The way Harrison Ford sees it, he owes his success to a full bladder.
The year was 1965, and the wannabe thespian — recently expelled from Wisconsin’s Ripon College — had come to Hollywood looking for work. (The acting bug bit after Ford took a drama class that he thought would boost his flagging GPA. He thought wrong.) Working connections, he scored an interview with the head of casting at Columbia Pictures. ”Afterward,” the Chicago native recalls, ”I was waiting for the elevator when I realized I had to pee.” Emerging from the bathroom, he saw the casting director’s assistant sprinting toward him to bring him back: Ford ended up being offered a studio contract. ”If I had gone down the elevator,” he says, ”it would have been another story.”
On July 19 the biggest box office star ever (his movies have earned a total of $3.2 billion) was back on screen in the fact-based action drama ”K-19: The Widowmaker,” playing a 1960s-era Russian submarine commandant at loggerheads with his captain (Liam Neeson). ”This character is very different from the ones you usually see me play,” says Ford, 60. ”He’s a leading man who doesn’t have the usual sympathy built in. He’s not as likable as you would expect.” Still, in more than 35 films over four decades, the actor has been nothing but consistent, bringing to roles both small (1970’s ”Getting Straight”) and large (Jack Ryan in the Tom Clancy series) his flinty charisma and inviting vulnerability. Here, Ford tells tales about some of his most famous films.
AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973)
THE CONVERSATION (1974)
For Ford, the early years were lean, consisting of bit parts in TV and movies. But then came back-to-back opportunities with two revolution-minded auteurs. The parts were still small, but Ford made the most of playing Bob Falfa, the Chevy-racing rogue in George Lucas’ where-were-you-in-’62 nostalgia trip and a curiously dressed male secretary in Francis Ford Coppola’s voyeur thriller.
Ford: ”George wanted a crew cut. It seemed like a bad idea for the period, so I suggested a cowboy hat and the characterization of a guy who never got past the Western days. He recognized that character from his experience and said, ‘Yeah. That will tell the story I want.’ On ‘The Conversation,’ I was testing for the role Freddy Forrest eventually got, but they told me Francis wanted to write a character for me. That was really nice. But when I got the script, the character’s name was ‘YOUNG MAN.’ I thought, Oh, s—. But I had an idea: I bought a $900 green suit. Francis said, ‘Who are you supposed to be?’ I said, ‘He’s homosexual, he’s got this attitude about his boss,’ and so on. He said, ‘That’ll work.”’
STAR WARS (1977)
But ”Graffiti” and ”Conversation” weren’t the breakouts Ford had hoped for. While waiting on quality parts, he made a living as a carpenter. In the winter of 1975-76, he was offered a job building a portico entrance to Coppola’s offices in L.A., where Lucas was also testing actors for a new space saga.
Ford: ”I was working late one night, it got to be morning, and I’m standing there in my tool belt when George and Richard Dreyfuss came in. George explained, ‘We’re here for Richard’s casting appointment for ”Star Wars.”’ Richard was testing for Han Solo. But afterward, George asked me if I wanted to read. And I just got it. There was the wise old warrior, the callow youth, the princess, and the smart-ass. I was the smart-ass.”