

The Indy films, and such stunt-heavy blockbusters as “The Fugitive” and “Air Force One,” have resulted in some of Ford’s most notorious on-set injuries. But instead of trying to seem invincible on screen, he’s made his characters’ physical vulnerabilities a hallmark of his work in the action realm.

“I thought the audience should be allowed to feel the character’s fear and pain,” says Ford of this Everyman ethic. “It creates a kind of emotional continuity between the character and the audience.”

The term “leading man” has always seemed to fit Ford better than “star,” in any case, because it refers to a role played, not a marquee factor.

Stardom didn’t appeal to Ford even as a way to get out of what he considered the demoralizing experience of being a contract player for Columbia in the ’60s. When asked if he learned anything about acting from those days, he says emphatically, “No. Nothing at all. The only thing I learned is that they value you according to how much they pay you. And nobody has any confidence in somebody they’ve gotten for $150 a week, not in this business.”

Of course, Ford is now a $25 million-per-picture hire (his salary plus points constitute his payout for the upcoming film “K-19: The Widowmaker”).

But part of the changing nature of the business for him has been the ability to be more closely involved with the nurturing of scripts, since his attachment to a project now carries a heavier responsibility.

“As I’ve become more experienced, people have taken my notions a little bit more seriously,” he says. But perhaps most noticeably, he says, “my traditional source of material, studio development, was drying up, and the better scripts and directors were not working through the studios as much as they were.”

To that end, he has augmented his long-standing association with independent agent Pat McQueeney with a team of five agents at UTA. Ford is now helping oversee a handful of projects, including a film about noted humanitarian aid worker Fred Cuny, who disappeared in Chechnya in 1995.

He is developing the project with Alejandro Inarritu after seeing the Mexican director’s acclaimed debut, “Amores Perros.”

“He’s fantastic,” says Ford. “And I’ve been interested for some period of time in (Cuny) and the world he lived in.”

Ford doesn’t get any joy out of developing and producing — he’d rather spend his energy on the nuts and bolts of a role — but he reveals, “it’s more likely to be my process now than in the past.”

Ford turns 60 this year, and, in keeping with his steadfast refusal to wax on his achievements, he has “no thoughts” about it. Then, it turns out, he does.

“I don’t mind getting older,” he says, “as long as I get just a little bit smarter.”

(Robert Abele is the author of the People’s bio of Harrison Ford.)

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