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Han Solo: Meet the man who championed both Harrison Ford and Alden Ehrenreich

Legendary casting director Fred Roos championed both Harrison Ford and Alden Ehrenreich.

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Lucasfilm; Kevin Winter/Getty Images; Gregg DeGuire/WireImage

Here’s a coincidence that feels cosmic. Or maybe “galactic” is the better word.

Last week, news emerged that 26-year-old Alden Ehrenreich had been cast as young Han Solo in an upcoming Lucasfilm standalone film. Since then, many words have been typed about his now-legendary discovery, when none other than Steven Spielberg spotted the young actor in a jokey video while attending a family friend’s bat mitzvah.

It’s true that Spielberg thought he had talent and helped connect the high-schooler with some talent agents. But the man who gave Ehrenreich his first film — and his second one — may actually be more surprising once you know that casting director’s history.

He happened to discover both Han Solos.

“He was doing carpentry work for me…”

Fred Roos is such a behind-the-scenes operator that you may not know his name – but you definitely know his work: he was the casting director for Five Easy Pieces, The Godfather, and American Graffiti, among others. He also produced The Outsiders and The Conversation, and had an uncredited role as casting consultant on the original Star Wars.

Jack Nicholson. Diane Lane. Tom Cruise. Joan Allen. Richard Dreyfuss. Roos cast them in roles that, if not their first, were certainly defining — and in many cases responsible for their breakthroughs.

Probably his biggest find: Harrison Ford.

Roos has been the closest thing to a Tom Hagen-style consigliere for Francis Ford Coppola, working alongside him throughout his career, which also made him a vital advisor to George Lucas, who was mentored by Coppola.

Roos had been championing Ford for roles in various films for a while. At that point, Ford had been a bit-part studio player with a lot of forgettable TV guest roles. The Hollywood career was going nowhere, but Ford’s woodworking business was paying the bills.

“I knew him really well,” Roos tells EW. “Not only was he an actor, he was a friend. And he was doing carpentry work for me, when he needed to make extra money. He had a family, he had kids…”

Roos didn’t have much luck selling Ford at first. But he got him the role of Bob Falfa, a wiseass street racer, in Lucas’s 1973 paean to car culture, American Graffiti, and he persuaded Coppola to give him brief supporting roles in 1974’s The Conversation and later 1979’s Apocalypse Now. In between those latter two films, came another.

You may have heard of it – Star Wars.

Roos was working with Lucas on the casting of his space epic, and Ford was hired to run lines with the prospective actors. He wasn’t being considered for the role of smart-mouthed smuggler Han Solo, partly because Lucas didn’t want to reuse cast from his earlier film.

“I had already brought him to George’s attention in American Graffiti,” Roos says of Ford. “Even though he was terrific, it was all night shooting and he’d only worked maybe 10 days on the whole movie. George hadn’t really gotten to know him.”

Roos became adamant. Ford was the right guy for Solo. But Lucas resisted.

“I was, from the get-go, pushing him for Han Solo,” Roos says. “‘George, you saw him right under your nose in American Graffiti,’ and finally it clicked with George. Other people were considered, but finally I won the day with George on that one.”

At a Telluride Film Festival tribute to Roos in 2004, Ford said this about Roos: “Fred is a very loyal man. Once he believes in you, he is unrelenting. He kept putting me up for parts and I kept getting rejected. Finally things worked out.”

A good feeling about this

Flash forward about three decades from 1977. Roos and Coppola have remained close friends and collaborators. The Godfather director is now making smaller, more personal films – and he wants a new face to star in 2009’s Tetro, as a young man searching for his expatriate brother in Argentina.

By 2006, the agent Ehrenreich secured with Spielberg’s help had gotten him small roles on TV shows like Supernatural and CSI. But that was about it. Then one of his reps introduced him to Roos.

“We had this very important role in Tetro a small film, a very personal film of Francis’s. [Ehrenreich] had been brought to my attention by a manager I respect. When she tells me about something, I pay attention. I get those calls all the time, but I’d fill my day if I met everybody,” Roos says.

“When she pushed me about meeting him, I did. I liked him very, very much, and he was right for the part. So I brought him to Francis and he went through a whole battery of testing, and meeting, and auditioning. He didn’t even have the part for sure when we brought him to Buenos Aires. So it was quite an adventure for a young man still in high school.”

As Ehrenreich tells it, he spent most of his time peppering Coppola with questions about The Godfather, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now

“He didn’t open up with all the questions until after he had the part,” Roos says. “He was very reserved. He’s a great kid, very eager to learn, respectful of film history.”

For Coppola’s next film in 2011, the supernatural drama Twixt, Ehrenreich was given the role of an outcast vampire named Flamingo. Neither of the movies were big box office draws, but with a pair of Coppola movies on his filmography and the backing of a legend like Roos, the young actor was on his way.

He starred in 2013’s Beautiful Creatures, an adaptation of a hit YA novel, playing a young man who falls in love with a spell caster, and that same year played Cate Blanchett’s estranged stepson in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.

These days, Ehrenreich is probably best known as the huckleberry singing cowboy in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Old Hollywood homage Hail, Caesar!, and he has a number of other movies in the works: a supporting part opposite Warren Beatty in a film about Howard Hughes, and the lead in The Yellow Birds, directed by Alexandre Moors, as an American soldier trying to protect a younger fellow fighter in the brutal battlefields of Iraq.

In 2018, he’ll pick up the blaster as young Han Solo in the still-untitled film from directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord (The Lego Movie, the 21 Jump Street remakes) and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens) and his son, Jon Kasdan (Freaks and Geeks, The First Time.)

“I had no connection with him getting that movie. I know Kathy [Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm] and they’ve asked me for advice in the past on different things. But on this particular one, no,” Roos says. “But everything builds for an actor. The fact that he did Tetro for Francis and I was really to his credit. It’s kind of a family in northern California. A film mafia. I’m sure that factored into it.”

What was it that Roos saw in Ehrenreich 10 years ago?

“It’s always kind of intangible. Just a feeling I have about somebody,” Roos says. “A lot of people that I’ve been associated with are like that. Jack Nicholson. Harrison. They don’t quite fit any mold. Plus, he had been studying acting and doing plays at his school. There’s a talent there, and he had worked at the craft. He wasn’t some accidental discovery. He had some background and experience.”

Even Roos is struck by the irony – one man, who played a key role in discovering two Han Solos.

“The rumor of him being up for Han Solo has been around for a couple of months, but it hadn’t crossed my mind, that connection, until a week ago,” Roos says. “My God – there’s some serendipity here.”

For more Star Wars news, follow @Breznican.

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