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.