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.

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