Tuesday, 13 November 2012

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



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.’


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.’

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