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Harrison Ford: More Than Slam-Bang : With 'Presumed Innocent,' he continues to evade the type-casting trap set by the mega hits 'Star Wars' and 'Indiana Jones'

July 22, 1990|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

A really big success in a movie can work two ways for an actor. It can lead to a freeing-up of his choices or it can lead to a well-upholstered captivity in the kind of role he did so smashingly the first time.

Harrison Ford has been trying not so much to make people forget his triumphs as Han Solo in the "Star Wars" trilogy or as Indiana Jones in that trilogy as to remind us all that he can act very well without a laser gun or a bullwhip in hand.

He is an authentic superstar off the slambang successes of the two trilogies, but in both his private life and his professional career he tries hard not to comport himself like one.

He regards interviews with a distaste bordering on terror because they jeopardize the privacy he cherishes, but when he consents to do them, as on behalf of "Presumed Innocent," in which he stars as a public prosecutor accused of murder, he answers questions with a laconic candor. It is a significantly different style from Warren Beatty's, who guards his own privacy with a coyly evasive game-playing.

Ford and his wife, writer Melissa Mathison ("E.T."), live remotely in Wyoming, as far from the madding Hollywood crowd as possible, with their 3-year-old son and newborn daughter. He has two grown sons from an earlier marriage.

He had a slow apprenticeship in the movies and, as now seems congruent with his independent spirit, kept himself busy and supported himself between acting jobs by working as a carpenter.

He learned the acting trade through small parts in a succession of unusually interesting films, including "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round," "Getting Straight," Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point," Francis Coppola's eerie essay on the theft of privacy, "The Conversation," and in "American Graffiti," his first outing for George Lucas. Then came "Star Wars," when all fame broke loose.

Was he discouraged during the slow times? "I was always discouraged in the early days about the opportunities I was getting, or wasn't," Ford said. "But I now see it was for the best. I got a lot of experience under my belt. In retrospect I see that I had no real complaint. I was hired as an inexperienced actor, to get experience.

"But the industry was already changing as far as talent was concerned. You weren't brought along by the studios as in the old days. You had to do it yourself."

Beginning a morning of interviews with breakfast at the Bel-Air Hotel, Ford said over huevos rancheros , "I was lucky to be the age I was when I had my first success." The slow times had lent perspective to the sudden pressures of stardom. But also, Ford says, "The audience has grown at the same time I have. They're willing to accept more sophisticated material, and me in it."

He lost no time trying to wriggle free of the golden bonds "Star Wars" might have imposed. "I was desperate to find some thing very different from Han Solo. 'Heroes' was it. It was a small part in a small film which starred Henry Winkler as a Vietnam vet with problems but I tried to offer proof that I had at least one other string to my bow."

Ford couldn't escape adventurous roles, as in "Force 10 From Navarone," but there was also a wartime love story, "Hanover Street," a dimensional character part like the city detective amidst the Amish in "Witness." "There was more than physicality involved. You had a chance to reveal a sensitivity. It's nice to stand and listen; sometimes it's all the better to do nothing." A romantic comedy ("Working Girl") disclosed another string to the bow.

Audiences no longer feel betrayed when Ford is not dragged behind a truck, imperilled by snakes or falling boulders or lethal extraterrestrials, or when he doesn't even get dirty, as in "Presumed Innocent."

Alan Pakula, who directed and co-authored the script of "Presumed Innocent," says, "Harrison was my first choice. I wanted someone who had an Everyman quality. He had to be someone who could be the man down the block." But, Pakula adds, "There also had to be a terrific ambiguity. He had to be a deep and passionate moralist; that was his life in the law. But there also be the dark passages, capable of obsession, capable of the murder he's accused of."

The sneak previews in Pasadena and elsewhere were uncommonly tense. "Here's nice Harrison, so often heroic. Can the audience suspect him? And if they do suspect him, will they turn against him? After all, he's carrying you through the story, through the film."

The preview audiences, Pakula concluded, sustained their sympathy, perceiving a kind of substratum of guilt felt by a man who has betrayed his own moral code.

"Harrison," Pakula says, "is bright as hell. He also has enormous technical skill from having had to do all those complicated films. I've said it and it's true, he'll make a wonderful director when he wants to. Cinematographer Gordon Willis was amazed how much he understood about the process."

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