To celebrate Harrison Ford’s 75th birthday on July 13th, Emily Paulson of Ancestry explores how his fascinating family tree is rooted in show business.
Harrison Ford came to acting a little later in life. In high school, he spent time behind the projector as a member of the Visual Aid Service Club at Maine East High in Park Ridge, Illinois. (He was president of the Social Studies Club as well.) It was at Rippon College in Wisconsin, when his grades weren’t looking so good during his last year, that Harrison decided to take a drama class as a way to bump up his GPA. He wound up hooked, but a look into his family’s past reveals that the showbiz bug had been hovering around for generations.
Harrison Ford was born on July 13, 1942, to John William “Christopher” Ford and Dorothy Nidelman. John, who went by Christopher, was a native New Yorker, but in 1940, just before Harrison was born, he was living in Chicago where he worked as a radio actor. And he wasn’t alone. According to the 1940 census, the Fords’ neighbors included another radio actor, a “show card writer,” several musicians, and a “theatrical agent.”
One of Christopher’s biggest roles was as a cast member on a popular radio show called Gang Busters that featured real FBI cases. The show was billed as “the only national program that brings you authentic police case histories.” He had phenomenal success with the show, including tours around the globe. When he retired, he became an advertising executive and voice-over artist.
Christopher was the son of John Edward “Fitzgerald” Ford and Florence Veronica Von Niehaus. Christopher was young when his father died of alcoholism, but prior to his death, John Edward Ford was a vaudeville comedian known as John Fitzgerald Ford. Looking at the New York, New York, Marriage Index, we can see John and Florence were married on April 9, 1905. According to John’s passport application five days later on April 14, 1905, John and Florence lived at 1265 Broadway in New York City, a couple of blocks away from the Empire State Building.
John and Florence had only one child; however, Christopher spent a large part of his adolescence in a Catholic orphanage following his father’s premature death and his mother’s inability to raise him. Florence was born in New York in 1855 to Charles Von Niehaus and Delia Conway. Apparently Delia, like her daughter later, would lose her husband far too young because in the 1900 U.S. Federal Census 15-year-old Florence is living with her widowed mother in Manhattan. But Florence and her mother are not the only ones in the household. In total there are ten residents in their home. Delia appears to have run a boarding house that included several vaudeville actors, actresses, and magicians among the residents. In 1900, Delia and Florence had six vaudeville entertainers boarding with them, including the famous magician Lawrence “Larry” Crane, The Irish Wizard.
Perhaps Florence was introduced to her husband John Edward “Fitzgerald” Ford by one of the performers boarding in her home—or maybe he lived there himself for a time. We may never know, but one thing we can be certain about: acting is in Harrison Ford’s blood. From his father’s vaudevillian tours to his paternal grandparents’ pasts, performing runs through Ford’s genes like Indiana Jones runs from—or toward—the never-ending danger waiting around every bend.