At 80, still loving a place in front of the camera

Harrison Ford is shifting from big screen to small but not easing his pace

By Adam Nagourney

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The actor, now 80, is still trying new things, including his first major TV role — just don’t ask him to get all touchy-feely about it. (Chantal Anderson/The New York Times)
The actor, now 80, is still trying new things, including his first major TV role — just don’t ask him to get all touchy-feely about it. (Chantal Anderson/The New York Times)

Published: Sun 18 Dec 2022, 7:16 PM

Last updated: Sun 18 Dec 2022, 8:38 PM

In the course of 20 months and in the midst of a pandemic, Harrison Ford filmed a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” sequel in England. He shot a 10-part comedy, “Shrinking,” in Burbank. He herded cattle up a mountain in subzero Montana temperatures for “1923,” the latest prequel to the hit western series “Yellowstone.”

He also celebrated his 80th birthday.

“I’ve been working pretty much back-to-back, which is not what I normally do,” said Ford, unshaven, wearing bluejeans and boots and easing into a chair at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel here earlier this month. He was in Los Angeles for one night, for the premiere of “1923.” From here, it was on to Las Vegas the next morning for the next screening, yet another stop after a stretch of filming, travel and promotion that would exhaust an actor half his age.

“I don’t know how it happened,” Ford said, taking a sip from his cup of coffee. “But it happened.”

It has been 45 years since Ford leaped off the screen as Han Solo in the first “Star Wars” movie, laying the foundation for a blockbuster career in which he has personified some of the most commercially successful movie franchises in film history. He has appeared in over 70 movies, with a combined worldwide box office gross of more than $9 billion. By now, it would seem, he has nothing left to prove.

But at an age when many of his contemporaries have receded from public view, Ford is not slowing down, much less stepping away to spend more time at his ranch in Jackson, Wyoming. He is still trying new things — “1923” represents his first major television part — still searching for one more role, still driven to stay before the camera.

“I love it,” he said. “I love the challenge and the process of making a movie. I feel at home. It’s what I’ve spent my life doing.”

And why should he slow down? Ford shows no sign of fading, physically or mentally — he was fleet and limber as he strode into the Luxe for our interview, cap pulled down, and later, as he worked the room at the post-premiere party at the Hollywood restaurant Mother Wolf. In his pace and eclectic choice of roles, including the weathered and weary rancher Jacob Dutton of “1923,” he seems as determined as ever to show that he can be more than just the swashbuckling action hero who gave the world Han Solo and Indiana Jones.

“He can rest on his laurels: He doesn’t need to work financially,” said Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars” and who, at 71, does not miss the 5am wake-up calls and the hustling for the next role. “To be doing another ‘Indiana Jones’ — I’m in awe of him.”

Ford is known for being gruff and non-responsive, an actor not given to introspection and with little patience for “put me on the couch” questions. There were flashes of that during our 45 minutes together. “I know I walked myself into that dark alley where you’re now going to have to ask me to describe the character,” he said at one point. “And I don’t want to.”

But for the most part Ford was forthcoming, relaxed and contemplative. This was a promotional tour, and after a half-century in the business, he knows how to do this. “I’m here to sell a movie,” Ford said, though, of course, he was there to sell a TV show — and to some extent, himself.

“I don’t want to reinvent myself,” he said. “I just want to work.”

Ford was always more than just another charismatic Hollywood action star. He could act. There was the swagger and the smirk, but they were put to service in presenting complex heroes with flaws and self-doubt, including John Book, the detective in “Witness”; Jack Ryan, the CIA analyst at the center of the Tom Clancy novels that inspired the films; and Rick Deckard, battling bioengineered humanoids in “Blade Runner.”

That style distinguished him for much of his career from monosyllabic, muscle-bound action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jean-Claude Van Damme, and it has always been integral to his appeal: Hamill said he was struck by it the first time they acted together.

“He was impossibly cool, world-weary, wary, somewhat snarky, flippant,” Hamill said.

Television isn’t entirely new territory for Ford. When George Lucas cast him as a white-cowboy-hat-wearing drag racer in the 1973 film “American Graffiti,” Ford was 30, making a living as a part-time carpenter in Los Angeles. By then he had already been picking up modest roles in series like “Ironside,” “The Virginian” and “Gunsmoke” since the late 1960s.

His role in “1923” is anything but modest: The great-great-great uncle of John Dutton III, the family patriarch portrayed by Kevin Costner in “Yellowstone,” TV’s most popular drama. As with “Yellowstone,” the scope of “1923” is vast — the Western vistas, the sweeping aerial shots, the complexity of the characters and their stories. It also features another major star, Helen Mirren, as his wife, Cara, the tough matriarch of the family.

Ford watches little television — he said he doesn’t have the time — and he knew little about “Yellowstone” when his agent first brought him the role. (In preparation, he watched some of “1883,” the first “Yellowstone” prequel, which follows an earlier generation of Duttons as they travel west by wagon train to establish the family ranch.) Based on an advance screener of the pilot, the cinematic ambitions of “1923” would be familiar to anyone who has watched “Game of Thrones” or “Breaking Bad.” But they have, these past four months, been a pleasant surprise for Ford.

“They keep calling it television,” Ford said, gesturing with a twist of his upper torso to a television screen in the next room. “But it’s so un-television. It is, you know, a huge vista. It’s an incredibly ambitious story that he’s telling in epic scale. The scale of the thing is enormous I think for the television.”

Ford said he had agreed to the role after Taylor Sheridan, the lead creator behind the “Yellowstone” franchise, brought him to his ranch outside Fort Worth, Texas, and sketched out the character. (“I’m 80, and I’m playing 77,” Ford said with a wry grin. “It’s a bit of a stretch.”) Ford was intrigued by Dutton, a stoic and somber rancher who must battle in the final years of his life to protect his land and family.

“The character is not the usual character for me,” Ford said, likening it to his role playing a psychiatrist with Jason Segel in “Shrinking,” created by Segel and Bill Lawrence and Brett Goldstein (of “Ted Lasso”), debuting next month on Apple TV+. “I’ve never been to a psychiatrist in my life.”

Filming “1923” tested his resilience and his love of the craft. Montana proved a brutal place to work; the cast and crew encountered blinding blizzards and stunningly cold temperatures during 10-hour days spent almost entirely outdoors.

“It was a nightmare,” said Timothy Dalton, a former James Bond, who plays a rancher who challenges Ford for control of the land. “We are on top of a hill with a blasting wind coming at us. The cameras freeze up. Your toes freeze up.”

Ben Richardson, who directed most of the “1923” episodes, described filming Ford as he rode horses up steep mountains, against knife-sharp winds, as Dutton herds cattle to higher altitudes and the promise of fields to graze.

“I’ve never had a complaint from him,” Richardson said. “I can’t express how much of a team player he is — to the point that it’s shocking. He’s Harrison Ford. He could be doing anything. I’m sure there are people who would prefer to have a double standing in. He did not.” He added that he had “probably seen ‘Blade Runner’ 20 times,” studying how Ford presented himself onscreen.

“There’s something truly compelling about watching him deal with difficult situations,” he said.

From Ford’s earliest days as Han Solo, he has been wary of being typecast as a go-to action hero. He agreed to do the blockbusters urged on him by a Lucas or Steven Spielberg, but he also sought more than laser guns and bullwhips, gravitating to films like Peter Weir’s “Witness” (1985), and to directors like Alan J. Pakula (“Presumed Innocent,” “The Devil’s Own”).

“I always went from a movie for me to a movie for them,” he said, referring to directors — and audiences — with a taste for action-hero blockbusters. “I don’t want to work for just one audience.”

So it is that Ford will play a rancher in “1923” and a therapist in “Shrinking”— six months before his fifth “Indiana Jones” movie, “The Dial of Destiny,” opens in June.

“He doesn’t get the credit for the diversity of his choices that he has chosen,” Hamill said. “Everybody loves ‘Indiana Jones,’ but we know what it is, and we’ve seen it before — he could do those for the rest of his life. The fact that he is doing something more challenging and more thought-provoking is something I admire about him.”

A CENTRAL PARADOX of Ford’s biography is that “Star Wars,” the franchise arguably most responsible for reshaping the industry in its image, made him one of the last true movie stars, a man whose name alone could sell tickets; Hollywood’s shift from star vehicles to intellectual property, from big screen to small, can now be neatly tracked over the arc of his career.

“Star Wars” united a country — crossing geographic, class and political lines — enthralling audiences who gathered in theatres to share in its fairy-tale story of love and adventure. These days, audiences are made up of friends and family gathered in a living room, and Ford faces questions about whether the “Yellowstone” franchise is a paean to Red America.

“I’m aware of the interest in the politics of the characters,” he said, adding that he had no interest in the political beliefs of Jacob Dutton. (Ford, who was born in Chicago to Democratic parents and supported Joe Biden against Donald Trump in 2020, suggested that the audience for “Yellowstone” was so vast that it was unlikely to be made up of only Republicans.)

When Ford began working on “1923,” Sheridan told him to approach it as if it was 10 hourlong movies. “And that’s the way it feels to me,” Ford said. “But we’re working at a television pace. There’s something about movies that allows for, you know, a little bit, you know, a kind of luxury of time and a certain …”

He hesitated as he considered the risks of a road better not taken, of Harrison Ford weighing in on the merits of movies versus television. “I don’t think I really want to get too deep into this because there’s no place to go with it, for me.”

“I’m doing the same job,” he said. “It’s just being boxed and distributed in a different way.”

Ford is not a pioneer. He resisted television for many years, and in finally relenting, he is following other major box office stars — Kevin Costner on “Yellowstone” and Sylvester Stallone on “Tulsa King” — who have joined Taylor Sheridan television productions.

Still, as he prepared to attend the premiere of “1923,” at a big screen tucked away in an American Legion Hall in Hollywood, it was clear where his heart remained.

“The important thing is to go into a dark room with strangers, experience the same thing and have an opportunity to consider your common humanity,” Ford said. “With strangers. And the music — the sound system is better, right? The dark is deeper, right? And the icebox not so close.”

Ford paused at his revealing reference to a kitchen appliance from another era — the era when he grew up. He could not help but laugh at his lapse. “Icebox!” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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