Friday, 25 January 2013

Chapter 4, Part 2 - Harrison Ford: Return of the Hero

On the set Irvin Kershner, the director of The Empire Strikes Back, would find that scenes didn’t work and would have to alter carefully storyboarded sequences at the last minute. And because of these alterations he was forced to give precious shooting days over to rehearsals of the new sequences and relighting of the sets.

The animatronic puppet that played the character of Yoda also proved to be one almighty headache. ‘Actually there’s very little of Yoda in the picture,’ Kershner told Starburst’s John Brosnan, ‘and his scenes only took about ten days of filming, but they were very long days. He was monstrously difficult to work with and, on average, it took us three-and-a-half hours to shoot just two lines of his dialogue. The rehearsals took a lot of time too because we had a bank of tv monitors and three, sometimes four, technicians to manipulate Yoda. Frank Oz was coordinating it with me and we were both wearing earphones and mikes. The set was built four or five feet above the floor so we could have all kinds of mechanisms underneath Yoda ... and it took endless rehearsals because you’d start and one of Yoda’s eyes would go in the wrong direction or one ear would suddenly fall down, and I’d have to say, “Up with the left ear,” or “Now take the left eye and move it around to the right ... that’s right, now focus it a little closer.”

"Who's scruffy-looking?"

‘Frank Oz would be watching the tv screens and I’d be watching the screens and the creature but we were the only ones who could hear what Yoda was saying. The crew and Mark Hamill heard nothing – they didn’t know what was happening. Finally, we had to put a tiny earphone on Mark – a tiny miniature earphone with a very fine wire going back behind his ear so he could hear what Yoda was saying.’

Nevertheless the results were worth the bother. Yoda is a very convincing creation on the screen and the character won over the hordes of Star Wars fans instantly.

In the meantime, the problems that Kershner was experiencing were costing the production money. The ‘standing still’ budget (the money it cost to keep the production in business without shooting a single foot of film) was a staggering $100,000 a day. It was left to George Lucas to try to find the extra money from somewhere to ensure completion of the picture. Eventually he was forced to turn to 20th Century-Fox for help, something he wanted to avoid at all costs. And with the mounting financial pressures on The Empire Strikes Back, relationships between Irvin Kershner, George Lucas and Gary Kurtz became strained.


Yet through all this, Harrison Ford had only good things to say about Irvin Kershner. ‘He was wonderful,’ Ford enthused. ‘He’s a different kind of director. But we also had a very close relationship on the level of freedom to contribute.’ Kershner, a director sensitive to the needs and talents of his actors, encouraged every contribution Ford was willing to make. ‘Occasionally, I feel very sure about the changes,’ says Ford, ‘like the “I love you”, “I know” scene. I knew that my last speech had to be a strong character line. I convinced Kersh to give me the “I know” decision and I’m grateful he did. When George finally saw the sequence cut together, he said, “It’s a laugh line. I’m not sure it belongs there. This is a serious, dramatic moment.”

‘I said, “I think it really works.” and Kershner agreed with me. So George said, “Okay, go with it.”

‘From what I’ve seen and heard, the “I know” line really does work. It relieves a grim situation without generating laughs or diverting the drama. It also serves to make Solo’s plight more poignant and memorable.’

The Ford/Fisher chemistry was the chief reason
that Ford's dialogue changes worked.

Harrison Ford has no qualms about altering a line of dialogue that a writer might have spent months on if he feels it will improve the end result.

‘Writers sometimes have to live with a script so long,’ he says firmly, ‘that it begins to suit them too well – they can’t see the validity of changes.’

Lawrence Kasdan wasn’t too happy with some of the changes that had been made to his script – sometimes on the very day of shooting. ‘Han and Leia’s relationship is not at all what I had envisaged,’ Kasdan told the American magazine Starlog. ‘I could be the only person who feels this way, but I thought their romance had a touch of falseness about it. Han and Leia’s scenes were among what I was proudest of in my script, but they hardly remained. Their being changed had a lot to do with the circumstances of filming, Kershner and the actors’ feelings about doing their roles again. I was one of the people who wasn’t crazy about Harrison Ford in Empire.’

When The Empire Strikes Back opened in America on May 21st, 1980, Star Wars fans across the country had been queuing for three days. The film recovered its cost three months after that and eventually went on to pull in nearly as much in ticket sales as the original Star Wars movie. Not bad for a film that caused just about everybody connected with it so many sleepless nights.


The critics’ reception of The Empire Strikes Back was only a little short of a standing ovation.

Variety wrote, ‘Having already introduced their principal players, the filmmakers now have a chance to round them out, assisted again by good performances from Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. And even the ominous Darth Vader is fleshed with new – and surprising – motivations.’

The Washington Post thought, ‘the total effect is fast and attractive and occasionally amusing. Like a good hot dog, that’s something of an achievement in a field where unpalatable junk is the rule.’

The San Francisco Chronicle said, ‘The emotional landscape of The Empire Strikes Back is the richest in the Star Wars trilogy. Every character is more developed, more familiar, more quirky in this movie. Han, the smart-aleck, now is in a full-court press to woo Princess Leia, and his repeated mocking of her “royal highnessness” goads her into a classic mating ritual of teases and glances – and wet kisses.’ 

Ford and "Her Royal Highnessness" Carrie Fisher
horse around on the Millennium Falcon set.

Yet some did point out that the ending of the film was no ending at all and smacked of the same kind of thinking behind the cliff-hanging endings of the old Saturday morning serials – a cheap shot to get the audiences back for the third part of the trilogy. Harrison Ford backed the filmmakers’ decision in the face of such comments and answered them smoothly.

‘I have no real defence for that argument,’ he admitted, ‘but what obligation is there to tie up every question with an equal answer? The cliff-hanger is because the trilogy was really constructed in the classic form of a three-act play. Naturally, there are going to be questions in the second act which have to be resolved in the third. I guess it really depends on what you go to a movie for. I figure there was at least eleven dollars worth of entertainment in Empire. So if you paid four bucks and didn’t get an ending, you’re still seven dollars ahead of the game.’

Audiences agreed and voted with their cash. Empire was safely the biggest earner of 1980 and its worldwide box-office of almost $534 million means that it’s the 39th highest grossing movie of all time.

The Academy nominated the movie in the categories for Best Art Direction and Best Score and awarded The Empire Strikes Back the Oscar for Best Sound, as well as a Special Achievement Oscar for the Special Effects.

The accusations that Empire was too serial-like could have been an omen of Ford’s next project. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Harrison Ford would go on to star in George Lucas’s homage to those same Saturday morning serials in the brilliant 1930s-style adventure movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Chapter 4, Part 1 - Harrison Ford: Return of the Hero

... and back again 

‘I’m very cautious of the word “star”. I do my job. I have been very lucky. Now I have to figure out how to milk it without letting it dry up.’ Harrison Ford

On March 7th, 1979, the Unit Publicist of The Empire Strikes Back released the following bulletin to the world’s news agencies: ‘American actor Harrison Ford has reached the snow stricken pass at Finse, Norway, to start work in The Empire Strikes Back in a manner to justify the claim that the show must go on.

‘He arrived in the engine compartment of a snow-clearance vehicle, the only thing that could move along the Oslo-Bergen single track railroad which avalanches and collapsed snow tunnels have blocked.

‘Ford had flown from London to Oslo to catch the train which travels a circuitous route across some of the most hostile winter terrain in Europe. At Geilo, a sizeable ski resort 30 miles east of his destination, the train was stopped in blizzard conditions.

‘The railroad had decided to return its train to Oslo. But the filmmakers needed Harrison Ford for scenes in the morning. So they radioed the train to unload the actor who then, by two improbable taxi rides, reached Ustaoset, just 23 miles from Finse. That was where the snow plough found him, to bring him along the track between 50 foot high snow drifts to Finse, which he reached at midnight.’ 

In retrospect, the makers of The Empire Strikes Back should have taken Harrison
Ford’s hectic arrival at the first location of the film as an omen of things to come. ‘Empire went about $6 million over budget,’ star Mark Hamill later said, ‘and ten weeks over schedule, which drove George (Lucas) crazy because he doesn’t like to see waste.’ Lucas would have been particularly wary of waste on Empire, as it was financed with his own money, a fact he pointed out frequently to the cast and crew alike.

The Empire principals horse around on a Norwegian glacier.

The script for The Empire Strikes Back was written by Lawrence Kasdan after he’d done the screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kasdan explained the beginning of his involvement with the Empire project in the American magazine Starlog.

‘I had absolutely no indication that my writing Empire was even being considered. Once I got the job I was excited because I liked Star Wars very much. I thought it was great art, in that Star Wars hooked into the archetypal images registered in our subconscious of how children perceive the world.’

Kasdan had been brought in after the death of respected science fiction and film writer Leigh Brackett, best known for her screenplays for The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1959). Before engaging Kasdan, George Lucas had completed a second draft, based on Brackett’s first draft version. Kasdan hadn’t read the complete Brackett script. ‘I only skimmed it. It was sort of old fashioned and didn’t really relate to Star Wars. George had the story very well outlined, but there were sections in his script which, when I read them, made me say to myself, “I can’t believe George wrote that scene. It’s terrible.” I later learned that George wrote stuff like that simply so that whoever wrote the next draft would know that a scene covering approximately the same kind of material that his sequence dealt with belonged at that point in the script. My job was to take George’s story and make it work through altering the dialogue and the structure. Naturally a movie is not a screenplay, but you can’t make a good movie without a good script.’


After the nightmare George Lucas had gone through writing and directing Star Wars he decided that kind of involvement in so complicated a film project was simply more than he was willing to take on. His idea was to complete a rough draft of the script for Empire then turn it over to a professional writer for completion and polishing up. Then, with a professionally produced screenplay, he would turn his attentions to finding a director with the experience and the enthusiasm to helm the movie. He was looking for someone he knew and could trust to remain faithful to his original vision. He finally settled on Irvin Kershner, who had been one of his film teachers during his college days at USC in California. 

‘I knew George and (Empire producer Gary) Kurtz at the University of Southern California,’ Kershner confirms, ‘where I took courses and also taught. Through the years I occasionally saw them, but we weren’t close friends.’

Harrison Ford on the Hoth hangar set between takes.

Irvin Kershner, or ‘Kersh’ as he was called by the Empire crew, had started his working life as a professional musician. ‘Before all this, I played violin and viola for chamber music and orchestras. I wanted to be a composer, originally, so I started with music. Then I went into art and photography. I travelled for the UN, UNESCO, for Syracuse University, for USC, for the State Department, and made hundreds of documentaries. I always did my own photography, until I began working in Hollywood. Kershner’s film debut was with the 1958 film, Stakeout on Dope Street. From there he went on to direct such varied movies as Loving (1970), Raid on Entebbe (1977) and the John Carpenter scripted horror thriller Eyes of Laura Mars (1978).

Kershner was brought in on the Empire project while Leigh Brackett was still working on her screenplay. ‘She was about halfway through the script when I became involved,’ said Kershner, ‘and we decided to let her finish the thing before getting into meetings with her about the re-write – because I knew I’d want a re-write. So while I waited, I had discussions with George and some of the art people who were starting on the initial drawings, just sort of slowly getting started. And when she handed me the first draft, she said she was going into hospital that weekend for a check-up – and she never came out.

‘So suddenly we had a first draft script on our hands and a definite start date for the picture on March 5th, 1979, which meant we’d have to get moving. So we took the script and started reading it and making a few changes – then George said, “You know, we’ve got to bring in a writer. Someone who is strong on dialogue and who can take on the burden of getting it whipped into shape.” So we brought in Larry Kasdan, and for months we would meet at my apartment in Los Angeles and go over it section by section. He would go off and re-write a section for a few days or a week, then he’d come back and we’d go over the pages he’d done, then he’d do another section. We did a very extensive re-write but it was still basically her script.

‘When we’d polished it to the point that I thought it was now workable I came over to London and began pre-production, which for the first few months consisted of making drawings. I visualised and drew up the whole film to create the flow of it, to get the feel of the sets and the actual staging of scenes and even the cutting. It had to be very precise – so precise that drawings were made before the art director began to make the sets. Then we began to incorporate how the special effects would be done and I had to keep altering the drawings accordingly.

‘It took about six months producing those drawings – we ended up with a book a foot thick. I sent copies to George and to all the technicians so everyone knew what they would be doing. With this book it was possible to get the flow of the picture established, which was the most important thing of all. Because as soon as you have a picture with a lot of gadgetry, blue screens, matte shots, super-impositions, etc, it tends to become very stiff if you’re not careful. The actors become as stiff as the gadgets themselves.

Ford glowers at the camera for a publicity picture on the Hoth set.

‘That was a major problem because the whole picture is special effects. People don’t realise that almost every shot has something in it that’s a special effect, and about half the effects were done completely on the set. Yoda, for instance was a total special effect and all done on the set. We added nothing to him later. Then there were the mechanical effects like the water effects and the fogs – there were so many things that we created right there ... but, of course, there were many shots where I could shoot live action and then send the scene back to the studio in San Francisco for the opticals to be added. It was really a locked down situation on many of those shots. I mean, there were shots where we had to use the VistaVision camera (a special camera in which the film runs through the gate horizontally instead of vertically, giving a clearer image definition), it had to be exactly four-and-a-half feet off the ground, it had to be pointed no more than fifteen degrees up, the light had to come from the right, it had to be orange – all because of the special effects that would be added later – and then I could be free as I wanted within that frame.

‘Then we reached the point where, in some shots, all I had was a completely black set and a few actors. It looked silly – nothing but a couple of lines drawn on the floor for the actors and that was it. I wouldn’t see the finished scene for maybe six months after I shot it, then I get back a piece of film that’s been married and the whole thing comes to life – it has a background and something flying around and other moving elements. It was a similar situation with some of the snow battle scenes – all I had were some men running towards me, smoke bombs, a few explosions and one man stumbling and falling in the foreground. And then the special effects team start working on it – they put in the three huge Walkers, which was a remarkable job, and then later they put in the laser blasts coming out of the Walkers, one of which hits the man I’d had fall over months before ... so it was all working backwards.’

Monday, 14 January 2013

Chapter 3, Part 2 - Harrison Ford: New Directions


Harrison Ford was next moved from one World War Two tale straight into another. ‘After Force Ten I was looking forward to doing some building alterations to my house in the Hollywood Hills when Kris Kristofferson dropped out of Hanover Street in England,’ explains Ford. ‘They asked me to come to London and take over his role at very short notice. I played an American B-52 bomber pilot stationed in wartime Britain who falls in love with an English nurse (Lesley-Anne Down) married to a British Intelligence Officer (Christopher Plummer). I enjoyed making it, but the long schedule meant it was quite some time before I saw my home again.’

Despite the fact that Ford got along well with his co-stars, Ford hadn’t entirely enjoyed his involvement in the movie, and didn’t talk much about the film until it was long behind him. ‘I don’t even like to think about Hanover Street,’ said Ford just before the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark. ‘The director (Peter Hyams) and I did not get along. I’ve never even seen the film.’ All of which begs the question, then why appear in the movie at all? Ford had an answer for that. ‘My motivation for doing Hanover Street was because I had never kissed a female human being on the screen before. The characters I played were totally sexless, and here was a movie that was being touted as a romance. That was a clear, obvious reason for doing it.’ Then he added, ‘There are a lot of other reasons, which may or may not have been the right ones for doing it.’

Harrison Ford puckers up for his first screen kiss ... ahhh!

What Ford doesn’t explain is that if he hadn’t taken the role, the project would have in all likelihood have collapsed, leaving a crew of 120 jobless and the backers General Cinemas out of pocket to the tune of $7 million. Something else Ford doesn’t mention is that the long separation from Mary would put a big strain on their marriage.

But for all that, the critics were less than kind about Hanover Street. Said Playboy’s Bruce Williamson, ‘Ford, as a romantic leading man, is fairly stolid and one-dimensional, labouring hard to simulate the kind of casual charm that Redford, Newman and a dozen other male actors must work hard to conceal when they want to be taken seriously. Hyams gives us a pair of lovers who seldom appear to enjoy each other very much.’ Uncharitable, perhaps, but cinema audiences seemed to agree on the whole and the film, taking just $3 million in the US, set no box-office records.

To be fair, while the movie plods during the romantic sequences with the gorgeous Lesley-Anne Down and a distinctly uncomfortable-looking Harrison Ford – due mostly to a complete lack of chemistry between the two – it picks up during the mission when Plummer and Ford operate behind enemy lines disguised as Nazis.

Harrison Ford, not disguised as a nazi.

The movie gossip magazines, like People, were more interested in making a story out of Ford and his Hanover Street co-star Lesley-Ann Down being more than just co-workers. But there was more to the failure of the Fords’ marriage than just idle gossip. The fact was that Mary was becoming increasing more uncomfortable with the circus that went along with Harrison’s blossoming film career. Pictures of her in the post-Star Wars hoopla showed her on Harrison’s arm, uneasy with the frenzied activities of the paparazzi around her. In was almost inevitable, in retrospect, that cracks would begin to appear in Mary and Harrison’s relationship.

‘I wasn’t prepared,’ said Ford, ‘either by experience, maturity or disposition to be a good husband or good father the first time around. I wasn’t easy to live with. I was bitter and cynical.’

When the separation came in 1978, Harrison and Mary kept the split amicable. Ford felt he could do no less. ‘I owe everything to Mary,’ he told an interviewer. ‘Without her, I wouldn’t be in the cinema today, because I wouldn’t have accepted the role of Han Solo. When Lucas made me the offer, I hadn’t been in front of a camera for three years. Mary wasn’t only beautiful and kind, she gave me the confidence to accept. She pushed me back into the cinema.’

Ford voiced his regret when he said, ‘The cinema separated us, and I will never forgive it for that.’


One of the post-Star Wars projects you’ll never see mentioned in any interview with Harrison Ford is probably one of the most entertaining, for all the wrong reasons: The Star Wars Holiday Special.

For some reason, probably the insistence of Fox executives that the studio needed something Star Wars on tv during the run-up to Christmas, George Lucas okayed the making of the Holiday Special, then somehow managed to get most of the cast to agree to appear. And that was when Lucas wisely took a step back from this project and left Ford, Fisher, Hammill et al to make the best of it. Merry Christmas, guys ...

The Star Wars Holiday Special - probably the worst tv show ever.

It’s proved nigh impossible to track down any solid information about the hows and whys of the making of this tv terror. Those who appeared in it will not even admit to its existence. Questioned about it at a science fiction convention in Australia a few years later, Lucas remarked, ‘if I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every bootlegged copy of that program and smash it.’

However, a little diligence and fifteen minutes searching the DVD section of eBay allowed me to buy a copy on disk. And guess what? The Star Wars Holiday Special is everything you’ve heard and more.

Far and away the worst aspect is the interminable framing interludes with Chewbacca’s Wookiee family, conducted entirely in the Wookiee language (no subtitles) with the ill- considered help of character actor Art Carney and Blazing Saddles star Harvey Korman (in drag, no less). These sequences appear to have been shot live with multiple cameras, a common tv technique at the time, but the pace is leaden, making the scenes seem to run far longer than they actually do.

There are some non sequitur contributions from rock band Jefferson Starship (chosen no doubt more because of their cosmic-sounding name than for any suitability of their music) and a weird ‘man’s entertainment’ video watched by Granpa Wookiee which features hot star of the period Diahann Carroll.

It’s not all dreadful – balancing the appalling cantina sequence, with The Golden Girls’ Bea Arthur as the bar tender, is the moderately interesting animated sequence which introduces mercenary Boba Fett for the first time.

The grim Wookiee framing sequence is brought to its long overdue climax when Han Solo and Chewbacca show up and pitch an Imperial Stormtrooper over the balcony of the Wookiee home – then Carrie Fisher sings a song which sets a string of platitudes to the tune of the Star Wars theme.

Based on this and the trance-like appearances by the other Star Wars principle actors, you could be forgiven for thinking that Ford, Fisher and Hammill had been blackmailed into appearing in this travesty, so flat are their performances.

By the end of the treacle-like 97 minutes, you’ll be ready to cheerfully strangle anyone who wishes you a Happy Life Day.

A bit of a bonus for me was the inclusion on the disk of some original Kenner toy ads from the period – no real connection to the Star Wars Holiday Special, though you can be sure that the audience of the show was bombarded with commercials not unlike these ...


Towards the end of 1978 Harrison Ford, unlike Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, had not signed up before Star Wars for all three movies, but he had agreed to appear in The Empire Strikes Back. Ford had negotiated with George Lucas for better terms. He also wanted to see the character of Han Solo become ‘more dashing’. Lucas agreed readily to the terms, although, in the end, Ford ended up making no more than his two co-stars from the Star Wars sequel.

In the meantime, Ford had just time for one more movie before returning to the camp of George Lucas, The Frisco Kid.

The project had originally come up during the filming of Heroes. In his interview in Playboy for August 1977, Henry Winkler mentioned that he was considering an oddball buddy movie called, at that time, "No Knife", about an immigrant Hasidic rabbi crossing America from East to West to set up a rabbinate in San Francisco, helped along the way by a bandit with a heart of gold. Although it wasn’t made clear which role he was considering, it was pretty unlikely that he was considering the role of the Rabbi. What wasn’t mentioned was that director Aldrich’s first choice for the role – indeed the actor he had in mind while he was pulling the project together – was the legendary cowboy John Wayne. But rumour has it that an over-zealous studio exec tried to bargain with Wayne’s agent over Wayne’s fee, causing Wayne to drop out.

Finally, Winkler too passed up the role, though Gene Wilder, already a pretty big star with films like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and Silver Streak behind him, was signed for the part of Avram, the trainee rabbi.

It’s not such a stretch to deduce that Winkler mentioned he was dropping out of the project during the filming of Heroes and suggested Ford take the Tommy Lillard role.

What is surprising is that a usually reliable director like Robert Aldrich could turn out such a turkey of a movie. Yet in the film business you’re only as good as your last picture and the critics were unimpressed by such earlier Aldrich credits as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and The Dirty Dozen. Said one reviewer, ‘Aldrich is stuck up the wrong turning he took with The Choirboys. Like that film, The Frisco Kid is based on the dangerous assumption that a number of comic episodes will add up to a comedy ... one only hopes that his itch for comedy has been well and truly scratched.’ It’s been suggested by some film commentators that because Aldrich fashioned the project with Wayne in mind for the Tommy Lilliard role, he was depressed and disappointed when his first choice of star dropped out and took his disappointment out on Ford.

Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford make an unlikely comedy duo in Frisco Kid.

Ford’s thoughts about his involvement in the project have passed unrecorded, but The Frisco Kid will go down on record as the last of the films of this period that Ford should never have been involved in.

Over the next rise was Ford’s return to the role that had made him a household name a few years earlier ... Han Solo.


With the break up of his marriage to Mary, Ford had to find a new home. Not far from the residence of Fred Roos, Ford saw the house he was looking for – a well-constructed 1941 clapboard dwelling that he could work and rework until it was the perfect reflection of the American classic style that Ford had grown up with.

The other big change in Ford’s life as 1978 drew to a close was his deepening friendship with Melissa Mathison. A year earlier, during the publicity tour for Star Wars, Ford had met up with his old friend Fred Roos who was producing The Black Stallion for Francis Coppola in Toronto. Also at the dinner was the screenwriter Melissa Mathison, whom Ford had met in passing in the Philippines during the shooting of Apocalypse Now.

Melissa had been a journalist, working for People magazine, then was offered a job as an assistant on The Godfather Part II through a family connection with the Coppolas. It was Francis Coppola who encouraged Melissa to move from journalism into screenwriting, culminating in an assignment to re-write the script for The Black Stallion.

Ford and Mathison were seeing each other regularly during the filming of The Frisco Kid. In fact, Ford had asked Kid producer Mace Neufeld to look at some of Mathison’s work. Neufeld would come to regret not taking Ford’s advice when Mathison later wrote the screenplay for ET, a film that went on to out-gross Star Wars.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Chapter 3, Part 1 - Harrison Ford: New Directions

From Star Wars to Wars Star

‘When I saw Star Wars before it was released, I realised the power of it as a piece of film-making, and set out deliberately to try to do something that would contrast with the character of Han Solo.’ Harrison Ford

The principal photography of Star Wars was completed in the August of 1976. It would be nine months before the movie was dropped on an unsuspecting American public. But Harrison Ford didn’t sit around and wait for success to come to him. The role in Star Wars was his biggest achievement in the eleven years he had been in movies. He was aware that Han Solo had been a major role in a major film. If he was to avoid the typecasting he feared would follow in the wake of Star Wars he had to make his move immediately. He cast around for a part that would avoid the flippant derring-do of the Solo character, and found it in a rather grim tv horror movie, The Possessed (1977). Starring James Farentino, the film was a cynical reworking of some of the themes from 1973’s The Exorcist, pitting Farentino’s unfrocked priest against a bunch of demons in a girls’ boarding school. Ford played the cool biology teacher all the girls had a crush on.

Ford looks fresh-faced in the Exorcist knock-off, The Possessed.

Harrison Ford’s next film role was yet another piece of space filling, which he did at the request of his old friend Fred Roos. Francis Coppola was about to begin work on his latest project, a Vietnam war tale which had been written by John Milius and had originally been slated to be directed by George Lucas as a ‘mockumentary’ on location in Vietnam while the conflict was in full effect. As it worked out, Lucas had stepped aside and Coppola himself ended up in the director’s chair. The film was the now-legendary Apocalypse Now, which was shot in the Phillipines and starred Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall.

‘My scene was shared with Martin Sheen,’ recalls Ford. ‘It wasn’t a big role for me, just a nine-day cameo as a US Army Intelligence Colonel. I had my hair cut short and presented another image, Vietnam style.’

As, perhaps, a tip of the director’s hat to Lucas’s early involvement in the movie, Coppola had Harrison Ford’s character wear a name-tag on his uniform which read ‘Col G. Lucas’.

Ford was almost unrecognisable as "Col G.Lucas" in Apocalypse Now.

‘It’s just the one scene,’ says Ford, ‘the laundry list scene – it told the audience all they needed to know for the rest of the movie. And when George (Lucas) saw it, the scene was half-way over before he recognised me. That was exactly the way I wanted it.’

When asked by writer Tony Crawley how he would compare Lucas and Coppola as filmmakers, Ford replied, ‘It’s really presumptuous for an actor to get into that kind of discussion. More so for me, I’m not intellectually equipped to make such judgements. Let’s see – they both have beards and glasses, and a difference in personality. I know what the differences are, but it would take me about two days to explain it. Certainly, they both allow their actors enormous freedom. Francis lets you make a choice and then moves everything to support you, to make it work for you. He’s really delightful.’

But as much as Ford may have enjoyed the experience, brief as it was, on Apocalypse Now, it was still really only walk-on cameo. Word of Ford’s performance in Star Wars must have been getting around, because Ford was offered a meaty supporting role in a middleweight Hollywood movie called Heroes.

Heroes was the film which marked the big-screen debut of Henry Winkler. Winkler had shot to fame in the phenomenally successful Happy Days tv series. It's commonly believed that Happy Days was based, unofficially, on American Graffiti. However, the basis for Happy Days was an episode of top-rated tv show Love, American Style ("Love and the Happy Days", 25 Feb 1972) that aired before Lucas' film went into production. In any case, Winkler had grown tired of being so irreversibly identified with ‘The Fonz’ and had selected Heroes for his escape from television. 

The story concerned the uncertain adventures of a returning Vietnam veteran, whose ambition it is to set up a worm farm in Nowheresville, California, and his relationships with his best pal (Harrison Ford) and his girl (Sally Field). Jeremy Paul Kagan was the director.

Ford had the thankless task of playing Henry Winkler's best buddy in Heroes.

‘I did Heroes for short money,’ says Ford. ‘It wasn’t a big part, and I wasn’t paid big money.’

The filming of Heroes was straightforward enough except for one hiccup which involved Harrison Ford and occurred before even a foot of film had run through the cameras.

‘Ten days before shooting Heroes,’ recalls Ford, ‘Jeremy changed my character from a mid-Western to a Missouri farm-boy. So off I went to Missouri with a tape-recorder to learn the accent. I bummed around for about three days and went and met the actual type I was going to play – a guy interested in cars. I went into an auto-part store and told them I was a writer because if you tell them you’re an actor, you spend the rest of the time talking about movies – and it also puts a certain distance between you and them.’

When it was released, Heroes proved not to be the cinema box-office success Henry Winkler was looking for. The film was over-long and patchy and sank without a trace.

‘It was a good part,’ says Ford philosophically, ‘but Henry Winkler was the real star of the film.’ His next role, as the American Ranger Lieutenant-Colonel Barnsby in Force Ten From Navarone, brought him a little closer to centre-stage.

Taking the role in Force Ten From Navarone was probably one of the sounder career decisions made by Harrison Ford during the period that immediately followed Star Wars. Although it was another supporting role, the fact that it was a major Hollywood style movie made it preferable to a leading role in a small independent production.

‘It’s fun to do those supporting roles, because they’re good character pieces,’ Ford pointed out to an interviewer. ‘The problem is that they don’t usually write character parts as the leads of the movies. Unfortunately, you can’t always play the supporting roles because of the complicated vision that people in this industry have. Hollywood only really takes notice when you’re being paid the money and given the billing that a “lead actor” gets. That’s why Force Ten from Navarone was important for me to do. Its cast was a “package of big names” which included me.’

Force Ten from Navarone was a belated sequel to the 1961 war adventure The Guns of Navarone and tells how the only survivors of the first adventure, Major Mallory (here played by Robert Shaw) and Sergeant Miller (Edward Fox) are sent to Yugoslavia with Lt Col Mike Barnsby (Harrison Ford) and his squad of US Rangers to find and eliminate Nicolai Lescovar, the German spy who sabotaged the original mission and who is now posing as a Yugoslavian resistance fighter.

Ford must have seen something in the character he could work with. In a press junket interview before the film was released, he did talk about the character as though he respected the kind of person Barnsby was. ‘He’s a man of real capacity. He flies, he fights, he’s got brains, but everything works against him. At the last minute he gets the Robert Shaw and James Fox characters tacked onto his mission, so there’s a lot of adversity in the relationship between them, until he begins to need them and they begin to need him – a nice kind of continuity of cross purposes that become established and finally resolved. An interesting character. I think it’ll work.’

Ford didn't really have much to work with in the humourless
role of Barnsby in
Force Ten from Navarone.

When Force Ten from Navarone was released it wasn’t well received by the critics, though Playboy’s Bruce Williamson gave the film a cautious thumbs-up, saying, ‘Guy Hamilton builds Force Ten into a straightforward, man-size adventure – a nostalgic toast to the good old war years, when we unequivocally rooted for our side to win.’

The Monthly Film Bulletin was less charitable. ‘Leadenly scripted and directed, this rather belated sequel to The Guns of Navarone is depressingly short on thrills and almost completely lacking in suspense.’

For me the biggest problem was the clash between ex-Bond helmer Guy Hamilton’s decidedly old-fashioned movie-making style (even more so when you compare it to George Lucas’ staging and direction on Star Wars, filmed a year or two earlier) and the very contemporary acting style of Ford, clearly ahead of his time and waiting for the rest of the movie industry to catch up with him.

Ford is the first to admit that there wasn’t very much in Force Ten from Navarone he could work on. ‘Mike Barnsby was one of those macho, tough-guy parts that everyone thought I should be doing.’ He expanded on this in another post release interview. ‘Force Ten from Navarone was an attempt, in a way, to objectify the success of Star Wars. It wasn’t a personal success for me. It was George’s movie, his success. Nonetheless, I wanted to take advantage of the chance to work. And it was a job I did for the money. And I was lost, because I didn’t know what the story was about. I didn’t have anything to act. There was no reason for my character being there. I had no part of the story that was important to tell. I had a hard time taking the stage with the bull that I was supposed to be doing. I can’t do that, and I won’t ever do that again. It wasn’t a bad film. There were honest people involved making an honest effort. But it wasn’t the right thing for me to do.’