Thursday, 20 December 2012

Chapter 2, Part 3 - Harrison Ford: Breaking In


STAR WARS STAR

Harrison Ford was not to remain a professional carpenter for much longer because, by the time American Graffiti was released to strong reviews, director George Lucas had finalised a deal with Twentieth Century-Fox to make a space adventure movie called Star Wars. Ford was familiar with the project, but nurtured no ambitions about being in the movie. After all, he hadn’t been one of the principle players in Graffiti and probably felt his contribution had been minimal.

‘George (Lucas) had let it be known that he wasn’t going to use anybody from American Graffiti,’ said Ford. ‘Not because we’d disappointed him, but he was writing a whole new thing and needed new faces. But old Fred Roos did it again. He prevailed on George to see me after he’d seen everyone else.’

The story of how Harrison Ford ended up with the role of Han Solo is another one of those tales that Ford tells better than anyone else. He recounted it within a short interview for the London events magazine, Time Out.

‘The reason I ran into George Lucas again was because Francis Coppola’s art director inveigled me into installing a very elaborate raised panel in his studio office. Now, I knew they were casting and I thought it a bit coy to be around Francis’s office, being a carpenter, during the day. So I did the work at night. Well, one day something came up and I got stuck and I had to work at the studios during the day. And, sure enough, that was the day that George Lucas was doing the casting for Star Wars.

Harrison Ford as Han Solo from Star Wars

‘There I was, on my knees in the doorway, and in comes Francis Coppola, George Lucas, four other captains of the industry and Richard Dreyfuss. In fact, Dreyfuss came through first and made a big joke out of being my assistant. That made me feel just great. I felt about the size of a pea after they walked through. But, weeks later, when they’d tested everybody else in the world, I got the part.’ 

Ford is guilty of a little over-simplification here. The casting for Star Wars was as meticulous, at the very least, as the casting on American Graffiti. Lucas knew he was going to have to interview literally hundreds of young actors and young hopefuls just to find the three people to portray the key lead roles. So in the early part of 1975, he joined forces with another young director making his first major picture, Brian De Palma, who was looking for a teenage cast for Carrie. For about eight weeks, De Palma and Lucas were seeing 30-40 young actors and actresses a day. Lucas sat quietly making notes and entering the names of those who particularly impressed him on a Second Interview list. After Lucas tripped over Ford in the doorway of Coppola’s office, the young filmmaker approached Ford for assistance with the video tests for the Star Wars auditions. The idea was that Ford, whom Lucas felt at ease with, would read the male parts for the actresses testing for the role of Princess Leia. Ford initially didn’t mind doing the favour for Lucas, whom he liked, but after a time became irritated with having to read a part which he thought he would never play.

According to Dale Pollock’s book, Skywalking, it was Ford’s "churlishness" that won him the part of Han Solo. But it’s far more likely that George Lucas saw in Harrison Ford elements of the character he envisaged for Solo. Ford had a certain forthright and honest way of expressing himself that isn’t a million light years away from Solo’s lines in the movie.

At one stage, Lucas was considering a black actor for the role of Solo. This idea probably evolved into the character of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back.

But also to be taken into consideration was Lucas’s unique concept of ensemble casting. Lucas had decided on Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher as one trio. But if any of them had been unable to take part in the film, Lucas had a reserve team waiting in the wings to step in. It was all of one group or all of the other – no mixing and matching. Lucas’s second group was Christopher Walken, Will Selzer and singer Terri Nunn, who would later front the band Berlin.

In some documenting of the Star Wars casting story, it has been reported (admittedly by me, as well, in earlier editions of this book) that Nunn was a former Penthouse Pet. However, given that she was 15 when she auditioned for Star Wars, this seems unlikely on two counts. Firstly, it would have been illegal for Nunn to have modelled for Penthouse before the Star Wars casting and secondly, it seems pretty unlikely that Lucas would have auditioned a nude model for a pivotal role in his wholesome family film. While some sources assert that Nunn did appear in Penthouse for February 1977 under the name of Betsy Harris, I had been unable to find any confirmation of this at the time this book was published. Indeed, Terri Nunn herself had denied it many times. In an interview with the online Exclusive Magazine, Nunn was asked about the rumour of her Penthouse appearance and replied, ‘No, that one’s not true! I don’t know who that is, but that wouldn’t even be legal. But, I have heard about this before. I haven’t seen her, but people need to think about the age. It’s a good story, but it’s not me, sorry!’ And even if it were true, the date of the photoshoot would have been long after the Star Wars auditions.

Is this Terri Nunn on the cover of the Feb 1977 issue of Penthouse?

Then, in 2011, Nunn claimed in an interview with radio DJ John Aberley on his interview show "Life Unedited" on Pennsylvania station WCHE that she really was the model Betsy Drake in that issue of Penthouse magazine. "It was me. Yeah, it was me. It was very hush-hush at the time, because, honestly, it was kinda illegal. I was sixteen. I met the guy at a party and he offered the idea, and I was, like, 'Yeah, I wanna do that, you know.' I was trying to be sexy and I didn't feel very sexy. I was in my teen years. And he shot that when I was, let's see, sixteen … and I was seventeen when it came out. About eight months later. So I still wasn't eighteen when it came out."

Above: "Betsy Drake" in Penthouse. Below: 1980's publicity pic
of Terri Nunn. Are they the same person? I really couldn't say.
How about you?


In any event, George Lucas decided to go with the ensemble of Mark Hammill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. ‘For me, at least,’ said Ford about the casting of his trio, ‘it was obvious what the relationship would be, simply by looking at the others. It was apparent the characters were very contemporary and the situation very simple – without meaning that in a derogatory way. It was simply straightforward, a clear human story. I mean, I didn’t have to act science fiction.’

George Lucas had worked out backgrounds for all his characters. Solo had been abandoned by space gypsies at a very early age and was raised by creatures called Wookiees until he was twelve. He eventually became a cadet at the Space Academy, but was thrown out for selling exam papers to his peers. Eventually he became a smuggler, living outside the laws of the Empire. Yet at the same time, Lucas knew that his actors could add the little touches that would bring the characters to life on the screen.

‘Very little time was wasted,’ said Ford in the Lucas biography, Skywalking. ‘George didn’t have an authoritarian attitude like so many directors: “Kid, I’ve been in this business twenty-five years. Trust me.” He was different. He knew the movie was based so strongly on the relationship between the three of us, he encouraged our contributions.’

It’s the little contributions Ford makes to the characters he’s playing that makes him such an interesting actor. Which shows that Lucas’s shrewdness won out over his own ‘all new faces’ rule for Star Wars. Ford goes on to explain how he went about filling in the spaces in Solo’s personality.

‘George Lucas gave me a lot of freedom to change little parts of the dialogue which weren’t comfortable.’ Ford is being charitable here. In Skywalking it said that Ford’s favourite way of pulling Lucas’s leg during filming was to say, ‘You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it.’

‘We worked together on it,’ continues Ford. ‘I really like working with him.’

The part of Han Solo was the biggest chance of Ford’s career to show what he could do as an actor. ‘This was the first time I had a character big enough to take space instead of just filling in spaces as I did at Columbia and Universal. I could do that for the first time.’

Ford had worked with big name, heavyweight actors before, but never with such a ‘legend’ as Sir Alec Guinness. Most of the cast were in awe of Sir Alec and Ford was no exception.

‘He gave me many sleepless nights. I’d be thinking, “I’m supposed to be in a movie with Sir Alec Guinness. He’ll laugh at me just once ... and I’ll pack up and go home.” But, of course, he never did. He’s really a very kind and generous person.’

When questioned by Ritz magazine whether Ford was using the title ‘Sir Alec’ out of respect or because Guinness insisted on it, he replied with his customary tact, ‘Let’s just say he prefers it.’


THE CHANGING FACE OF THE MOVIES

When Star Wars opened in the United States on May 25th, 1977, it garnered rave reviews and within months had become the most successful movie of all time. Several critics likened Ford’s performance in the Han Solo role to John Wayne’s style of acting. This was news to Ford, never a movie fan himself.

‘I never thought about that,’ said Ford, ‘until I kept seeing it mentioned in the reviews.’ Besides, Ford was well aware that it would be impossible to get away with imitating other actors for very long.

‘If I end up acting like John Wayne, and I know I’m acting like John Wayne, then I’m in heaps of trouble. But if I don’t realise I’m acting like John Wayne, and I am, then that is simply part of my subconscious supplying something that is necessary for the role. I was never aware of doing a routine. Acting is so intensely personal that if you’re not operating – totally – within your own resources, there comes a moment when you’ll be stuck, you won’t know who to imitate. Much better to use only your own personality and resources as a tool and keep them both sharp and well-oiled.’ 

Probably Ford’s finest moment in Star Wars is when he is in the prison block of the Death Star trying to rescue the Princess. Both Solo and Luke are disguised in Imperial Storm Trooper costumes, with Chewbacca posing as their prisoner. The three dispatch the prison guards – noisily – and draw the attention of the officer in charge of the detention area. The officer calls the prison block on the intercom and demands to know what is happening. It’s left to Solo to try to convince the unseen Imperial officer that all is well. Realising that his reassurances are falling on deaf ears, Solo fires his blaster into the control panel to cut off the irritating stream of questions. Solo’s sense of desperation is portrayed with nervous realism and, more importantly, with humour. The scene was played that way after careful consideration by Ford, ‘and done in one take. I never learned the dialogue for it because I wanted to show desperation. I told George Lucas I wanted to do it all the way through first time. I just said, “Stop me if I’m really bad.” He didn’t.’

One side effect of the success of Star Wars was that it conferred instant celebrity on the three principle players. For an actor who values his privacy, that could have been a problem for Harrison Ford. ‘Fortunately, I don’t have as unique a physiognomy as Carrie or Mark do, so I’m much less recognised in the streets – about which I’m very happy. That could get heavy. It happens infrequently enough, and people are usually very nice, because the film is very broadly accepted – so that’s a pleasure. But when they know where we’re going to be, and they’re sitting outside the hotel – all these autograph people – sometimes that’s a drag. But none of that really bothers me.’


Harrison Ford's portrayal of Han Solo became one of the
great cultural icons of the late 1970s.

Compounding the fame achieved by Ford through his appearance in Star Wars was all the merchandising that trailed in the wake of the movie. Suddenly, the toy shops were full of plastic Han Solo figures, jigsaws bearing Ford’s features and assorted paraphernalia. And, in addition to the toys, there was the fact that just about every magazine published was finding excuses to report on the Star Wars phenomenon. There were novelisations of the film, comic strip adaptations by juvenile publishing giant Marvel Comics and a series of novels, unrelated to the film, starring Han Solo and his Wookiee friend Chewbacca. There have been three Han Solo novels by Brian Daley published by Sphere Books; Han Solo at Stars’ End, Han Solo and the Lost Legacy and Han Solo’s Revenge, and three by A.C. Crispin published by Bantam; The Paradise Snare, The Hutt Gambit and Rebel Dawn.

The other major change in Ford’s life brought about by the success of Star Wars was the financial one.

‘I believe in the work ethic,’ said Ford. ‘That was the middle class way I was brought up. When I was offered Han Solo, I was paid less for that than when I was a carpenter. 

That was so while he was actually working on the film. But Ford, like Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, later received a percentage of the film’s profits. Two thirds of a percent may not sound like much, but that fraction of a point totted up a healthy $53,000 for Ford in the first three months that Star Wars was on release. And with Star Wars having taken a staggering $798 million worldwide to date, making it one of the highest grossing movies of all time, Ford has done quite nicely out of Lucas’ little science fiction film.

‘Not that money means very much in my life. But suddenly having it made it possible to move into a large house in the Hollywood Hills and equip a large workshop on the premises where I now spend all my spare time making furniture. I don’t think success has changed me. Sure, I live in a big house. But I still manage to be a pretty private sort of a guy. My greatest pleasure is my work and the nearest thing I’ve got to a hobby is my carpentry. I don’t go to parties and I’m not involved in the Hollywood scene. Who knows, maybe if I had socialised a bit more, success would have come much sooner, because in Hollywood, to succeed, you have to know the right people. By some irony, all the right people – like George Lucas and Francis Coppola – all knew me, and I didn’t even have to hustle for their attention.’

And in the months that followed, while Ford was waiting for work to begin on the Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, he didn’t have to hustle for the attention of other filmmakers, either. In fact, Ford was the busiest of the Star Wars stars during that period.

‘That could be because I made an effort to take advantage of the film offers that being in Star Wars gave me,’ he later said. ‘I think people in this industry realise that I’ve played, and am capable of playing, these different types of characters. I was able to do small parts once in a while due to the popularity of Star Wars. I’ve been really lucky to have Star Wars as a part of my life.’

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Chapter 2, Part 2 - Harrison Ford: Breaking In


WHO WAS THAT MASKED CASTING DIRECTOR?

The enormous success of American Graffiti didn’t change Harrison Ford’s life overnight. Where actors were singled out for praise, it was always the principals, Richard Dreyfuss and Ronny Howard, who got the credit. Lucas, too, was suddenly a star. But for Ford, it was back to carpentry and the infrequent tv appearances.

Ford took a role in the cult tv show Kung Fu, appearing as a character called ‘Harrison’ in the episode ‘Crossties’ (season 2, 1974), a story about angry farmers battling the railroad company that wants to snatch their land.

It was Fred Roos, again, who was responsible for getting Harrison Ford his next two roles. Francis Coppola was putting together another project, the highly praised The Conversation. Naturally he hired Fred Roos to cast the movie. And, inevitably, Roos turned once again to Harrison Ford for one of the smaller, but hardly less vital, parts in the picture.

‘I still did the odd carpentry job after American Graffiti,’ recalls Ford. ‘But before too long there was Coppola’s film, The Conversation, which I did with Hackman. I turned up playing an evil young henchman (who works for Robert Duvall’s Director character) in that movie. There was no role there until I decided to make him a homosexual.’

In an effort to make something more of his role than just another walk-on, Ford had bought a loud green silk suit for the then huge sum of $900. At the script read-through, Coppola was astonished at Ford’s outfit. ‘What are you?’ he asked unkindly. Ford explained his idea for the character. In 1974 gay characters would have been a risk, but Coppola was nothing if not a gambler. ‘Hey, that’s really good,’ he told Ford and instructed production designer Dean Tavoularis to create a room for the character, by now named Martin Stett, that underlined his lifestyle.

Harrison Ford with Gene Hackman in The Conversation
Again an important director had listened to and agreed with Ford’s ideas.

The Conversation tells the story of surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), who records a conversation between a young couple as they walk through San Francisco. When Harry plays the tape back in his workshop, he notices a sentence in the conversation which suggests the couple are in some kind of danger. He takes the tape to the Director (Robert Duvall) of the large corporation that hired him, but on an impulse refuses to hand the tapes over to the Director’s assistant, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford). Later, while visiting a surveillance equipment exhibition, Harry runs into Stett again. The young man tries to put pressure on Harry to hand over the tapes. Harry refuses. At the same exhibition, he meets and befriends another investigator, Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield). They have a few drinks together and return to Harry’s workshop for a party. Also at the party is a call-girl, Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae) with whom Harry spends some time. But when he wakes up, Harry finds that the tapes of the conversation have been stolen. He tries to contact the Director but fails. Fearing that a murder is about to be committed, he takes a room next to the one in which the young couple have arranged to meet. He breaks into the couple’s room and is horrified to find that a murder has been committed. The Director has been killed, apparently by the couple that Harry thought were in danger. Back at his apartment, Harry is warned to keep what he knows to himself as he, too, is under surveillance. Harry searches his own apartment thoroughly for the listening device but finds nothing.

Harrison Ford plays the slightly sinister Martin Stett in The Conversation.
The Conversation received much praise from the critics. Monthly Film Bulletin’s David Wilson said, ‘The Conversation is an unqualified success, a complex, reverberating study of a man trapped by guilt ... It is a measure of that success ... that the comparison which most obviously suggests itself, Blow-Up, leaves Antonioni’s film looking empty and inert.’

Variety said, ‘A major artistic asset to the film – besides script, direction and the top performances – is supervising editor Walter Murch’s sound collage and re-recording. Voices come in and out of aural focus in a superb tease.’

Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times, ‘The members of the supporting cast are almost as good as Mr Hackman, particularly Allen Garfield as a surveillance expert from Detroit who bugged his first phone at the age of 12 and then went on to become famous in the trade as the man who told Chrysler that Cadillac was getting rid of its fins.’

But good though Ford’s performance in The Conversation might have been, again he went unnoticed by the critics. The one big success still eluded him.


BACK TO TELEVISION

A few months after the release of The Conversation, Ford turned up in an episode of the legal drama show Petrocelli, ‘The Edge of Evil (season 1, 1974), playing Tom Brannigan. It was to be Ford’s last appearance in episodic television.

Ford next had a walk-on part in the tv movie Judgement: The Trial of Lt Calley, a courtroom drama set in the wake of a Vietnam atrocity, directed by Stanley Kramer and based on a true incident (‘I played the witness who cries,’ said Ford), and a more substantial role as the eldest son of Sarah Miles’s Jennifer Blackwood in the lavish tv production of Dynasty.

Dynasty is a sprawling tale of the fortunes of the Blackwood family and their migration to Westmore, Ohio in 1823. John Blackwood (Harris Yulin), the head of the family is a man of unbending principles whose dearest ambition it is to farm the 100 acre piece of land he has acquired. His wife, Jennifer (Sarah Miles) and his brother Matt (Stacy Keach) both feel there is more money to be made in the carriage business. Eventually, Jennifer leaves John for Matt after being accused of infidelity by her husband. But the relationship doesn’t work out and Jennifer returns to John. Realising the depth of her husband’s hatred for her she endeavours to build the Blackwood carriage business into an empire. Matt returns to Westmore and tries to convince John to sell the farmland to the railroad for a huge profit. Though John refuses, Jennifer’s youngest son, Carver (Gerrit Graham) conspires with Matt to kill John and sell the land. After John’s death, Jennifer, unaware of the conspiracy, passes over her eldest son, Mark (Harrison Ford) and appoints Matt to run the Blackwood business.

Variety complained that Dynasty’s ‘last half hour concentrates too much on Miles’s ungrateful grown-up offspring’ and that it ‘really encompassed too wide a time span to be handled properly in a two-hour movie.’ Ford had the pretty thankless role of the ‘nice son’ so didn’t have the material at hand an actor needs to stand out in a cast. Unsurprisingly, Ford’s contributions passed unmarked by contemporary critics, and looking at the film today I can see why they might have been unenthusiastic. Ford’s acting is earnest but unshowy. I don’t think Ford was bad in the role, but that his style was simply ahead of its time.

So Harrison Ford was still an acting carpenter.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Chapter 2, Part 1 - Harrison Ford: Breaking In

From Touch ‘n’ Go to Turning Point

‘Acting is basically like carpentry – if you know your craft, you can figure out the logic of a particular job and submit yourself to it. It all comes down to detail.’ Harrison Ford


Even though, at the beginning of 1970, Harrison Ford was no longer under contract to Universal and his acting career seemed to be in freefall, his carpentry business was going from strength to strength. Among his clients were the good and great of Hollywood: Sally Kellerman, Joan Didion, and James Coburn. ‘I worked mostly for people that were well-off and who could afford to indulge me,’ he said.

‘What I learned from carpentry, above all,’ he continued, ‘was a work ethic. I used to be very lazy, but now I find I can’t enjoy myself when I’m not working. It saved my life to have another way of making a living. Carpentry gave me the possibility of choice. I didn’t want to do episodic tv any more, because I was afraid I’d burn myself out before I got a chance to do any decent feature films. Besides, I was too young. I was 24 and I looked 19.’


So Ford had become a lot choosier about the kind of roles he auditioned for. He continued to make occasional tv appearances, but only if the role had something to offer him. He’d often attend auditions in his workman’s overalls and took the position that he didn’t need to act to feed his family. ‘If they know you’re dependent on them, they value you less,’ he rationalised. During 1970, the top film and tv producer Norman Lear, who had such successes as The Andy Williams Show (1962), Divorce American Style (1967) and The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) to his credit, was putting together a new comedy show for CBS. Based on BBC television’s Till Death Us Do Part, the new show was called All in the Family and was to star Carroll O’Connor in the Warren Mitchell role. Ford was up for the part of the Anthony Booth son-in-law character Mike Stivic. The role would have been a great showcase for Harrison, but he was unable to get past his distaste for the racist character of Archie Bunker and turned the part down.

Around the same time, Ford was offered some lucrative tv commercial work by a fellow Ripon alumnus, Bill Haljum, by then an executive with a Chicago ad agency, which he also turned down, saying that no one in the film industry would take him seriously if he did mouthwash commercials.

Throughout 1970 and 1971, Ford switched between carpentry and acting, appearing in various tv shows like Dan August (season 1, ‘The Manufactured Man’, 1971) and, probably through the influence of William Fucik, a couple of episodes of the James Arness vehicle Gunsmoke (the Season 18 episodes ‘The Sodbusters’, 1972, and ‘Wheelan’s Men’, 1973), sometimes as guest star but more often in a supporting role.

However some imminent changes in Ford’s life would mean he suddenly needed to make some substantial money. The old Ford luck kicked in, in the shape of Fred Roos.

‘When my wife, Mary, became pregnant with our second child, Willard, I realised my health insurance, that I’d had when Ben was born, allowing us to have a baby for about 25 cents a pound, was no longer in force. Because I hadn’t made $1,200 in the previous year. So I had to make $1,200 to keep my health insurance. I said, “Well, I’ve got to do something.” And a friend of mine, Fred Roos, was casting a George Lucas picture and said I ought to be in it because it was going to be a big hit. It was in every way.’

This was to be the change in fortune that would set Harrison Ford on his way.

THE WRITING’S ON THE WALL
In early 1972, a young filmmaker called George Lucas was struggling with the Hollywood system to get a pet project off the ground. The movie he wanted to make was a kind of musical autobiography, a story of 1960s teenagers wasting away their lives, cruising the streets of small-town California, to the accompaniment of the local radio station blaring out the rock ‘n’ roll hits of the day.

Lucas had had a qualified success with his first feature film, THX 1138, made for Warner Brothers. That is, critics had spoken highly of the film, but the public stayed away in droves. Needless to say, Warners were not interested in financing what they viewed as an indulgent, un-commercial project, despite the very commercial title of American Graffiti.

Lucas had no choice but to hawk the project around the other movie factories in town. He hired former film school classmates Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz to help him develop a ‘treatment’, an outline of the story, in an effort to give the movie moguls something they could understand. All went well. United Artists gave the go-ahead, and a sum of money, for Lucas to produce a full script. Lucas asked Huyck and Katz to write the screenplay. However, they had just landed a deal to write and direct their own horror picture in Britain, and couldn’t find time to help Lucas with the script. (For the record, the horror movie became the undistinguished Messiah of Evil, 1972.)

Lucas was in a bind. He told his Graffiti line producer, Gary Kurtz, to find a substitute writer. Kurtz suggested another film school peer, Richard Walters. Lucas, sure that his project was in safe hands, set off for the Cannes Film Festival where THX 1138 was entered in the competition.

When Lucas returned from France, he read the Walters script and wasn’t pleased with what he found. Walters had done a good job, all right, but it wasn’t the story Lucas had in mind. To make matters worse, Kurtz had spent all the United Artists advance on this one screenplay.

Luckily for Lucas, Huyck and Katz returned from their horror movie expedition to Britain, and agreed to pitch in and help out.

Despite United Artists dropping out of the project, all went well. Lucas managed to interest Universal. A young executive there was very keen to give young filmmakers the opportunity (and a very low budget) to make the kind of films they wanted too. This executive, Ned Tannen, gave Lucas $750,000 to make the picture, provided Lucas’s old friend and mentor, Francis Coppola, flush from his Godfather success, agreed to become producer.

With the go-ahead from Universal, Lucas engaged Coppola’s casting director, one Fred Roos, to cast the film. Roos and Lucas conducted an old-time Hollywood talent search in an effort to find just the right performers for the roles, each of which portrayed (perhaps a little indulgently) a different facet of Lucas’s own personality. Finally, Lucas selected four or five actors for each of the principal roles and conducted screen tests using video equipment, an unheard of procedure in Hollywood at the time. The idea was to assemble a cast that worked well as a group rather than relying on a band of actors who were individually outstanding. Strangely enough, the final selection each turned out to have star careers ahead of them: Ron Howard (who later went from the phenomenal success of tv’s Happy Days to directing feature films like Cocoon (1985), A Beautiful Mind (2001) and The Da Vinci Code (2005), Richard Dreyfuss (star roles in Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and an Oscar for The Goodbye Girl), Candy Clark, Cindy Williams and Kathleen Quinlan. And helping out in the secondary parts were Susanne Somers. Bo Hopkins, Paul Le Mat and ... Harrison Ford.

I was Bob Falfa – the boy in the cowboy hat,’ Ford later remarked. It must have been Ford’s new forthright confident air that made Lucas pick him for the Falfa role.

‘When I went for the interview, I wasn’t there as a person who needed a job to put bread on the table,’ said Ford. ‘I had, for once, a real life behind me. When you’re an out-of-work actor and you walk into an audition, you’re an empty vessel. So this was a significant change in my personality. I had got my pride back.’

The film was on a very tight budget and Ford’s salary was set at the SAG scale rate of just $485 a week, about half what he made at carpentry. Ford’s first instinct was to turn the part down, after all, he had a family to support. However Roos managed to persuade him to take the role by upping his fee to $500 a week. For Ford, it wasn’t the money, it was the principle.
In the film, Falfa is a cocky out-of-towner who roars into town in a black hot-rod to take on the resident champion in a drag race. Each time he is seen in the film he is with a different girl, eventually carrying Ron Howard’s girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) with him during the final drag race of the picture. The shooting schedule for American Graffiti was gruelling. The night-time location filming began at nine in the evening and broke, just before dawn at around five-thirty. ‘It was fun,’ smiles Harrison Ford, ‘It was like a party, but not a Hollywood party. It was a real low budget movie, even for those days. I only got a couple of hundred dollars a week.

There were no dressing rooms. The actors sat in the same trailer as the costumes. ‘ Ford was the oldest of the principal players on me film, though rather than setting an example of professional sobriety, he was more often than not the mastermind behind many of the pranks played on unfortunate victims during the filming.


At first, bored with all the sitting around waiting till he was needed, Ford took to gunning his hot rod, a powerful, custom-built Chevrolet racer that had been used in the previous year’s Two Lane Blacktop, up and down the main strip of the location town Petaluma. But the local police stepped in and threatened to arrest Ford and impound the car. Then, joined by his newfound partner-in-crime, Paul Le Mat, Ford embarked on a series of pranks which made the rest of the cast very nervous. They drank beer then climbed up the Holiday Inn sign to leave the bottles at the top, they peed in the hotel ice dispenser and tried to set fire to the director’s room. ‘Harrison and Paul were pretty wild,’ recalled Candy Clarke. ‘They were drinking a lot of beer in those days. I found them very intimidating, like Hell’s Angels types.’

Another time, Ford and Le Mat were hurling beer bottles from their balcony into the hotel parking lot. One of the bottles smashed the windshield of a Cadillac so Richard Dreyfuss tried to get them to stop. An argument ensued and ended with Harrison and Paul flinging Dreyfuss off the balcony into the shallow end of the swimming pool, two floors below.

Dreyfuss was due to shoot close-ups that night, but emerged from the swimming pool with a cut on his forehead which no amount of makeup could cover. Lucas took the news quite well, better than the staff of the Holiday Inn who asked Ford to leave. He was moved into the nearby Howard Johnson’s, separated from the rest of the cast.

‘I was a bit of a carouser in those days and was in the company of other hell-raisers,’ confessed Ford. ‘If I’d been in the company of priests I would have behaved differently.’

However, working with director Lucas was an entirely new kind of experience for Ford. Completely different from the old-school, ‘just do it, okay?’ directors that Ford had been used to working with in Hollywood, Lucas seemed to be open to suggestions and listened to the people around him. At the beginning of filming, Lucas asked Ford to get his hair cut even shorter than Ronny Howard, Paul Le Mat and Charles Martin-Smith to make him seem different from the local kids. Reluctant to loose the remainder of his longish hair, Ford countered with, ‘What if I wear a cowboy hat?’ Lucas thought for a moment, then said, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea. Let’s try it.’

At the ‘wrap’ party, at the end of filming, Lucas screened a twenty-minute extract for the cast and crew. Most were sure that they were on to something good. When the lights went up. Ford turned to his neighbour, Cindy Williams, and said, ‘This is great!’

The film had been shot, on schedule, inside 28 working days (or rather, nights), but George Lucas’s problems were far from over. Universal didn’t like the movie and wanted to re-cut it. It was here that Coppola really earned his money as producer. He flatly refused to allow Universal to tamper with the film, and offered to write Ned Tannen a cheque for the whole of the budget, in effect, buying American Graffiti, lock, stock and soundtrack from Universal. After much arguing back and forth, Tanner sort of got his way and was molified with a couple of cuts, then previewed the film. American Graffiti was a hit with everyone except Harrison Ford and Richard Dreyfuss, who sneaked out of the preview before the film ended, because they were so embarrassed at their big-screen appearance.

The scenes that disappeared were Terry the Toad’s encounter with a fast-talking car salesman, John Milner and Carol’s walk through the automobile scrapyard and Bob Falfa singing Some Enchanted Evening to Laurie. Ford’s scene, which he had ad-libbed and Lucas had kept, was cut not because his singing was inferior (though, admittedly, it’s not Caruso either) but because Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s estates, who owned copyright on the song, wanted too much money for its inclusion in the movie (though, for the 1978 re- release, these scenes were reinstated).

The critics were pretty much of one voice in loving the film. The New York Times wrote, ‘American Graffiti is a very good movie, funny, tough, unsentimental. It is full of marvelous performances from actors (especially Candy Clark, Richard Dreyfuss, and Cindy Williams) hardly known for previous screen credits.’

Trade newspaper Variety said, ‘Without exception, all players fit perfectly into the concept and execution, and all the young principals and featured players have a bright and lengthy future. And so does Lucas.’

Graffiti was released and eventually pulled in a staggering $115 million on the modest outlay of $750,000. Universal made its money back 50-fold.

As a bonus, the movie received five nominations at the 1974 Academy Awards (the one with the streaker), including Best Editing, Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Picture (all lost out to The Sting) and Best Supporting Actress (Candy Clarke, beaten by 10 year old Tatum O’Neill), though it won Golden Globes for Best Musical and Best Newcomer for Paul Le Mat.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Chapter 1, Part 3: Harrison Ford, the Early Days

(continued)

OUT OF THE FRYING PAN?

It was Walter Beakel who once again came to Ford’s rescue. He knew an agent, Dick Clayton, who would take Harry on as a client. Clayton in turn knew Monique James who ran the New Talent program at Universal and secured an interview for Harry. Beakel personally coached Ford for the meeting, with the result that James accepted Ford into her ‘family’ and the young actor was once again under contract to a major Hollywood studio.

It might seem strange that Harrison Ford would give up one studio situation, which he hated, for another which probably wouldn’t be a lot better. He still had to suffer through acting classes and the trainee actors were given small roles in tv episodes and ‘movies of the week’. But at least Harry was getting roles. ‘The situation at Universal was somewhat better. But they never really had the guts to use me outside of television.’




Ford embarked on another round of appearances in such Universal tv shows as The Virginian (in the season five episode ‘The Modoc Kid’, and season six’s ‘A Bad Place to Die’, both 1967), Ironside (in the season 1 episode ‘The Past is Prologue’,1967) and the tv movie The Intruders (filmed in 1967, but not broadcast until 1970). Ford was also assigned to a role in another Civil War drama, the 1968 Universal movie, Journey to Shiloh (1968), written by Star Trek’s Gene Coon. Ford played Willie Bill Bearden, one of seven young Texans who leave home under the leadership of Buck Burnett (James Caan) in search of adventure in the Confederate Army. They plan to join up with General Hood’s Richmond Raiders but after several adventures en route – one of their number is killed in a card game, they witness the lynching of a runaway slave, Buck falls in love with a saloon girl, Gabrielle (Brenda Scott) – they are inducted into a Pensacola unit because of their outstanding horsemanship. Suddenly, they are face to face with the true horror of war at Shiloh. The Confederates are routed and four of the youngsters, including Willie Bill, are killed. The survivors of the battle are put to flight and Buck is wounded escaping from the Confederate military police, who are hunting down deserters from Shiloh. Buck regains consciousness in a military hospital, but is horrified to find his arm has been amputated. He learns that the last member of his band, Miller Nalls (Michael Sarrazin), was to be shot as a deserter, but has escaped and is hiding out in a barn severely wounded. Buck defies orders to go to Miller, but finds him close to death. Touched by the story of the seven young men, General Bragg (John Doucette) calls off the military police and allows Buck, the sole survivor, to make his way home.

Ford’s role in the film was so minor that it has proved impossible to track down a review that singles out his performance, though The Monthly Film Bulletin said of the film in general, ‘the acting is often strident and the script too naively emotional not to fall into mawkishness at times ... (but) well worth a look.’

Still, someone at Universal must have been pleased with the work Harry Ford did because he, along with fellow cast members Michael Sarrazin and Don Stroud were flown to New York to audition for director John Schlesinger who was preparing to film Midnight Cowboy. Though, in the end, the inge nue role went to Jon Voigt.




Despite not getting the Midnight Cowboy role, it seemed that Harrison Ford’s luck was taking a turn for the better. Beakel introduced Ford to a producer/casting director called Fred Roos. Roos had been one of the first to see the talent and charisma of a young actor called Jack Nicholson and had cast him in two low-budget movies for Lippert, Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury (both 1964). He saw a similar intangible something in the young Harrison Ford, and suggested him for the lead in a new movie by Italian maverick director Michelangelo Antonioni, Zabriskie Point (1969). Antonioni had made something of a name for himself as a director whose films reached the lucrative ‘now’ generation. His earlier film Blowup had opened to the bafflement of the establishment critics and the delight of the target audiences.
Roos managed to get Ford in to see Antonioni, but the director couldn’t see what Roos saw. 

‘He was not a leading man in the way they thought of leading men at that time – not pretty enough,’ said Roos. ‘The strongest quality I saw was his great sense of masculinity. There was a kind of dangerous intensity he had, and combined with all that was this droll sense of humour. And then he had extreme confidence but nothing braggadocio.’ Nevertheless, Roos managed to get Ford three days work in the movie as an airport worker.

Zabriskie Point tells the story of a rebellious American student, Mark (Mark Frechette) who finds himself involved in a campus riot. When a policeman is shot Mark is a suspect and is forced to lie low. He steals a small private plane and sets off across the Arizona desert, heading nowhere in particular. He crosses paths with Daria (Daria Halprin) who is heading towards Phoenix in a borrowed car for a meeting with her new employer, Lee Allen (Rod Taylor). Mark lands his plane and is given a lift by Daria. They stop in Death Valley and make love amidst the sand dunes. When Daria is stopped by a police patrol, Mark decides that the only way out of his dilemma is to return to the plane and give himself up to the police. He paints the plane with slogans and outlandish colours and sets off for Los Angeles. But when he arrives, a police reception committee is waiting and Mark is shot dead before he can explain. Daria hears the news on the car radio before she arrives at her meeting and for a while seems to deliberate whether or not to continue. Reaching a decision, Daria presses on to Allen’s luxurious mountainside villa and, after wandering aimlessly around the house for awhile, climbs back into her car and drives some distance from the house. She looks back to the villa and imagines it and all it represents being blasted to smithereens by a huge explosion. Smiling, she continues on her journey to nowhere.

As it turned out, Antonioni seemed to experience inordinate difficulties in achieving the results he wanted with Zabriskie Point. The script sported the names of five writers and the movie was recut by the director several times. In the cutting and re-cutting Harrison Ford’s part (‘In fact, the whole sub-plot,’ says Ford) was snipped out and consigned to the oblivion of the cutting room floor. Which is probably just as well. Zabriskie Point was not a success and did nothing to enhance the careers of any involved with it.

Ford went back to another round of supporting roles in Universal tv shows like, My Friend Tony (‘The Hazing’, 1969), Love, American Style (the segment, ‘Love and the Former Marriage’, 1969) and a couple of episodes of The F.B.I. (the fourth season ‘Caesar’s Wife’ and the fifth season ‘Scapegoat’, both 1969).

Then Universal had one last try to launch Ford in some kind – any kind – of youth- orientated film. They loaned Ford back to Columbia Pictures for the film, Getting Straight (1970). The film followed the misadventures of Harry Bailey (Elliott Gould) and his girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen) as they fight to keep their heads above water on an American University campus beset with student unrest. Eagle-eyed film fans might have spotted Ford in the role of Jake, but the movie was locked in time as a product of the late Sixties and did nothing to open up Ford’s career. Though he was growing older and gaining more experience, the parts he was getting were becoming ‘smaller and more one- dimensional.

‘I was given tiny spaces to fill,’ says Ford. ‘Nothing where you could take space. Maybe they were right, I probably wasn’t ready. But I was getting older. Except, when I was twenty-one every one thought I was seventeen. All soft and putty-like but aging fast on the inside, going crazy. I had to get away from it. Yet I had invested maybe four years and I didn’t want give up. I still wanted to be an actor when l grew up. When I started acting, I thought of it as being an awesome task, exciting and frightening and a wonderful way for someone with no degree to live. I suppose being the son of a former radio actor and advertising executive in charge of Chicago’s tv commercials, I should have known better. I was not prepared for the disillusionment I found as an actor in the studio system.’

At the same time Ford still couldn’t bring himself to play the studio game. He hadn’t endeared himself to Monique James with the required sucking up, so it probably came as no surprise when Universal let him go, towards the end of 1969. Ford was unemployed and reluctant to continue hiring out his face for small parts in tv shows.

‘I was worried that I’d become over-exposed.’ says Ford. ‘Used up in three seasons and never have a long-term career. So I decided to stop taking small tv parts and become a carpenter. I’d had no training in carpentry, any more than I’d had in acting. But I set my mind to it. My first assignment was a $100,000 recording studio for Sergio Mendes. Fortunately, the Encino Public Library was three blocks away. I’d be standing on Mendes’ roof with a text book in my hand.’

For all Ford’s inexperience in carpentry, the business paid well. He made more from that Mendes job than he had for his first walk-on part as the bell-boy in the Coburn picture. Soon, the carpentry game was paying Ford well enough that he could take on his own architects and builders. ‘That’s when I realised the correlation between money and respect.
‘Take a lot of money off people and they’ll treat you with respect. They’d ask, “How much is all this going to cost?” And I’d say, “Well, I don’t know. All can tell you is that when it’s done, it’ll be done right.”’

At last, Ford was not at the beck and call of the studio heavies. And he was loving every minute of it.

‘When I started carpentry,’ he recalls. ‘I liked it so much partly because it was such a relief from what I’d been doing before. For about eight years in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I did cabinets, furniture, remodelling. It was great! I could see my accomplishments. So I decided not to do any more acting unless the job had a clear career advantage. Altogether, I’d have to say I spent fifteen years in the acting business, but I made my living as a carpenter. I am not a Hollywood success story. Still, I didn’t worry about money. I had an understanding wife. I was playing pretty fast and loose with life.’

BACK TO ACTING

During 1970, Fred Roos introduced Ford to a former colleague, manager Patricia
McQueeney. She had worked for Roos and Gary Marshall when they ran Compass Management and was already managing the careers of Martin Sheen, Teri Garr, Frederick Forrest and Cindy Williams. She agreed to meet with Ford to assess his potential. ‘He sat on the couch in my office, his head down, his hands between his knees,’ McQueeney later recalled, ‘and kind of frowned at me, looking up at me underneath his brows, extremely uncomfortable and slightly embarrassed. At the time he was working as a carpenter and had done some parts around town and I can remember looking at him and thinking, “What in the world am I going to do with him?”’

McQueeney, like others before her, soon found that Harrison Ford was his own man and had a very clear idea about the kind of roles he would consider and the kind he wouldn’t. ‘He was always careful about the roles he chose, even when he was stone broke,’ said McQueeney. ‘I can never change his mind to do or not do something. I can jump up and down and beg and do a little dance, but it never does any good.’


But whatever happened to the guy who had given him such a hard time at Columbia, Jerry Tokofsky? Incredibly, Ford would run into him – almost – a few years later. He told the story on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1997. When Oprah asked, whatever happened to that guy, Ford replied, ‘He’s an executive in 20th in the television department . I know that because one day maybe 15 years ago [in 1982] I was sitting in a commissary in 20th having lunch, and a waiter came up to me with a little silver tray with a card on it, which I’d only seen in movies. And I picked up the card, and I looked at it, and on it was the name of the man who I’d had that conversation with. And I turned the card over and it said “I missed my bet”. And I looked around the room, and much to my pleasure – I didn’t know which one he was.’

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Chapter 1, Part 2: Harrison Ford, the Early Days

(continued)

Harry and Mary met with the director of the Williams Bay Repertory Company, William Fucik, and the older man was impressed with Ford’s quiet confidence and serious mindset. Fucik had worked for one of California’s best-regarded theatres, The Pasadena Playhouse and had coached Paul Newman 15 years earlier at Williams Bay and by then was a well-known acting coach in Hollywood. With the opening of the season just weeks away, Fucik took a gamble and offered Ford the job, figuring that he had the raw material to work with and could bring Harry up to standard in time.

Ford made his professional stage debut on 26 June 1964 in the production of Take Her, She’s Mine. The next morning, he and Mary were married and the couple spent their honeymoon getting used to being part of a theatre company. Ford went on to roles in Night of the Iguana (in which he forgot his lines on stage), Dark of the Moon, Sunday in New York and even a musical, Little Mary Sunshine. Both audiences and critics enjoyed his performances.

As the season drew to a close, Ford and Fucik discussed Harry’s options in the acting business. Through his movie connections, Fucik was acquainted with Gunsmoke star James Arness and suggested that Ford try Hollywood, though Ford habitually offers a more light-hearted tale to any reporter who asks how he’d ended up on the West Coast.



‘I went to Los Angeles,’ he’d recall. ‘I didn’t know any of the names of the motion picture studios. I didn’t know any actors. I didn’t know anything! And of course I’m not an Angeleno by birth or by heart – it’s just the place where I find myself today. But Los Angeles is where you have to be if you want to be actor. You have no choice. You go there or New York. I flipped a coin about it. It came up New York, so I flipped again. When you’re starting out to be an actor, who wants to go where it’s cold and miserable and be poor there? Better to be poor in the sunshine than in the snow. That was my idea, anyway. So we loaded all our stuff into the Volkswagen, drove off and didn’t stop until we saw the Pacific. As far as l was concerned, that Ocean must mean California – fine! Let’s stop here, Laguna Beach. About 60 miles south of LA. I did a play, John Brown’s Body, at the playhouse there, but the thought of doing it over and over again just stopped me. Luckily. Columbia Pictures’ New Talent programme scout saw me and sent me to see the head of casting there.’

That’s not an accurate telling of story, but the reason Ford tells it that way is because Fucik was an intensely private man who shunned publicity. Once, when Paul Newman had given Fucik credit for being the best acting coach the actor had ever had Fucik called his prote ge and asked him never to mention his name publicly again. In truth, it was Fucik who suggested Hollywood and offered Harry and Mary a place to stay in California, and that’s why the Fords loaded up their decrepit VW van and headed west. Ford had simply followed Fucik’s wishes and edited him out of the story.

The Fords took regular jobs – Harry working in a boatyard, then in a department store, Mary worked as a doctor’s receptionist – while Harry continued to study with Fucik and then with Fucik’s friend Bob Wentz. Through Wentz, Ford landed an audition at the Laguna Beach Playhouse and, in February 1965, auditioned for a part in Doug Rowe’s production of John Brown’s Body. His performance gathered good reviews from the local press, including one from the Laguna News/Post which said, ‘Harry Ford may be the best young actor in the area – and this is his area debut.’

It was during this period that Ford picked up his trademark scar in a ‘fast car crash. I was driving through Laguna Canyon. I had come from my job as an assistant buyer in the knick-knacks and oil paintings department of Bullocks department store and as I turned round to put my seat belt on, I ran into a telegraph pole ... later on I ran into a bad stitcher!’

As the run of John Brown’s Body came to a close, it was Laguna Playhouse musical director Ian Bernard who suggested Ford might want to try his luck at Columbia Studios. Bernard was a former actor turned writer and musician who had sold a screenplay to Columbia, Synanon. Bernard arranged an interview for Ford at Columbia with his contact Billy Gordon, head of casting at the time, whom Ford referred to as the ‘little bald-headed guy’ in his subsequent retellings of the tale. Harry dutifully showed up with his customary quietly serious mindset, hoping the old Ford luck would land him a contract.




Even in the 1960s the major Hollywood studios were keeping scores of young good- looking hopefuls on the payroll and using them in bit parts in movies. Ford told movie journalist Tony Crawley the story of how he was hired and made it sound like something out of a 1930s musical.

‘I walked into this small, heated, walnut-panelled office. There was a little, bald-headed guy with a stub of a cigar, white on white shirt, white on white tie, sitting behind a desk. Two telephones. Behind him a man who looked like a racetrack tout on two more phones. I sat in the only chair available, right in front of the desk, and listened to them discussing big names and big money. Then the bald guy looked at me as if he’d discovered a snake in his soup. “Who sent you here?” I told him. He turned to the other guy and said, “Who’s that?” “I dunno,” the other guy said.

‘The bald guy turned back to me. “That’s all right ... doesn’t matter. What’s your name? How tall? How much do you weigh? Any special hobbies, talents, capacities? Speak any foreign languages? Okay, fine. If we find anything for you, we’ll let you know.”

‘I walked out of the office, down the hall and pressed the button for the elevator. When it didn’t come immediately, I realised that I had to pee. I went round the corner to the bathroom, went in, took a pee, came out and the assistant guy was running down the hall yelling, “Come back, come back.” Obviously, if I’d gone down in the elevator, it wouldn’t have been worth his while chasing me.

‘So I went back to the office. The little bald guy says, “You’re not the type we’re usually interested in, but how’d’ya like to be under contract?” Sure, absolutely. And about six months later, I was. For $150 a week. And all the respect that implies.’ Ford was told to report to the Head of Columbia’s New Talent Program, Walter Beakel, a fellow Chicago-an who had overseen the early career of Working Girl director Mike Nichols.

It might seem to some that Harrison Ford’s acting career was well and truly on its way. Perhaps Ford himself thought that at first, too. But it wasn’t going to be that easy.
Head of the studio Mike Frankovitch was spending a lot of time at the London office of Columbia, supervising pictures like A Man for All Seasons, Georgy Girl and Oliver! So the running of the LA offices fell to a tough-talking ex-producer called Jerry Tokofsky. The two did not get along. In those early days Ford was subject to what seemed like an endless string of ignominies. First, the Screen Actors Guild told him that as there was another actor called Harrison Ford, he’d have to change his name. Ford bit his tongue and added an initial of ‘J’, even though he has no middle name. The fact that the original Harrison Ford had been dead for eight years by this time seemed either not to matter or be unknown to the SAG. The next outrage to be visited on Harry was to be told by management that his regular, college-guy haircut wasn’t right and they sent him to the studio hair stylist. Ford came out with an Elvis quiff and a short fuse. Finally, that same management decided that ‘Harrison’ was too pretentious and that he would have to change his name. ‘I suggested “Kurt Affair”,’ said Ford. ‘After that, there was no more talk of changing names.’

‘It was 1965,’ he continued, ‘and Columbia was still playing 1925. You had to come to the studio every day, in a jacket and a tie, go to acting class, eat in the executive dining room, submit yourself to photo layouts. Six starlets and six fellas playing football on Malibu Beach in front of a Chevrolet Nova for a glossy magazine ... you know the kind of thing, “Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures.” Horrible, really. Worse than any factory. Nobody ever knew your name at the Studio, or cared a damn about you. I went nuts.’

Nevertheless, Ford stuck it out. ‘It was less sophisticated than modelling, but it was a way of being acknowledged as an actor while I learned to act.’ At least, that was the plan. But if the truth be known, Ford’s career was on hold.

‘I wasn’t learning anything. But around that time I bought a house near the Hollywood Bowl and decided to take out everything I didn’t like about it. I’d never done any carpentry before, but I got the books from the library, got the tools and did it.’

THE MAIDEN VOYAGE

Whatever their other faults in the handling of their contract players, Columbia did sooner or later use the better ones in bit parts in their movies. Eventually, Ford’s number came up, mostly due to the ongoing support of Walter Beakel. He had a part. ‘I played a bell boy in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966). One day’s work. Nothing uplifting. I had to say, “Paging Mr Jones, paging Mr Jones,” or something like that and then James Coburn would wave me over and I’d give him a telegram. That was it!’

For the record, the line was actually, ‘Paging Mr Ellis.’ But regardless, Ford’s first movie appearance didn’t set the film community alight. In fact, Jerry Tokofsky was less than pleased with his ‘performance’.

‘The guy who was the vice-president of Columbia at the time – maybe I’m spilling the beans here, but that guy is no longer in the business and l am – he called me into his office after that film. Now, remember. All I had to do was deliver a telegram, right? ‘“Kid,” he says – they always called me “Kid”, probably because they didn’t know who the hell I was – “Kid, siddown. Lemme tell you a story. First time Tony Curtis ever appeared in a movie, he delivered a bag of groceries. A bag of groceries! You took one look at that person and you knew he was a star. You ain’t got it, kid! Get back to class, because you ain’t going to work again in this studio for six months, maybe a year. Get yourself together.’

Ford was amazed. ‘I thought I had to act like a bellboy ... it didn’t occur to me till years later that what they wanted me to do was act like a movie star.’

It was as if Ford’s hopes for an acting career had been dashed. He was trapped in a seven-year contract with a studio which wouldn’t let him act. But eventually he did act again.
In the autumn of 1966, Columbia Pictures took over production of a Roger Corman movie called The Long Ride Home (1967, aka A Time For Killing) and installed b-movie director Phil Karlson. The movie pitted Glenn Ford’s Union soldier Major Walcott against imprisoned Confederate officer Captain Bentley (George Hamilton) in a fairly unremarkable American Civil War drama. ‘Harrison J. Ford’ turned up playing a young officer, Lieutenant Shaffer. Not one contemporary review noticed the presence of the young Ford.

Columbia then cast Harry in the movie version of a hit Broadway play. ‘I got a small part in Luv (1967),’ commented Ford. Small is right. Having trouble remembering what Ford had to do in that one, I checked the cast and credits of the movie meticulously. Ford was so far down the list that he must have dropped off the bottom. No mention is made of him in the studio’s list of actors for that movie. But he played the role of a ‘Hippy’ who punches Jack Lemmon’s character on the nose after a fender bender. He didn’t make very much impression in this one either.

But Beakel – and probably only Beakel – continued to believe that Harry had that indefinable something that would take him far in the industry. Beakel’s prote ge Mike Nichols had been signed to direct the hottest new property in Hollywood, The Graduate. Every agent in town with a twenty-something actor on their books was pushing their guy for the choice role of Benjamin Braddock opposite Anne Bancroft’s Mrs Robinson. Several well-known names auditioned for the part and were rejected, including Warren Beatty, Robert Redford and even Burt Ward, later to be cast as tv’s Robin alongside Adam West’s Batman. Beakel persuaded Mike Nichols to see Ford, and despite his inexperience, Harry was called back for a second interview, which must have meant Nichols was taking him seriously, but ultimately, the role went to the more experienced Dustin Hoffman.

‘Was I demoralised?’ asks Ford. ‘You bet I was. I was going nowhere fast. This was the atmosphere when they let me go.’

Tokofsky called Ford into the headmaster’s office and to give him another dressing down. ‘The head of the studio, Mike Frankovitch, was still in Europe, so this other guy had to make the determination whether or not they should take up the option on my contract after eighteen months.

‘“Kid,” he said – what else? – “as soon as Frankovitch is back I’m going to tell him we ought to get rid of you. I don’t think you’re worth a thing to us. But I know your wife is pregnant, you need the money, so I’ll give you another couple of weeks. Just sign the piece of paper my secretary has. Okay, boy? Now, get out of here!”’

Ford had had enough. He was tired of being pushed around by men behind desks. He told Tokofsky where he could stick his money and was fired on the spot.

‘I had that kind of spirit, but nothing behind it. Three days later, I was under contract to Universal.'

More to follow >>

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Chapter 1, part 1 - Harrison Ford, the Early Days


From College to Contract Player to Carpentry

‘My job is pretending to be Indiana Jones, or whoever, and I consider personal information about me can only water down the illusion.’ Harrison Ford


Harrison Ford has a reputation for being a very private man, and he has spoken little in public of his early life, often responding sharply when asked a question by a journalist he deems too personal. ‘I was raised in Chicago,’ said Ford once in a rare moment of self-revelation. ‘Nothing too remarkable there. Just the usual. Baseball, fooling around with cars. I was a loner type. Not very active in sports. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was a kid.’

Harrison Ford was born on July 13th 1942 of an Irish Catholic father, Christopher Ford (born John William Ford) and a Russian Jewish mother, Dorothy Nidelman (born Dora Nidelman). His father had started his working life in Vaudeville, the same as his father. But by the 1930s the American music hall was in terminal decline as radio and movies rose to become the staple entertainment of the mass market. Ford Sr cannily moved into radio, joining the Federation of Radio Actors in 1938. But within three years he’d changed careers, and became writer at WENR Chicago, though his resonant, baritone voice meant that he still did a fair bit of voice-over work.

Harrison Ford’s unusual given name came from his maternal grandfather, Harry Nidelman – ‘I think it’s Yiddish for “son of Harry”,’ Ford joked in 1994. His childhood was middle-class and uneventful, though he deliberately avoided trouble by calling himself ‘Harry’ rather than ‘Harrison’. By his own admission he was not an outstanding scholar. Loner he may have been, but he showed no special interest in the traditional pursuits of loners. No long hours with his nose buried in books. No solitary Saturday afternoons immersed in the adventures of John Wayne at the neighbourhood cinema.

‘I didn’t spend much time at the movies,’ he told an interviewer, ‘I’m not a scholar of Bogart’s mannerisms, so I miss a lot of the film references that people like Spielberg and Lucas toss around.’


Given that Ford’s father had strong ties to acting and the entertainment industry, it might seem strange there were few games of ‘dress up and make believe’ in Ford’s childhood. In fact his earliest ambition was to be a coalman. ‘My dad would get all dressed up, go to work, come home, sit at the dinner table and bitch like crazy about those bastards at work,’ said Ford. By comparison, Ford Jr thought the life of a coalman seemed far more attractive. ‘He didn’t go home at night and tell his wife how uncooperative the coal was.’ The idea of acting didn’t occur to him until much later on.

In 1948, Christopher Ford changed jobs again. He joined a growing ad agency, Needham, Louis and Brorby. With the War firmly behind them, Americans were demanding more and more in the way of luxury goods. And it looked like the new-fangled television was just the way for manufacturers to sell their products to a hungry public. By the mid-1950s, Ford was a manager at NL&B and was earning enough to move his family from the inner city to the suburb of Morton Grove.

The 12 year old Harry Ford attended MS Meltzer Junior High on Ballard Street and almost immediately ran into trouble with some of the tougher kids at the school. Every day he was taken to the top of a hill by these kids and pushed down it.

‘They weren’t so much beatings as exercises in ritual humiliation,’ Ford recalls. ‘It wasn’t important that I suffer physically, just that I not think that I was the equal of my mates. I knew the ritual had a form and a shape to it, and that it was far more efficient just to tumble down the hill in a satisfying way and then make my way up, rather than have to fight those guys to get back into the parking lot.’

The point of these indignities was never explained, but Ford had an idea of why he was being punished. ‘They might have sensed an underlying arrogance that they didn’t want to allow to blossom,’ he said. ‘That probably came from the distance at which I held myself from people. And still do.’

In 1956, Ford moved on the Maine East High School, one of the highest achieving high schools in America at the time. As he’d done at Meltzer, young Harry contrived to keep a low profile. He wasn’t athletic and confined his activities to the more nerdy pursuits, like the model railway club and the audiovisual club and, through that, became involved in the school’s amateur radio station, WMTH, though as a technician rather than as ‘talent’. In the meantime Christopher Ford’s star was still in the ascendant at the Needham agency and the family moved to a larger house in a better neighbourhood, North Ridge, in 1957.

Some of Ford Sr’s work ethic must have rubbed off on Harry, as he had a string of part- time jobs during his teenage years. ‘My parents came through the Depression and we were taught to believe that we were not entitled to comfort,’ Ford explained.

One of his first jobs was as a cook on a luxury yacht. He found his recipes in a copy of The Joy of Cooking that his mother had given to him and tells a story about how cooking a meal for his employers on a very choppy lake while feeling hopelessly seasick, ‘was probably the most heroic thing I’ve ever done.’

His longest running job was at the Evening Pipe Store, which specialized in pipes and special blends of tobacco. It was here that Harry took up smoking, a habit he’s not been able to kick.

From Maine East High, Harrison Ford went on to Ripen College in North Wisconsin, a liberal arts college that didn’t have too stringent entry requirements, following in the footsteps of another alumnus Spencer Tracy. He spent the best part of three years studying English and Philosophy, but with ever-diminishing results. Casting around for some way to boost his grades – failure was unthinkable with his father shelling out the best part of $2000 a year in tuition fees – Harry Ford approached the drama professor Philip Bergstrom and was accepted onto the course. Ford was beginning to lose his babyface looks and his voice was deepening as he matured. He was cast as the lead in The Threepenny Opera at the college theatre, The Red Barn. For Ford, it was a turning point.


An unexpected bonus of becoming involved in the campus drama scene was that suddenly, Ford had access to girls. He began seeing a girl called Mary Lee Franke who’d been in The Threepenny Opera with him, but as Mary Lee was ‘pinned’ to another boy (college-speak for ‘going steady’), the pair had to meet in secret.

As Harry entered his final year at college, he wasn’t able to muster the energy to be interested in getting a degree in Philosophy. ‘I would sleep for four or five days at a time,’ he recounted in 1994. ‘There was one class I never went to. I remember once when I slept for seven days and finally roused myself got myself out of bed, managed to get dressed – this seemed to be taking an intense effort – and actually made it to class. All of this seemed to be happening in slow motion. I even put my hand on the door of the classroom, but I seemed unable to turn the doorknob. So I let it go and went back to sleep.’ To me this sounds less like bone idleness and more like a bout of depression, though no mention of any such condition has ever surfaced in any other accounts of Ford’s youth. Despite all this, Harry Ford started seeing a new girlfriend in November 1963, Mary Louise Marquardt. Friends and teachers all seemed surprised as Ford was, by this time, something of a star on campus, and Mary was a quite sober and studious girl. But for some reason, the two very quickly became inseparable and the romance began to get serious.

By mid-1964, Ford’s combined Philosophy/English degree was in serious doubt. ‘Suddenly I discovered that I had no idea how I was going to make a living in those two areas, so I just stopped going to classes – they kicked me out a few days before graduation.’ Three days before graduation to be precise. ‘Bounced in academic disgrace, much to the embarrassment of my parents, who had made a reservation at a motel in town for the ceremony.’

Christopher Ford was far from happy to find out that after spending $8000 on his son’s education, there would be no graduation for young Harrison. ‘My parents had paid for four years of education and at the end of it there was no degree, ‘ said Ford. ‘It was not taken lightly.’

Ejected from the protected existence of college life, Ford found himself face to face with the real world. So he took two momentous decisions. He would marry Mary that summer and pursue a career on the stage.

‘It was important to be able to announce to people what I was going to do with my life, even if it was only to say the thing that appalled them most,’ said Ford later. ‘It proceeded naturally enough from the fact that I wasn’t going to graduate from college. Now I was off on an adventure, with no sense really of what the odds were because I never knew anybody who was in that work. I don’t think my family thought it was going to work out, but they never discouraged me. Discouragement was something I was always happy to have. Some resistance, you know?’

Where others might have struggled, Harry had little difficulty finding work as an actor, even in Wisconsin. ‘I decided to stick to acting, with drawing room comedy in mind. So I did one season of summer stock (the American equivalent of repertory) immediately after college, in Williams Bay. That’s a resort community on the shores of Lake Geneva. Not the Swiss one, the one in Wisconsin.’

It was the old Ford luck that led to his engagement with the Williams Bay Repertory Company. The Company had taken on three ‘resident actors’, talented youngsters who were to serve a kind of apprenticeship through the summer season. One of these young actors had let the company down and the Company director William Fucik needed a replacement. He asked around if anyone knew of a local young actor who might make an adequate replacement and Harry Ford’s name came up.

More to follow >>