It took a dozen years for Harrison Ford to become an overnight sensation. He didn’t give up, and he didn’t beat his head against the wall either. He became more strategic.
His big break came in 1977 as Han Solo in Star Wars, a role he’s widely rumored to reprise in a movie slated for release in 2015.
But before he got that job, the young married father had so many minor guest shots on television, “I was convinced I would wear my face out before I got a chance to break into better roles,” Ford explains in his matter-of-fact way. “So carpentry gave me another way to put food on the table for my family.”
Now 70, Ford is one of the most recognizable and bankable film stars in the world. His four Indiana Jones movies alone have brought in nearly $1.9 billion and the Star Wars trilogy almost $2.4 billion in inflation-adjusted domestic box office receipts. And that doesn’t include DVD sales or substantial worldwide sales.
Ford still commands top dollar for his box-office turns, which has afforded him a luxury lifestyle complete with action-adventure hobbies. He indulges in his love of flying with a wide range of aircraft, from a jet to a helicopter, and he also enjoys riding motorcycles.
I ask Ford what he thinks has contributed most to his success. His answer is startling in its simplicity.
“There are a lot of different paths through the jungle, but I’ve always thought the simplest thing you can do is make yourself useful. Be easy to work with, be a hard worker and help people get the job done. And do it with as much passion and quality as you can,” Ford says. “[Be] willing to ask, How can I make this work, how can I be useful?”
And, he adds, it helps to be lucky.
It is said that luck favors the prepared, but Ford doesn’t believe it. Luck has come to him in the most unexpected ways, particularly with his first studio contract.
When Ford first came to Hollywood in late 1964, he didn’t even know the names of the movie studios. Soon after his arrival, he arranged an interview with a Columbia Studios casting director. The interview was not a smashing success. After it ended with a noncommittal brush-off, Ford says, he stopped at the men’s room before heading down the elevator and leaving the building. That pit stop was fortuitous. As he left the bathroom, the director’s assistant came running down the hallway after him. He told Ford to come back to the office because the director wanted to talk to him.
“I was preparing for my craft, but I was lucky even before I was prepared,” Ford says. “I don’t think that assistant would have run that much farther to get me. But he found me, and I left Columbia Pictures that day with a seven-year contract. I think, more than anything else, I’ve been lucky.”
In his self-deprecating way, Ford doesn’t seem to acknowledge the bigger truth: that luck may open a door, but it’s up to the person to walk through it and then do something once he’s on the other side. Ford does acknowledge that he didn’t do enough to sell himself when offered that first studio contract.
The contract yielded a living wage—$150 a week, which was a little above the median income of the average man in the United States at the time, but not much in terms of Hollywood bucks.
Afterward he realized that settling for such a low amount not only impacted his own finances, but sent a negative message to his employers. Essentially, he was telling them he didn’t value his talents highly, so they shouldn’t either. So he vowed to not make that mistake again. In the years to come he would become for a time the highest-grossing actor in the world.
An Unspectacular Start
Born July 13, 1942, in Chicago, Ford seemed an unlikely candidate to become a big-screen action hero. He often tells how elementary-school bullies regularly pushed him down a hill just for the sport of it.
After a mediocre academic experience in high school, Ford was accepted at Wisconsin’s Ripon College as a philosophy and English major. His grade-point average “was unspectacular,” he once told a reporter, so he chose a drama course, thinking it would bump up his GPA. Initially nervous about performing—he had mistakenly thought the class just involved reading and studying plays—he overcame the stage fright and found a new calling. Which proved to be a good thing, because he flunked out of Ripon not long before he was set to graduate.
Ford then began working in summer stock, doing everything from building sets to acting. Just 22, he decided it was time to make the move to the big time. So he packed up his college sweetheart-wife, Mary Marquardt, and their cat, and with the flip of a coin between New York City and Los Angeles, the two headed for Hollywood in Mary’s Volkswagen Bug.
“I chose acting primarily because it is a place where I found a sense of purpose and I had the ability and the agility for it, but it was a long time before I was successful at it,” Ford says. “I had an ambition to do what I ended up doing, and persisted when others had said I couldn’t do it. There were a lot of people I worked with in that same time period who gave up. But I prevailed and tenacity was a big part of the reason. I didn’t give up. I didn’t quit.”
While that first contract did not prove lucrative, it did provide Ford his first movie gig, without credit, as a bellhop. Some stories say he only had one line, but he actually had two, not counting the multiple readings of “Paging Mr. Ellis… Paging Mr. Ellis…” with a short exchange of “No, sir, Charles Ellis, Room 607” with star James Coburn in the 1966 caper film Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round.
Ford loves telling how his big-screen debut left a Columbia executive underwhelmed. The exec told him how Tony Curtis’s star power was obvious even in his first film performance delivering a bag of groceries.
“ ‘He was delivering a bag of groceries—a bag of groceries,’ ” says Ford, animatedly recounting the executive’s words. “ ‘We took one look at him and said, ‘There’s a movie star.’ But you ain’t got it, kid. You ain’t got it.’ ”
The quick-witted Ford replied to the criticism saying, “Shouldn’t you have been looking at him and saying, ‘There’s a grocery boy’?”
A Decade of Dues-Paying
Not long afterward, Columbia dropped Ford and Universal picked him up for a higher paycheck. He spent the next few years primarily playing one-shot minor characters on TV series ranging from The Virginian to Kung-Fu.
During those years he and Mary had two sons—Ben, born in 1967, and Willard, born in 1969. Ford took on non-acting jobs to pay the bills, even working as a grip on the 1968 documentary about The Doors, Feast of Friends, and going on the road with the legendary rocker Jim Morrison.
Hollywood lore has it that Ford took on carpentry rather than compromise his standards to accept lesser roles. “Like many Hollywood stories, there are many versions of this, and most don’t adhere to the facts,” Ford tells me. “Carpentry did allow me to turn down acting jobs I didn’t want to do because they weren’t ambitious enough.”
At this point in his career, Ford played a succession of forgettable, one-shot characters, including “beach patrol cop” on The Mod Squad and a hippie on Love, American Style. But he made a much better living as a carpenter, starting with his first job building a $100,000 recording studio for famed Brazilian musician Sergio Mendes. He worked for a wide range of clients, including actors James Caan, Sally Kellerman, Richard Dreyfuss, and director/producers such as Francis Ford Coppola and even George Lucas.
But Ford says he never gave up on his dreams to make his living as an actor. “I worked for people I was recommended to. The money was good, and I had an interest in doing the job the way it should be done,” Ford says. “I was very lucky to have my first job be for Sergio Mendes, and the job turned out well enough for him to recommend me to others. I was never out of work, but I never chose the people I worked for, so I don’t think you could give credit to any story about how my big acting breaks came from my carpentry.”
Ford quickly dismisses the oft-told story that he was working on Lucas’s home when he was “discovered.” Ford says the fact is that he got the part of Bob Falfa, the hot-rodder bad boy in Lucas’s American Graffiti , in 1973, through the normal channels of auditioning and winning the part.
“[Lucas] hired me for American Graffiti before I ever really was a carpenter. It’s hard to remember the exact chronology because it was so long ago, but it didn’t have anything to do with me working for him as a carpenter,” Ford says. “When he hired me again for Star Wars, the apocryphal story was that he discovered me anew. But that’s unfounded.”
In fact, Ford says, Lucas wasn’t interested in giving any American Graffiti actors a part in his new movie Star Wars. Ford adds that Lucas was particularly uninterested in getting into a “Robert De Niro-Martin Scorsese” partnership with him. “He resisted having me in Star Wars and later, in Indiana Jones, but he saw something in me in the role of Han Solo.”
And now, Ford says, he is in negotiations for a role in the next Star Wars. “We are still working out the details, so I can’t tell you for sure.”
A Softer Side of Ford
Abrams and Ford have worked together before. In the 1991 Abrams-penned Regarding Henry, Ford plays a ruthless attorney who finds redemption after he loses his memory. In the 2010 Abrams-produced film Morning Glory, Ford plays a grizzled TV newsman.
“Oh, I love Harrison,” Abrams told me when I met the producer at an NBC party earlier this year. “Part of it might be that he’s a human being first and a carpenter second. And then an actor, and I mean that in a good way. He’s not someone who brings that kind of diva ugliness into a project. He just brings that candor. He comes to work prepared and goes to work and does his thing. He’s a good man. And he’s very, very funny. I would love to work with him again.”
Ford’s wicked sense of humor is actually well-known among his acquaintances. It was Ford who changed the line in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back when Princess Leia confesses her love to him as he is being lowered into the carbon chamber. The line was supposed to be “I love you, too,” but Ford changed the line to “I know.” Lucas was opposed to the change but went along with it. It has become one of the best laugh lines in the film.
On a recent visit to the Jimmy Kimmel Live! set, I ask the host about Ford and his ability to play along with a joke. “Did you see the picture of him with Chewbacca? If that’s not playing along, I don’t know what is. He’s a good sport,” the late-night talk show host gushes.
The photo commemorates Ford’s July 2011 appearance on the show. Kimmel set up a reunion between Han Solo and his old Millennium Falcon co-pilot from Star Wars, Chewbacca. An argument ensues and Ford proves his deft hand at comedy.
“I always enjoyed being part of comedy and having a good laugh,” Ford says.
Ford also has a strong reputation as a family man, devoted to his children and grandchildren. Although his first marriage to Mary ended after 15 years, the two had an amicable divorce. Their son Benjamin is a chef who owns a successful restaurant, Ford’s Filling Station, in Culver City, Calif. Son Willard is a respected Los Angeles-based furniture designer, a craft he may have picked up from his father.
Ford went on to marry screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T.: The Extraterrestrial , The Black Stallion) in 1983, with whom he had a son, Malcolm, born in 1987, and a daughter, Georgia, born in 1990. Ford and Mathison were together until 2004, when they had a record-breaking $90 million divorce. Malcolm Ford is part of a blues band called The Dough Rollers, which recently toured with Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp and Queens of the Stone Age.
Ford has residences in New York City and near Los Angeles, but he considers home to be the Jackson Hole, Wyo., ranch he helped build. Here, he says he feels closer to the earth.
For the past 15 years he has worked on environmental concerns, garnering recognition from Harvard Medical School, which named him a Global Environmental Citizen. Other honors related to his environmentalism include having new species of ant and spider named after him, and being given the naming rights to a new species of butterfly, which he called Georgia, after his daughter.
Not Such a Simple Guy
In 2013, Ford has three movies coming out: 42, Ender’s Game and Paranoia. In 42, he portrays Branch Rickey, the legendary baseball executive who broke the color barrier by hiring Jackie Robinson, the first black to play Major League Baseball.
“A lot of things motivated Branch Rickey. At heart, he was deeply religious and concerned about human dignity and rights. Emotionally, he was motivated by his own experiences when he related to a young black catcher on his team who was not allowed to check into his own hotel room, so Rickey put a cot in his own room for him,” Ford says. “But he was also a businessman. There were a multitude of reasons that motivated him, just as with anyone else.”
While he would characterize himself as just a regular guy, Ford has many facets to his personality and his own motivations. Although some have described him as “crusty” or “grumpy,” Ford was anything but that during our interview. Thoughtful, well-spoken and polite, he even gave me twice as much time as initially slated for the interview, courteously asking, “Did you get everything you need? What else can I give you?”
It’s the attitude that has often been displayed to his fans. In a CNN biography of Ford, his Random Hearts co-star Kristin Scott Thomas recalled, “When people come up to him, he makes them feel that he’s actually listening to them. I’ve always found him to be incredibly gracious and polite with people that I, frankly, want to throttle.”
Ford has a much more practical reason for his civility. “People are generally very kind to me,” Ford said in the CNN special. “And I consider those people to be my customers, the people who are supporting my life not just financially, but they’re supporting my artistic life and I’m grateful to them.”
As we continue to talk, Ford says he’s “not much for self-analysis,” but digs a little deeper anyway.
Stubbornness is another trait that has served him well, he says. “I’ve been able to have the kind of career I wanted to have and be involved with the people I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with because I just never quit no matter what,” Ford says. “And I grew up in the Midwest, with that kind of upbringing that gives you a strong work ethic, which has served me well.”
Contributing editor Susan Young is the former president of the Television Critics Association. She also writes for People and Variety.
Think Ford knows his stuff? Learn something from his character, Han Solo: "5 Lessons from Han Solo" on SUCCESS.com.