Fantastic Mr. Ford – Hollywood’s Hero on Fatherhood and Flying Planes
I have been waiting to meet Harrison Ford since I was ten years old. I remember watching him play the bad-boy bounty hunter Han Solo in the first Star Wars film in 1977 and thinking he was so very cool in his black waistcoat and tight blue trousers, wise-cracking his way around the universe. And now, over three decades later, here is Ford in a room at Claridge’s offering a firm handshake and just a hint of a smile.
He will turn 70 next July, but in the flesh Ford doesn’t disappoint. The small black pirate stud in his left ear and the bright red socks suggest he’s young in spirit at least. A light blue shirt tucked into expensive trousers reveals that he’s still in great shape. He even holds his own while sharing a screen with Daniel Craig in Cowboys & Aliens, his new film in which, as the title suggests, cowboys fight off aliens. Ford looks good galloping across the desert on his dusty steed – he regularly rides at his ranch in Wyoming – and he can still take a close-up. He may be little more grizzly, but the twinkle in his eyes hasn’t faded.
Towards the end of Cowboys & Aliens, Craig asks Ford, ‘You all right, old man?’ It’s only a line in a script, but did Ford forgive him? ‘Oh, I don’t give a shit about that! Everyone is talking about me turning 70, but I just don’t care. What I care about is being healthy enough to do what I want to do. And I don’t want to be 35 forever. What a bore. I’m happy to be what I am.’
Ford is one of the most successful actors in Hollywood history. He has been working solidly for three decades, his combined films making nearly £3 billion. He has an everyman appeal that ensures fans of all ages and persuasions, and has played some of the most famous and beloved film characters ever written: Han Solo, of course, and Indiana Jones, the buff, buccaneering artefact hunter who inspired a whole generation to want to become archaeologists. He starred in the Amish thriller Witness with Kelly McGillis, and The Mosquito Coast with River Phoenix. He played CIA agent Jack Ryan in Patriot Games, and the troubled investigator Rick Deckard in Ridley Scott’s futuristic masterpiece Blade Runner. He has a home in LA and his 800-acre ranch in Jackson Hole. He is an active conservationist and owns a collection of vintage aeroplanes, is close friends with the former US president Bill Clinton and is married to the Ally McBeal actress Calista Flockhart, 22 years his junior. He has five children and three grandchildren. Really, it’s not such a surprise that he is happy to be who he is.
And yet he is known as a moody perfectionist, a control freak who likes all the elements of his life to be just so, from the socks in his drawers to how his furniture is arranged. But perhaps this is the key to his success. His voice is deep and he talks slowly, with great deliberation. There are frequent pauses. The impression is of a serious, focused and guarded man. But there is humour, too, and everything changes when he offers his famous, slightly lopsided smile. Which he does as soon as I mention his co-star Daniel Craig. ‘He was fun to hang out with. Very generous. He’s the lead and I’m the second lead, but he still gave me space to develop my character. I really like him and really admire his work. He’s a wonderful actor.’
Ford wasn’t unhappy to be cast as Dolarhyde, the red-neck sheriff, second to Craig’s gunslinger. ‘I had lately been doing films that were focused on an older audience – Extraordinary Measures, Morning Glory – and I was seeing them be less successful than I’d hoped. So I said to my agent: “Find me a film, goddammit, that people will go to!”
Ford has never felt creatively stifled by the blockbuster action film; he has never sought out arty independents (Blade Runner is about as pretentious as it gets). He has always said he wants to do popular films that pay well and he has a strong work ethic instilled in him by his father. ‘I was born in Chicago. I came from a lower-middle-class background. My parents worked their way up. My father was in advertising. We weren’t well off but we weren’t desperate. I was bullied only briefly at school. It didn’t have a huge influence, I don’t think.’ He tugs at his gold wedding ring as he talks. ‘I was a philosophy major at school, but I was a terrible student and my grades were slipping. In an effort to get an easy A, I took a class called Drama. The first time I got on stage my knees trembled violently. So the challenge was to overcome that fear.’ He pauses. ‘That’s about it.’
He once said that he felt Irish as a person and Jewish as an actor. What did he mean? ‘I was just playing with words. It’s the reality of my upbringing: my father was Irish Catholic and my mother was Jewish. But she wasn’t an observant Jew, not by the time I was born.’ Surprisingly, he wasn’t a regular moviegoer. ‘Bambi put me off when I was young. I came out saying, “What is this? This story is ridiculous!” I was affronted by the killing of Bambi’s mother… I went to the movies in college occasionally, but only so I could take girls and put my arm around them.’
Aged 22, and already married to his college sweetheart, a cheerleader called Mary Marquardt, Ford set off for Hollywood. He started doing bit parts in films and taught himself carpentry from books borrowed from the Encino library, so that he would be able to support his wife and two young children. He became known as the carpenter to the stars, working for the writer Joan Didion and the Brazilian composer Sergio Mendes. It was in this capacity that he came to the attention of George Lucas, who cast him alongside Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard in American Graffiti, his celluloid celebration of early 1960s youth culture. He made a doorway for Francis Ford Coppola and as a result was
given small roles in The Conversation and Apocalypse Now.
It was while on location for Apocalypse Now that he met Melissa Mathison (an executive assistant who would go on to write the screenplay for E.T.), who he married in 1983, having divorced his first wife in 1979. They were together for 17 years, had two children and then a £45 million divorce. After a few wilder years, drinking tequila in bars and getting that ear stud, he met Calista Flockhart at the Golden Globes in 2002, and they married last year in Santa Fe. Does he like being married? He shrugs, then smiles. ‘I’ve always been married.’ Ford is now father to Liam, ten, who Flockhart had adopted just before meeting him. Has he changed as a father? ‘Completely. I’m much more focused on my kids than when I was young. I’m around a lot more. I love going to my son’s sporting events. He’s a very talented athlete.’
Ford is a notoriously tricky interviewee, but he seems to have mellowed over the years. Without thinking, I blurt out that he doesn’t appear to be grumpy. He almost shouts back, ‘I’m not grumpy! But some journalists ask impossible questions. Right now everyone is asking about Indiana Jones hanging out with James Bond on the set of Cowboys & Aliens. Didn’t Daniel and I talk about that all the time?’ His face darkens. ‘The answer to that question is no.’
He dislikes the modern obsession with celebrity – ‘I’ve never thought of myself as a celebrity, I’m a working actor’ – and would rather be at home than here in an anonymous London hotel room. ‘Calista and I are remodelling a house that we bought in Los Angeles. I go there every day to supervise.’ Does he help out with the carpentry at all? ‘I don’t build so much now. My tool skills aren’t as sharp as they used to be.’
As well as his woodwork skills, Ford can also fly helicopters and planes – and not just from LA to Wyoming, but from LA to London, too. ‘When I was in my early fifties I decided that I didn’t want to go to my grave having done just one thing in my life. Flying is a discipline. It’s taking responsibility for yourself. I’d owned planes for years and had sat in the back drinking wine. Then I realised the pilots were having more fun. And so I asked one of them to teach me to fly.’ On his ranch, half of which is a wooded nature reserve, he is occasionally called up by the emergency services and asked to help out with helicopter rescues, once saving a dehydrated walker.
He usually flies himself to London, though this trip was too short for him to bother. The city is one he knows well, since shooting Star Wars here. ‘In fact, I made nine films in London so I was virtually an immigrant. I used to love it. Still do. I haven’t failed to notice that there are riots in the street. It seems there’s no sense of community, no involvement for these kids in society.’
As our time is running out, I confess that I’ve wanted to meet Ford since I was a child. He looks unmoved. Is it flattering or disconcerting to be part of so many people’s lives? ‘Neither. It’s just my good luck that I’ve had the opportunity to play these roles.’ Then he softens. ‘Look, I’m not nostalgic. I don’t look back, I don’t dream of the future. I’m pretty focused on the present. I just get on films at the beginning and get off at the end.’ He shakes my hand, smiles that wonky smile, gives me a Han Solo half-wink and, suddenly, I am ten years old again. ES
Cowboys & Aliens is out now in cinemas