Harrison Ford is 80 years old today. He’s been one of my favorite actors–hell, for a lot of my youth he was my favorite actor–pretty much ever since I was aware of actors as actual people who had real names. Of course this was because of Star Wars! Han Solo was my favorite character early on, and I gravitated to Ford’s laconic and sarcastic portrayal of a space pirate whose heart was just waiting to be unlocked.
I would for years watch anything just because Harrison Ford was in it. I’d stay up late to watch a movie called The Frisco Kid, a Western in which Ford is an outlaw who ends up helping a wayward Rabbi (played by Gene Wilder) get to San Francisco. I remember Ford in a film called Heroes, starring Henry Winkler as a Vietnam vet who is struggling with PTSD. I badgered my mother into taking me, as an 11-year-old, to see Blade Runner, for which I was almost certainly too young. I was only vaguely interested in Raiders of the Lost Ark (what did I care if it was directed by the guy who did Jaws and written by the guy who wrote Star Wars?) until I learned that Harrison Ford was in it.
And there was Witness in 1985, still unequaled in Ford’s career.
I’ve seen most of Ford’s filmography, though not all of it. Ford’s been a constant presence in my moviegoing world for pretty much the entire time I’ve been seeing movies that weren’t kiddie-fare or animated features. He’s not the kind of chameleon actor who looks different each time out, like Daniel Day Lewis, but he has more range than I think a lot of people give him credit for. And there’s always that Harrison Fork twinkle in the eye, this reassuring gleam that tells us in the audience: “Hey, I’ve got this. Don’t worry.”
As an action star, I always get the feel that Harrison Ford is playing normal guys who wind up in action scenarios. He’s not a guy who knows what to do, but a guy who takes stock of what’s going on around him. Ford’s characters are always aware in a way that makes Ford a part of the scene, really in the movie’s world, and not just acting on a set. Few actors show their characters thinking their way through their struggles as well as Ford. You can always see his character thinking, processing, their wheels turning.
Mark Hamill described working with Harrison Ford in a late-night appearance a few years ago, and this is a great testimonial because he describe’s Ford’s awareness extending not just to the scene but to the project as a whole. Ford always knows what the job is, and what he has to do to get the job done. It’s probably an attitude born of his years as a carpenter, before he caught on as an actor; a carpenter’s work is completely defined, after all! You know what you’re building, you know what materials you’re working with, you know what you have to do in what order to get the job done. Ford seems to have a similar approach to acting, and what a good thing. (This may also be why Ford always seems so bemused and out of place in interviews; the guy looks at acting as a job, so what’s there to talk about? Who brings the carpenter on to a teevee show to talk about what it meant to build a table?)
Here’s Mark Hamill:
For a long time it was almost a cottage industry to complain about Harrison Ford’s approach to his own career. The narrative was that he was just taking jobs to stay busy, that he didn’t care about rising to a challenge, and that he’d probably never rise again to the level of his work in Witness because he just didn’t seem like he wanted to. I honestly don’t know what to make of that, but I will note that for me, Harrison Ford’s body of work stands in much better light than many think. And I hope he’s still got time and desire to do some more.
Happy birthday, Harrison Ford! You always get the job done.
And that’s a hell of a thing.