Thursday, 20 December 2012

Chapter 2, Part 3 - Harrison Ford: Breaking In


Harrison Ford was not to remain a professional carpenter for much longer because, by the time American Graffiti was released to strong reviews, director George Lucas had finalised a deal with Twentieth Century-Fox to make a space adventure movie called Star Wars. Ford was familiar with the project, but nurtured no ambitions about being in the movie. After all, he hadn’t been one of the principle players in Graffiti and probably felt his contribution had been minimal.

‘George (Lucas) had let it be known that he wasn’t going to use anybody from American Graffiti,’ said Ford. ‘Not because we’d disappointed him, but he was writing a whole new thing and needed new faces. But old Fred Roos did it again. He prevailed on George to see me after he’d seen everyone else.’

The story of how Harrison Ford ended up with the role of Han Solo is another one of those tales that Ford tells better than anyone else. He recounted it within a short interview for the London events magazine, Time Out.

‘The reason I ran into George Lucas again was because Francis Coppola’s art director inveigled me into installing a very elaborate raised panel in his studio office. Now, I knew they were casting and I thought it a bit coy to be around Francis’s office, being a carpenter, during the day. So I did the work at night. Well, one day something came up and I got stuck and I had to work at the studios during the day. And, sure enough, that was the day that George Lucas was doing the casting for Star Wars.

Harrison Ford as Han Solo from Star Wars

‘There I was, on my knees in the doorway, and in comes Francis Coppola, George Lucas, four other captains of the industry and Richard Dreyfuss. In fact, Dreyfuss came through first and made a big joke out of being my assistant. That made me feel just great. I felt about the size of a pea after they walked through. But, weeks later, when they’d tested everybody else in the world, I got the part.’ 

Ford is guilty of a little over-simplification here. The casting for Star Wars was as meticulous, at the very least, as the casting on American Graffiti. Lucas knew he was going to have to interview literally hundreds of young actors and young hopefuls just to find the three people to portray the key lead roles. So in the early part of 1975, he joined forces with another young director making his first major picture, Brian De Palma, who was looking for a teenage cast for Carrie. For about eight weeks, De Palma and Lucas were seeing 30-40 young actors and actresses a day. Lucas sat quietly making notes and entering the names of those who particularly impressed him on a Second Interview list. After Lucas tripped over Ford in the doorway of Coppola’s office, the young filmmaker approached Ford for assistance with the video tests for the Star Wars auditions. The idea was that Ford, whom Lucas felt at ease with, would read the male parts for the actresses testing for the role of Princess Leia. Ford initially didn’t mind doing the favour for Lucas, whom he liked, but after a time became irritated with having to read a part which he thought he would never play.

According to Dale Pollock’s book, Skywalking, it was Ford’s "churlishness" that won him the part of Han Solo. But it’s far more likely that George Lucas saw in Harrison Ford elements of the character he envisaged for Solo. Ford had a certain forthright and honest way of expressing himself that isn’t a million light years away from Solo’s lines in the movie.

At one stage, Lucas was considering a black actor for the role of Solo. This idea probably evolved into the character of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back.

But also to be taken into consideration was Lucas’s unique concept of ensemble casting. Lucas had decided on Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher as one trio. But if any of them had been unable to take part in the film, Lucas had a reserve team waiting in the wings to step in. It was all of one group or all of the other – no mixing and matching. Lucas’s second group was Christopher Walken, Will Selzer and singer Terri Nunn, who would later front the band Berlin.

In some documenting of the Star Wars casting story, it has been reported (admittedly by me, as well, in earlier editions of this book) that Nunn was a former Penthouse Pet. However, given that she was 15 when she auditioned for Star Wars, this seems unlikely on two counts. Firstly, it would have been illegal for Nunn to have modelled for Penthouse before the Star Wars casting and secondly, it seems pretty unlikely that Lucas would have auditioned a nude model for a pivotal role in his wholesome family film. While some sources assert that Nunn did appear in Penthouse for February 1977 under the name of Betsy Harris, I had been unable to find any confirmation of this at the time this book was published. Indeed, Terri Nunn herself had denied it many times. In an interview with the online Exclusive Magazine, Nunn was asked about the rumour of her Penthouse appearance and replied, ‘No, that one’s not true! I don’t know who that is, but that wouldn’t even be legal. But, I have heard about this before. I haven’t seen her, but people need to think about the age. It’s a good story, but it’s not me, sorry!’ And even if it were true, the date of the photoshoot would have been long after the Star Wars auditions.

Is this Terri Nunn on the cover of the Feb 1977 issue of Penthouse?

Then, in 2011, Nunn claimed in an interview with radio DJ John Aberley on his interview show "Life Unedited" on Pennsylvania station WCHE that she really was the model Betsy Drake in that issue of Penthouse magazine. "It was me. Yeah, it was me. It was very hush-hush at the time, because, honestly, it was kinda illegal. I was sixteen. I met the guy at a party and he offered the idea, and I was, like, 'Yeah, I wanna do that, you know.' I was trying to be sexy and I didn't feel very sexy. I was in my teen years. And he shot that when I was, let's see, sixteen … and I was seventeen when it came out. About eight months later. So I still wasn't eighteen when it came out."

Above: "Betsy Drake" in Penthouse. Below: 1980's publicity pic
of Terri Nunn. Are they the same person? I really couldn't say.
How about you?

In any event, George Lucas decided to go with the ensemble of Mark Hammill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. ‘For me, at least,’ said Ford about the casting of his trio, ‘it was obvious what the relationship would be, simply by looking at the others. It was apparent the characters were very contemporary and the situation very simple – without meaning that in a derogatory way. It was simply straightforward, a clear human story. I mean, I didn’t have to act science fiction.’

George Lucas had worked out backgrounds for all his characters. Solo had been abandoned by space gypsies at a very early age and was raised by creatures called Wookiees until he was twelve. He eventually became a cadet at the Space Academy, but was thrown out for selling exam papers to his peers. Eventually he became a smuggler, living outside the laws of the Empire. Yet at the same time, Lucas knew that his actors could add the little touches that would bring the characters to life on the screen.

‘Very little time was wasted,’ said Ford in the Lucas biography, Skywalking. ‘George didn’t have an authoritarian attitude like so many directors: “Kid, I’ve been in this business twenty-five years. Trust me.” He was different. He knew the movie was based so strongly on the relationship between the three of us, he encouraged our contributions.’

It’s the little contributions Ford makes to the characters he’s playing that makes him such an interesting actor. Which shows that Lucas’s shrewdness won out over his own ‘all new faces’ rule for Star Wars. Ford goes on to explain how he went about filling in the spaces in Solo’s personality.

‘George Lucas gave me a lot of freedom to change little parts of the dialogue which weren’t comfortable.’ Ford is being charitable here. In Skywalking it said that Ford’s favourite way of pulling Lucas’s leg during filming was to say, ‘You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it.’

‘We worked together on it,’ continues Ford. ‘I really like working with him.’

The part of Han Solo was the biggest chance of Ford’s career to show what he could do as an actor. ‘This was the first time I had a character big enough to take space instead of just filling in spaces as I did at Columbia and Universal. I could do that for the first time.’

Ford had worked with big name, heavyweight actors before, but never with such a ‘legend’ as Sir Alec Guinness. Most of the cast were in awe of Sir Alec and Ford was no exception.

‘He gave me many sleepless nights. I’d be thinking, “I’m supposed to be in a movie with Sir Alec Guinness. He’ll laugh at me just once ... and I’ll pack up and go home.” But, of course, he never did. He’s really a very kind and generous person.’

When questioned by Ritz magazine whether Ford was using the title ‘Sir Alec’ out of respect or because Guinness insisted on it, he replied with his customary tact, ‘Let’s just say he prefers it.’


When Star Wars opened in the United States on May 25th, 1977, it garnered rave reviews and within months had become the most successful movie of all time. Several critics likened Ford’s performance in the Han Solo role to John Wayne’s style of acting. This was news to Ford, never a movie fan himself.

‘I never thought about that,’ said Ford, ‘until I kept seeing it mentioned in the reviews.’ Besides, Ford was well aware that it would be impossible to get away with imitating other actors for very long.

‘If I end up acting like John Wayne, and I know I’m acting like John Wayne, then I’m in heaps of trouble. But if I don’t realise I’m acting like John Wayne, and I am, then that is simply part of my subconscious supplying something that is necessary for the role. I was never aware of doing a routine. Acting is so intensely personal that if you’re not operating – totally – within your own resources, there comes a moment when you’ll be stuck, you won’t know who to imitate. Much better to use only your own personality and resources as a tool and keep them both sharp and well-oiled.’ 

Probably Ford’s finest moment in Star Wars is when he is in the prison block of the Death Star trying to rescue the Princess. Both Solo and Luke are disguised in Imperial Storm Trooper costumes, with Chewbacca posing as their prisoner. The three dispatch the prison guards – noisily – and draw the attention of the officer in charge of the detention area. The officer calls the prison block on the intercom and demands to know what is happening. It’s left to Solo to try to convince the unseen Imperial officer that all is well. Realising that his reassurances are falling on deaf ears, Solo fires his blaster into the control panel to cut off the irritating stream of questions. Solo’s sense of desperation is portrayed with nervous realism and, more importantly, with humour. The scene was played that way after careful consideration by Ford, ‘and done in one take. I never learned the dialogue for it because I wanted to show desperation. I told George Lucas I wanted to do it all the way through first time. I just said, “Stop me if I’m really bad.” He didn’t.’

One side effect of the success of Star Wars was that it conferred instant celebrity on the three principle players. For an actor who values his privacy, that could have been a problem for Harrison Ford. ‘Fortunately, I don’t have as unique a physiognomy as Carrie or Mark do, so I’m much less recognised in the streets – about which I’m very happy. That could get heavy. It happens infrequently enough, and people are usually very nice, because the film is very broadly accepted – so that’s a pleasure. But when they know where we’re going to be, and they’re sitting outside the hotel – all these autograph people – sometimes that’s a drag. But none of that really bothers me.’

Harrison Ford's portrayal of Han Solo became one of the
great cultural icons of the late 1970s.

Compounding the fame achieved by Ford through his appearance in Star Wars was all the merchandising that trailed in the wake of the movie. Suddenly, the toy shops were full of plastic Han Solo figures, jigsaws bearing Ford’s features and assorted paraphernalia. And, in addition to the toys, there was the fact that just about every magazine published was finding excuses to report on the Star Wars phenomenon. There were novelisations of the film, comic strip adaptations by juvenile publishing giant Marvel Comics and a series of novels, unrelated to the film, starring Han Solo and his Wookiee friend Chewbacca. There have been three Han Solo novels by Brian Daley published by Sphere Books; Han Solo at Stars’ End, Han Solo and the Lost Legacy and Han Solo’s Revenge, and three by A.C. Crispin published by Bantam; The Paradise Snare, The Hutt Gambit and Rebel Dawn.

The other major change in Ford’s life brought about by the success of Star Wars was the financial one.

‘I believe in the work ethic,’ said Ford. ‘That was the middle class way I was brought up. When I was offered Han Solo, I was paid less for that than when I was a carpenter. 

That was so while he was actually working on the film. But Ford, like Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, later received a percentage of the film’s profits. Two thirds of a percent may not sound like much, but that fraction of a point totted up a healthy $53,000 for Ford in the first three months that Star Wars was on release. And with Star Wars having taken a staggering $798 million worldwide to date, making it one of the highest grossing movies of all time, Ford has done quite nicely out of Lucas’ little science fiction film.

‘Not that money means very much in my life. But suddenly having it made it possible to move into a large house in the Hollywood Hills and equip a large workshop on the premises where I now spend all my spare time making furniture. I don’t think success has changed me. Sure, I live in a big house. But I still manage to be a pretty private sort of a guy. My greatest pleasure is my work and the nearest thing I’ve got to a hobby is my carpentry. I don’t go to parties and I’m not involved in the Hollywood scene. Who knows, maybe if I had socialised a bit more, success would have come much sooner, because in Hollywood, to succeed, you have to know the right people. By some irony, all the right people – like George Lucas and Francis Coppola – all knew me, and I didn’t even have to hustle for their attention.’

And in the months that followed, while Ford was waiting for work to begin on the Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, he didn’t have to hustle for the attention of other filmmakers, either. In fact, Ford was the busiest of the Star Wars stars during that period.

‘That could be because I made an effort to take advantage of the film offers that being in Star Wars gave me,’ he later said. ‘I think people in this industry realise that I’ve played, and am capable of playing, these different types of characters. I was able to do small parts once in a while due to the popularity of Star Wars. I’ve been really lucky to have Star Wars as a part of my life.’

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