Saturday, 15 December 2012

Chapter 2, Part 2 - Harrison Ford: Breaking In


The enormous success of American Graffiti didn’t change Harrison Ford’s life overnight. Where actors were singled out for praise, it was always the principals, Richard Dreyfuss and Ronny Howard, who got the credit. Lucas, too, was suddenly a star. But for Ford, it was back to carpentry and the infrequent tv appearances.

Ford took a role in the cult tv show Kung Fu, appearing as a character called ‘Harrison’ in the episode ‘Crossties’ (season 2, 1974), a story about angry farmers battling the railroad company that wants to snatch their land.

It was Fred Roos, again, who was responsible for getting Harrison Ford his next two roles. Francis Coppola was putting together another project, the highly praised The Conversation. Naturally he hired Fred Roos to cast the movie. And, inevitably, Roos turned once again to Harrison Ford for one of the smaller, but hardly less vital, parts in the picture.

‘I still did the odd carpentry job after American Graffiti,’ recalls Ford. ‘But before too long there was Coppola’s film, The Conversation, which I did with Hackman. I turned up playing an evil young henchman (who works for Robert Duvall’s Director character) in that movie. There was no role there until I decided to make him a homosexual.’

In an effort to make something more of his role than just another walk-on, Ford had bought a loud green silk suit for the then huge sum of $900. At the script read-through, Coppola was astonished at Ford’s outfit. ‘What are you?’ he asked unkindly. Ford explained his idea for the character. In 1974 gay characters would have been a risk, but Coppola was nothing if not a gambler. ‘Hey, that’s really good,’ he told Ford and instructed production designer Dean Tavoularis to create a room for the character, by now named Martin Stett, that underlined his lifestyle.

Harrison Ford with Gene Hackman in The Conversation
Again an important director had listened to and agreed with Ford’s ideas.

The Conversation tells the story of surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), who records a conversation between a young couple as they walk through San Francisco. When Harry plays the tape back in his workshop, he notices a sentence in the conversation which suggests the couple are in some kind of danger. He takes the tape to the Director (Robert Duvall) of the large corporation that hired him, but on an impulse refuses to hand the tapes over to the Director’s assistant, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford). Later, while visiting a surveillance equipment exhibition, Harry runs into Stett again. The young man tries to put pressure on Harry to hand over the tapes. Harry refuses. At the same exhibition, he meets and befriends another investigator, Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield). They have a few drinks together and return to Harry’s workshop for a party. Also at the party is a call-girl, Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae) with whom Harry spends some time. But when he wakes up, Harry finds that the tapes of the conversation have been stolen. He tries to contact the Director but fails. Fearing that a murder is about to be committed, he takes a room next to the one in which the young couple have arranged to meet. He breaks into the couple’s room and is horrified to find that a murder has been committed. The Director has been killed, apparently by the couple that Harry thought were in danger. Back at his apartment, Harry is warned to keep what he knows to himself as he, too, is under surveillance. Harry searches his own apartment thoroughly for the listening device but finds nothing.

Harrison Ford plays the slightly sinister Martin Stett in The Conversation.
The Conversation received much praise from the critics. Monthly Film Bulletin’s David Wilson said, ‘The Conversation is an unqualified success, a complex, reverberating study of a man trapped by guilt ... It is a measure of that success ... that the comparison which most obviously suggests itself, Blow-Up, leaves Antonioni’s film looking empty and inert.’

Variety said, ‘A major artistic asset to the film – besides script, direction and the top performances – is supervising editor Walter Murch’s sound collage and re-recording. Voices come in and out of aural focus in a superb tease.’

Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times, ‘The members of the supporting cast are almost as good as Mr Hackman, particularly Allen Garfield as a surveillance expert from Detroit who bugged his first phone at the age of 12 and then went on to become famous in the trade as the man who told Chrysler that Cadillac was getting rid of its fins.’

But good though Ford’s performance in The Conversation might have been, again he went unnoticed by the critics. The one big success still eluded him.


A few months after the release of The Conversation, Ford turned up in an episode of the legal drama show Petrocelli, ‘The Edge of Evil (season 1, 1974), playing Tom Brannigan. It was to be Ford’s last appearance in episodic television.

Ford next had a walk-on part in the tv movie Judgement: The Trial of Lt Calley, a courtroom drama set in the wake of a Vietnam atrocity, directed by Stanley Kramer and based on a true incident (‘I played the witness who cries,’ said Ford), and a more substantial role as the eldest son of Sarah Miles’s Jennifer Blackwood in the lavish tv production of Dynasty.

Dynasty is a sprawling tale of the fortunes of the Blackwood family and their migration to Westmore, Ohio in 1823. John Blackwood (Harris Yulin), the head of the family is a man of unbending principles whose dearest ambition it is to farm the 100 acre piece of land he has acquired. His wife, Jennifer (Sarah Miles) and his brother Matt (Stacy Keach) both feel there is more money to be made in the carriage business. Eventually, Jennifer leaves John for Matt after being accused of infidelity by her husband. But the relationship doesn’t work out and Jennifer returns to John. Realising the depth of her husband’s hatred for her she endeavours to build the Blackwood carriage business into an empire. Matt returns to Westmore and tries to convince John to sell the farmland to the railroad for a huge profit. Though John refuses, Jennifer’s youngest son, Carver (Gerrit Graham) conspires with Matt to kill John and sell the land. After John’s death, Jennifer, unaware of the conspiracy, passes over her eldest son, Mark (Harrison Ford) and appoints Matt to run the Blackwood business.

Variety complained that Dynasty’s ‘last half hour concentrates too much on Miles’s ungrateful grown-up offspring’ and that it ‘really encompassed too wide a time span to be handled properly in a two-hour movie.’ Ford had the pretty thankless role of the ‘nice son’ so didn’t have the material at hand an actor needs to stand out in a cast. Unsurprisingly, Ford’s contributions passed unmarked by contemporary critics, and looking at the film today I can see why they might have been unenthusiastic. Ford’s acting is earnest but unshowy. I don’t think Ford was bad in the role, but that his style was simply ahead of its time.

So Harrison Ford was still an acting carpenter.

No comments:

Post a Comment