Harrison Ford is a true artist, one who unwaveringly maintains his integrity and, through his choice of roles, continually challenges both himself and his audiences’ perception of him. Unique among action heroes, Harrison Ford brings to the screen believable, flesh-and-blood men, flaws and all. Invariably sympathetic and relatable, Ford relies on his intelligence and wit, rather than on manufactured superpowers, to defeat his foes. Whether he’s playing a doctor, lawyer, archeologist, CIA agent or even the president of the United States, all of Ford’s characters share his humanity, warmth and, most significantly, his vulnerability. At the same time, Ford is an undisputed box-office champ, with his movies having earned more than $2 billion just here in America.
No other contemporary actor matches Ford’s charisma and Everyman qualities. He’s more a throwback to great stars of the past, both introspective loners, as well as swashbuckling romantic heroes. Ivan Reitman, who directed Ford in SIX DAYS SEVEN NIGHTS, likens him to Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable, “guys who wear a rumpled exterior comfortably, engage in classically male activities and retain a sense of humor about themselves.” Other comparisons have included screen legends Gary Cooper, James Stewart, John Wayne and Errol Flynn.
It is Ford’s vulnerability that makes his performances so much fun to watch. Always on the run, he habitually makes a mistake and finds himself face-to-face with his adversary, with seemingly no means of escape. But, just when we think this time he’s finally trapped, he triumphs over impossible odds — be it crawling through slithering snakes or jumping off a dam into raging waters — leaving us breathlessly laughing at his shrewdness and daring.
A deliberate and cerebral actor, Ford always takes his work — but never himself — deadly seriously. While he appreciates the abundant accolades bestowed upon him (1994’s N.A.T.O. ShoWest Star of the Century, 1996’s Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Theatrical Man of the Year, 1997’s Peoples Choice Award for Favorite Male Actor, 1998’s G.Q. Magazine’s Man of the Year Award and 1998’s People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive), the awards ultimately mean less to him than turning in a precise, refined, delicate performance.
Throughout his 25-plus year career, Ford has always forged ahead with a clear vision, refusing to bow to pressure or demands. When early on he was told that the name Harrison was too pretentious and must be changed, “I suggested the dumbest name I could think of — ‘Kurt Affair.’ They were understandably chagrined.” Even when he couldn’t financially afford not to take whatever roles were offered, Ford refused to compromise his ideals, teaching himself carpentry in order to support his family and to give himself the luxury of only accepting roles he deemed worthwhile. A consummate craftsman, Ford soon found himself a “carpenter to the stars,” whose reputation as a perfectionist assured him plenty of work. And, the way Ford sees it, similar intellectual processes lead to success as either a carpenter or an actor : “You have to have a logical plan. You have to perceive it from the ground up. You have to lay a firm foundation. Then every step becomes part of a logical process.”
Ford’s early years did not augur future superstar status. This exceedingly specific actor, whose meticulous research is well-known to co-stars and directors alike, is a self-described “late bloomer,” who was admittedly academically unmotivated in college and simply “wanted to be an actor. I didn’t really care how — at what level. I never had an ambition to be rich and famous.”
Ford’s celebrated public persona as a macho, ruggedly handsome action hero is at odds with his childhood, during which he spent much of his time alone, breeding rats and collecting snakes.
And, while seminal performances, such as Indiana Jones in the INDIANA JONES trilogy, Dr. Richard Kimble in THE FUGITIVE and President James Marshall in AIR FORCE ONE, relied upon Ford’s physical prowess at performing his own stunts, the actor actually dislikes exercising and sports in general, calling himself a passionate “anti-jogger.” As for his sex symbol status, Ford remains both amused and mystified. “I don’t know what ladies like,” he says. “I think it has to do with the movies I have made and people’s impressions. It has to do with being allowed into someone’s emotional world over a lonely period of time.” His own thoughts on his world-famous countenance: “I’d like to give my nose one more chance to find a normal position on my face.”
Breaking away from the action adventure heroes for which he was best known, in 1985 Ford took on the role of detective John Book in Peter Weir’s WITNESS. For the first time, his performance depended solely on raw, naked emotions, devoid of eye-popping special effects. His elegant portrayal earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. The role of the irresponsible, unsympathetic father, Allie Fox, in Weir’s THE MOSQUITO COAST was an even further departure. Although playing completely against type wasn’t easily accepted by audiences, Ford defends his choice. “What sense is it to be an actor if you play the same thing over and over again? You need to challenge and broaden yourself.” In 1988’s WORKING GIRL, Ford’s first romantic comedy, his droll sense of humor delighted both audiences and critics, adding one more dimension to his extraordinary appeal.
Unwilling to slow down either professionally or personally, Ford has spent his 50s indulging in a long-held passion — flying his own planes. “I enjoy refining my skills and developing new skills,” he says. “That’s always been an interest of mine in acting, in carpentry, in everything else I have done — to achieve a level of skill and excellence. Flying is no different, just more critical.” Ford piloted his own plane in SIX DAYS SEVEN NIGHTS, bringing a heightened sense of realism and believability to his role.
Given that the price he pays for his phenomenal movie stardom is a complete loss of anonymity, Ford particularly appreciates the unassuming brotherhood he shares with fellow pilots. “The fraternity of aviators cares little for other trappings; they welcome you because of a shared interest and judge you on your flying skills.” Bemused by those eager for a more intimate look into his private life, Ford points directly to his body of work. “What more could you know than what you see on screen? That’s real. Those are real emotions represented. That’s real thought, those are real feelings. I admit to all of it.”
While Harrison Ford is undeniably a movie star, more significantly he’s a truly gifted craftsman; his sense of joy and accomplishment come from an absolute dedication to his art — be it building furniture, soaring solo through the skies or creating a fully realized character within whom we recognize ourselves. Because of his remarkable sense of commitment and integrity in his work and in his life, the American Film Institute is honored to present Harrison Ford with AFI’s 28th Life Achievement Award.