— The first time Harrison Ford really burst onto moviegoers’ radar was as the Stetson-wearing Bob Falfa in the 1973 film “American Graffiti.” From that, he got a carpentry gig remodeling director George Lucas’ office, and as a result of that association snagged small roles in the Francis Ford Coppola films “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now.”
Smash-cut to present day. On July 29, Ford will share the marquee with Daniel Craig in the action-adventure film “Cowboys & Aliens.” A lot of celluloid has gone by since Ford cruised the streets of Modesto in that cherry ’55 Chevy. He established himself as a Hollywood superstar in the “Star Wars” series and the “Indiana Jones” franchise, along with “Blade Runner,” “Witness,” “Patriot Games,” “The Fugitive” and many others.
Say “Harrison Ford” to a film buff and you will likely get a wave of warm nostalgia in return. But since he's just turned 69, it’s only natural to wonder if the actor still has the magic.
“Statistically I would say no, that he no longer has that kind of power as a movie star,” said Grae Drake, film critic for movies.com. “If you look at his movies from the past 10 or 11 years, there’s nothing that you could say was highly acclaimed, or nothing that was a huge breakout hit at the box office, with the exception of the last ‘Indiana Jones’ film, which had a lot of built-in nostalgia money in it.”
But Drake said that even though the Harrison Ford of 2011 isn’t as bankable as he might have been in previous decades, his presence in any film adds value.
“He’s like a comfortable blanket that we all like to put on,” Drake explained. “But he, like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, realize that monetarily they’re not pulling in the kind of attention they used to.
“I like to believe he’s slowed down because that seems to be appropriate for an actor of his age. He’s long proven himself. He’s been working for over 40 years. And he can do anything — action, comedy, thrillers, drama. He’s everyman.”
It’s that last point that probably drives the Harrison Ford ethos to this day. Over the years, in one handsome leading-man role after another, Ford has embodied the qualities of a protagonist that build trust and carry over from project to project.
Jay Mechling, a professor emeritus of American studies at the University of California-Davis, explained that what Ford isn’t is “a hero who is a loner with special skills of violence,” someone like the heroes of “Shane,” “Dirty Harry” or “Rambo.”
“The other sort of hero is that everyman, thrust into a situation involuntarily, sometimes by accident,” Mechling said. “(Director Alfred) Hitchcock loved using Jimmy Stewart in that role. Harrison Ford has had a string of roles where the hero is thrust into that situation where he must act to save someone.”
Everyman actors need specific qualities, Mechling said. “I think it’s the way they act with their faces and voices, their body language and speech patterns,” he said. “Stewart had it in his droopy, sad look and his stuttering delivery. He was tall, but could portray resignation in his shrinking body. He could convey bewilderment.
“The everyman is at the mercy of people and forces he barely knows and barely understands. He chooses not to be a victim in the face of this bewilderment and threat.”
One of the most underrated examples of this is Ford’s performance as Dr. Richard Walker in the 1988 Roman Polanski thriller, “Frantic.” In it, Ford arrives with his wife for a conference in Paris, and she disappears. Suddenly, he is presented with an emotional trauma mixed with mystery, and as the everyman, must figure out what happened and get his wife back.
There are other examples in the Ford canon as well, including “Presumed Innocent” in 1990, “The Fugitive” in ’93 and “Firewall” in 2006.
Roger Ebert, longtime critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, has been on the beat for all of Ford’s career. He said some actors are just natural at this everyman thing, and Ford happens to be one of them.
“He is such a reliable action hero,” noted Ebert, “because it never seems to be an effort.”
Richard Loncraine, who directed Ford in the 2006 thriller “Firewall,” said it almost doesn’t matter what film the actor’s in. Ford brings a level of authenticity to his work that applies to any material.
"I haven't seen ‘Cowboys and Aliens,’ ” he said, “but if there is one quality that Harrison can bring to this film, apart from being a superb actor, it’s that he could make anything seem believable, even cowboys and aliens.
“When we worked together on ‘Firewall’ he was as staunch an ally as any director could wish for. ('Cowboys' director) Jon Favreau was lucky to have him on board."
While Ford is at that stage of his career where his body of work speaks for itself, there is still a nagging suggestion that he might need a hit in order to burnish his reputation.
“My instinct says that there is nothing at stake for him because he is already a superstar,” Drake said. “It’s hard to say whether this is going to bring him back somehow.” Drake added that the focus on “Cowboys & Aliens” as a big summer release will be more on whether audiences buy the concept, not on one particular actor.
“I wonder if, at this time in his career, it just looks like a lot of fun,” Drake added. “Harrison Ford deserves to have fun at this age. He’s delighted us for decades.”