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 >>

THE HARRISON FORD STORY: Introduction to the Third Edition

Back in 1984, when the first edition of this book came out, the first chapter started this way:

SOMEWHERE along Hollywood Boulevard’s sidewalk of showbiz fame, where the names of the stars are imbedded in the very concrete beneath the tourists’ feet, there is an entry for Harrison Ford. Well, of course there is! Ford is one of the biggest box‐office draws of the Eighties. You’ll find him in major roles in four of the five most successful movies of all time. It would have been five out of five had his cameo role as Elliot’s headmaster in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial – written as it happens by the second Mrs Ford, Melissa Mathison – not been cut from the movie at the last minute. So if any of Film City’s army of ‘Stars’, Superstars’ and ‘Megastars’ deserves the honour of having his name immortalised in concrete, Harrison Ford’s the one, right?
The Harrison Ford of silent Hollywood

‘Except,’ chuckles Ford, ‘that’s not my star! It was put there years ago for an old time (silent) matinee idol also called Harrison Ford. No, I’d never heard of him, either. Or not until the Screen Actors’ Guild told me I’d have to change my name. That’s why I’m Harrison J. Ford in two of my earliest films. When I heard the old man had passed on, I called up the SAG about it. They couldn’t confirm his death, but I dropped the J. anyway.’

The original Harrison Ford is not one of the better-remembered silent stars. He made his film debut in 1915, in a picture called Up the Road With Sally. His career blossomed and within a few years he was co-starring with such performers as Lon Chaney, notably Shadows (1922). As the Twenties wore on he gravitated towards comedies like Up in Mabel’s Room and The Nervous Wreck. Little was written in the fan magazines at the time. The earlier Ford was just as hard to pin down in interviews as his namesake. ‘He has a neat habit,’ said one contemporary journalist, ‘of placing the blame for good work onto the innocent shoulders of others. “Mary Provost is a great little actress to work with in comedy” or “Phyllis Haver is splendid in it also” are the sort of facts he will remind you of if you compliment him on his own acting.’ The first Ford died at the age of 73 on 2nd December 1957, ten years after retiring from acting.

‘If they ever decide to put an entry there for me,’ says Ford, ‘they needn’t bother. It’s there already. And I kind of like the idea of using his.’ Sentimental perhaps, but the old man would probably have approved.

Our Harrison Ford as he appeared in Star Wars
It’s a good story and though a lot has changed since 1984 – most notably the addition of a star for our Harrison Ford on Hollywood Boulevard in May 2003 – it would have been a real shame to have left it out completely. But it also contains some inaccuracies and omits some interesting details that have come to light since 1984, so I’ve made a point of adding them in the relevant places in this revised third edition. The original first eight chapters have been re-written and expanded and further seven chapters have been added to cover the Harrison Ford movies since 1984. And the final chapter, summing up Ford’s career has also been augmented with further research. Hopefully, this will give a more complete overview of the actor’s career to date.

Alan McKenzie, October 2011
More to follow >>

Monday, 15 October 2012

How The Harrison Ford Story by Alan McKenzie came to be

I first tackled writing a book about the life and films of Harrison Ford back in the 1980s. I was still working as Editor on Starburst magazine, and we'd just run the serialised feature, "The Steven Spielberg Story" in the mag, a three parter by Starburst stalwart Tony Crawley.

For some reason, I happened to be speaking to Zomba Books  publisher Maxim Jakubowski a month or two later and he was asking me whether I had any good ideas for movie books. I thought of Tony's mammoth Spielberg piece and figured that it could be turned into a book without too much sweat by Tony, so I suggested that Maxim give Mr Crawley a call. He did, and Tony soon had a book out chronicling the life and times of the super-star director to coincide with the release of ET, also titled The Steven Spielberg Story.

But that wasn't enough with Maxim. Pretty soon he was looking for another property - some other super-star to add to his growing line of movie books. It seemed pretty easy. The other meteoric star was the charismatic actor of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark - Harrison Ford, and no one had yet released a Ford biography. The catch was, Maxim wanted me to write it. So I turned again to my friend and colleague Tony Crawley. I knew that Tony had interviewed Ford at length several times, most often at the Cannes Film Festival. I asked Tony if he'd be okay with me lifting quotes from his interviews. Tony had a better idea and generously turned over all his Harrison Ford transcripts to me. And that was what formed the backbone of the first edition of The Harrison Ford Story, published in 1984.

The following year Maxim asked me to do a revision and update the books to include Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which was due for release. It seemed like a good idea, so I set to work and added a chapter on the newest Indy movie. And that edition sold well, too.

I left Starburst magazine in 1985 and began to freelance, mostly magazine articles around movies, but I also co-authored Hollywood Tricks of the Trade, writing the sections on makeup and special effects (BBC stuntman Derek Ware wrote the section on stunts). And right at the end of that three-year stint as a freelance author, I was commissioned to write How to Draw and Sell Comic Strips for US publisher Northern Light.

But other interests were pulling me away from writing about movies and just as the How to Draw book was being published, I became involved with 2000AD comic, initially as a freelance writer, writing Future Shocks and the first story in the series that was to become The Journal of Luke Kirby, "Summer Magic". By mid-1987, I had joined the 2000AD team as a freelance contributing editor - an association that was to last until the end of 1994, though my freelance status had ended at the end of 1993, when I was asked to join the staff and take up the role as editor of The Galaxy's Greatest Comic.

After leaving 2000AD, I noticed the Internet seemed to be enjoying increased popularity, and set about finding out how I could get involved. By the end of the 1990s, I was earning my living as an online editor and front-end developer and had less time than ever for writing about movies.

But I never lost my interest. And in 2009, I set up Air Pirate Press with my old 2000AD colleague Brett Ewins and we published the first book though the fledgling imprint, The Art of Brett Ewins

Casting around for something else that might make a good project for Air Pirate Press, I thought of The Harrison Ford Story. Why, with a bit of elbow grease I could bring that project up to date, covering the rest of Harrison Ford's movies from Witness (1985) right up to Cowboys & Aliens (2011).

It took me the best part of a year, but I researched all the movies Ford had made since the second edition of the book. I had a look at some of the other books that had come out in the years since 1985, but I was happy that no other author had taken a similar approach to me. And then I set to, extensively re-writing all the existing chapters and adding another seven chapters and a massively detailed filmography.

The Harrison Ford Story (third edition) was published in October 2011 by Air Pirate Press, but it took me this long to think of the idea of serialising it as a blog. If I'd been smarter, I might've done it the other way around.

Most of the text will be published here. No need for the filmography/videography chapter. That information is already available online. And if this generates any interest, maybe the next blog will be a new, unpublished Air Pirate Press project. Hope you enjoy it.

Alan McKenzie welcomes feedback on this or any of the posts in this blog.