The movie ‘Witness’ turns 30 this week, giving us a reason to celebrate our favorite Harrison Ford roles (as if we needed a reason!)
If you’re going to get stranded on a desert island with any actor in Hollywood, pick Harrison Ford. He’ll build a shelter for you to hang out in while he also builds a raft. If you find an abandoned plane he can fly it, and he’d probably make friends with all the animals. He’s the actor who shies away from talk shows, gets grumpy during interviews, flies a rescue helicopter, and lives away from Hollywood on a sprawling ranch in Wyoming, but he’s one of the biggest box office stars in the world.
While millions think of him as Han Solo or Indiana Jones, his lone Oscar nomination came for a much quieter movie called Witness, directed by Peter Weir and co-starring Kelly McGillis and an 8-year-old Lukas Haas. The movie turns 30 years old this week, so to mark its anniversary, we’re taking a look at seven of our favorite Harrison Ford roles, starting with John Book.
JOHN BOOK – WITNESS (1985)
Fresh off the third Star Wars movie and the second Indiana Jones installment, Ford gave audiences a surprise with this one. He played John Book, a Philadelphia police detective who has to protect a young Amish boy from killers after the boy witnesses a murder. The detective is forced to go undercover in Amish country, where he falls in love with Rachel, the boy’s widowed mother. It’s a doomed romance.
Ford shows off his carpentry skills in this movie as well as his softer and goofier side. With a little help from a Sam Cooke sound-alike track, he laughs and sings and dances in a swoony, romantic scene that shows not an ounce of his familiar swagger. He’s delightful.
Ford was perfect in Witness, playing the big city detective who’s seen it all, forced to hide out in a pastoral Amish community without the power of his badge or his gun. It was a huge change from the action hero persona moviegoers were used to, and Ford proved he could be completely convincing in a story that didn’t rely on special effects or wild adventures. What could provide a greater contrast to jumping into hyperspace, hunting replicants, or battling cults who practice human sacrifice? Hanging with the Amish.
Fun fact: The idea for Witness came from an episode of Gunsmoke written in the 1970s. The movie script was so good that Ford signed on four days after his agent received it. It won the Oscar that year, too.
RICK DECKARD – BLADE RUNNER (1982)
The week Blade Runner hit theaters, Ford went on Late Night with David Letterman to promote it. He explained that it wasn’t sci-fi, but really “futurism blended with a detective story.” Letterman – who kept calling it “The Blade Runner” – asked what kind of a future it took place in. Ford’s answer? “It’s no musical comedy, David.”
Understatement! Blade Runner takes place in pretty dark times. Ford played Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter whose job is to track down and terminate a group of genetically engineered “replicants” that look human but aren’t. It’s a violent movie, full of danger and gloom, and Deckard’s inner struggle is accompanied by his ongoing physical one with the replicants he’s out to destroy. Ford played it straight and gritty, a hard-edged tortured soul forced to fight a battle he’s not entirely sure of.
The production wasn’t a barrel of laughs, either. Ford called it an “unpleasant experience” and the cast and crew described endless, grueling hours of shooting in the rain, and director Ridley Scott’s relentless (but ultimately effective) attention to detail. Only Rutger Hauer, cast without even meeting Scott, has talked about how much he enjoyed the experience. Sean Young had no such lovely memories, as she and Ford didn’t get along at all. Because of that, the love scene between them was called “the hate scene” by crew members. And both Scott and Ford have claimed that the other was difficult to work with. They argued frequently about the direction of the story, and particularly the ending. But it couldn’t have been all bad: a sequel is in the works! Scott will be producing but not directing, and Ford will have a role but not star. It goes into production this year.
Fun fact: Thanks to Blade Runner, Ford became a product spokesman for Japanese electronics in the 1980s.
HAN SOLO – THE STAR WARS SAGA (1977)
When Star Wars hit theaters in 1977, the world was introduced to a new pop culture phenomenon, and the swaggering mercenary-turned-hero Han Solo. Pilot of the fastest ship in the galaxy, Solo takes a job with Luke Skywalker and Ben Kenobi to pay off a debt, and throughout the course of the Star Wars trilogy, he dodges the evil Empire, gets tortured, saves Luke’s life, falls in love with Princess Leia, gets frozen in carbonite, and helps save the galaxy. Among other things.
It’s a perfect role for Ford, who says he only got it after creator/director George Lucas had seen “every other living actor between the ages of 7 and 35.” He was actually better known in Hollywood as a carpenter back then, although he’d appeared in some films, and was initially hired to feed lines to actors auditioning for the movie. Eventually Lucas realized that he already had his Han Solo, and stopped looking.
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, here’s the latest: there’s a new movie coming. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens comes out at the end of this year and picks up 30 years after Return of the Jedi. Ford will be back as Han Solo, along with Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. It’s a good thing Lucas didn’t listen when Ford asked to be killed off in Return of the Jedi.
Fun fact: Want to know why Fisher and Ford look so happy in the Cloud City scene in The Empire Strikes Back? Apparently they’d been out the night before with the Monty Python crew as well as The Rolling Stones, drinking particularly potent liquor the Pythons used to give Life of Brian extras to keep up morale on set.
INDIANA JONES – RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK SERIES (1981)
Just when it can’t get any more iconic for Ford than Han Solo, Indiana Jones comes along. With his trademark fedora and his bull whip, Indiana battles Nazis, cults, Soviet agents, and a slew of other baddies along with giant boulders and pits of snakes. Ford gave Indiana Jones the perfect balance of machismo and intellect, ruthlessness and humor, ego and sacrifice, confidence and guesswork. The character is so entrenched in pop culture history that his jacket and hat are on display at the Smithsonian.
Raiders of the Lost Ark sprung from an idea of George Lucas’, an homage to the movie serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s. He was vacationing in Maui, getting away from the Star Wars hype, and as fate would have it, so was Steven Spielberg. While the two of them were on the beach building a sand castle – can you picture it? – Spielberg mentioned that he was interested in doing a James Bond movie, and Lucas told him he had something much better. Spielberg agreed and a franchise was born. . .eventually. First it was turned down by every studio in Hollywood. D’oh! Raiders of the Lost Ark was the highest grossing movie of 1981 and was nominated for multiple Oscars, including Best Picture.
Surprisingly, one of the big inspirations for the visuals and traps that faced Indy on a regular basis was the Uncle Scrooge comics. It’s true: this unforgettable and now classic sequence was inspired by Scrooge McDuck:
Fun fact: Ford was married to screenwriter Melissa Mathison while they were shooting Raiders. She came to visit him on set, and during shooting breaks, she would work with Spielberg on a screenplay for an idea of his: E.T. The Extraterrestrial.
DR. RICHARD KIMBLE – THE FUGITIVE (1993)
Based on the 1970s TV series, The Fugitive was produced at a frantic pace, which no doubt contributed to the movie’s rushed, high-stakes mood. Screenwriter Jeb Stuart was on set throughout production, writing new scenes as needed, and dialogue was often improvised. When the release date was pushed up, the whole movie had to be turned around in record time, with multiple editors working on different sections of it at the same time to make it tighter, faster, better, and most of all, finished.
Ford played a doctor whose wife is murdered and finds himself convicted of the crime, then goes on a one-man quest to clear his name and find the killer. Who else could have pulled that off? A normal man thrust into a situation he couldn’t have imagined, Dr. Kimble has to draw on resources he never knew he had. When the bus taking him to death row gets hit by a train, he goes on the run. With almost nothing to go on, he resolves to solve his wife’s murder, with the U.S. Marshals just a step or two behind. Tommy Lee Jones was perfectly cast as his relentless pursuer, Javert to his Valjean.
Ford played it to the hilt. During the crash scene, Ford damaged some ligaments in his leg, but refused to get surgery until the end of filming, so Dr. Kimble would limp whenever he was running. He also pulled off an unscripted shoot during Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, although a few marchers definitely did a double-take or two as Ford passed by.
Fun fact: Ford still had his Fugitive beard when he took a brief break to shoot a cameo in The Young Indiana Jones TV series, and that’s what gave George Lucas the idea to make the next Indiana Jones film, and set it in the 1950s.
PRESIDENT JAMES MARSHALL – AIR FORCE ONE (1997)
“Get off my plane!” said the most badass movie president ever. A movie that would never have been made post 9/11, Air Force One tells the story of the roughest, toughest President battling terrorists who threaten his staff, his family, and his country aboard the presidential plane.
Ford perfectly embodied a president with brains AND brawn, forced to confront the reality of terrorism with the stakes both global and personal. Gary Oldman’s Russian terrorist. the ruthless Egor Korshunov, was a great foil for Ford, who told Oldman to actually hit him instead of pretending to during their fight scenes. Ford loved working with Oldman, who was fun and silly in his down time and switched back into a brutal and terrifying villain the minute the cameras turned on again.
Ford was a big help on the production too. When the director couldn’t get access to the real Air Force One, Ford asked his good pal – and dinner guest – President Bill Clinton, and the aircraft was suddenly made available. At that same dinner party, for Clinton’s 50th birthday, Ford leaned over the President’s plate to ask Glenn Close if she’d be willing to play the Vice President. What could she say? She took the job. As for Clinton, he loved the movie, and watched it at least twice while still in office.
Fun fact: Unlike its fictional counterpart, the real Air Force One actually has no escape pod. Sorry, Mr. President!
TOMMY LILLARD – THE FRISCO KID (1979)
Who were you waiting for? Jack Ryan? Too obvious. Instead, how about this strange little gem from 1979? Fresh off of Star Wars, Ford took a left turn, career-wise, to co-star with Gene Wilder in this comedy about a Polish rabbi (Wilder) traveling through the Old West to lead a congregation in San Francisco. After being conned and robbed, he is befriended by a bank robber (Ford) with a soft heart, who helps him make it safely to his synagogue.
It appears to be an odd choice for Ford, playing the straight man in a comedy, but he seems to be having a good time and reportedly he was enthusiastic about it. He got to work Stateside, which was a nice break after being overseas so much. His 12-year-old son, Ben, convinced him to do it by comparing Tommy to Bud Abbott, Ford’s favorite straight man.
Fun fact: This isn’t fun enough for you? Fine, here’s another: he turned down Tom Skerrit’s role in Alien to do The Frisco Kid. Other roles he’s turned down are almost as memorable as the one’s he’s taken. Some examples of the movies he passed on, and the actors who took the roles:
Syriana: George Clooney
Traffic: Michael Douglas
The Patriot: Mel Gibson
Proof of Life: Russell Crowe
Jurassic Park: Sam Neill
Cape Fear: Nick Nolte
The Untouchables: Kevin Costner
Schindler’s List: Liam Neeson
And this surprising one: he turned down the role of Mike Stivic on the TV series All in the Family, because he found Archie Bunker’s bigotry too offensive. Despite the amazing range of Harrison Ford, it’s probably still best that Rob Reiner got the part. Can’t help but wonder how Reiner would have fared as Indiana Jones . . . it would have been a very different movie.
Reiner aside, there may be a new Indy on the way. Rumor has it that Disney is looking to bring the franchise back with Guardians of the Galaxy star Chris Pratt in the lead. He’s already an action star, he has just the right twinkle in his eye, and he’s got some mean dance moves. We approve.