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 >>

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