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.'

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