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Speak Softly and Carry a Big Script

Harrison Ford, the latest AFI Life Achievement Award recipient, doesn't make a whole lot of noise about himself.

February 13, 2000|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

Indiana Jones is really up against it this time. If only it were something simple, like dodging poisonous blow-darts, escaping from a snake-infested tomb or ducking the Luftwaffe. But standing in a banquet hall delivering a public speech--one that requires not only that he revisit his past but also, God forbid, show some level of profundity . . . no, it's too horrible to contemplate. Indy, you're doomed.

Harrison Ford has a pained expression on his face, one as dark as the winter storm clouds that have rolled in from the Pacific this weekday morning, dampening his hillside home and the nearby streets of West Los Angeles, where pedestrians scurry for cover.

He has had weeks now to digest the flattering news that the American Film Institute has chosen him to receive its Life Achievement Award--one of the great honors Hollywood bestows on men and women whose careers have had a lasting impact on motion pictures. Among the previous recipients are such acting legends as Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, James Cagney, Henry Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood, not to mention esteemed directors ranging from John Ford to Martin Scorsese.

It's not that Ford isn't humbled and gratified by the AFI's choice. He is. "I'm very grateful," Ford says, momentarily brightening. "I recognize the fact that I'm in great company."

But, he adds with a worried look, "the greatest fear in my life is public speaking."

Ironic, isn't it? The actor whose ruggedly handsome face is so familiar in every corner of the globe through such cinematic blockbusters as the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" trilogies, "The Fugitive," "Air Force One" and "Patriot Games" confesses that there's something about standing up and giving a formal speech that always unnerves him. Nothing else does. Why, just last October he crash-landed a Bell helicopter near Lake Piru and apparently never even felt an adrenaline rush.

Furthermore, the man who has given countless media interviews over the years to help the studios hype their films has no desire to hype himself.

"When I have a movie to promote or to sell, which is the occasion in which I usually meet with the press, I have a very clear agenda," Ford explains. "Here, I have no [expletive] idea what to do because I've got nothing to say. I refuse to sell myself. That's not what I'm about."

That the AFI would choose Ford to honor this coming Thursday night with a Life Achievement Award is a no-brainer. If ever there was a screen hero who symbolized American pop culture in the last quarter-century, it is Harrison Ford, either as the cocky, sarcastic Han Solo of "Star Wars" fame or as the stubble-faced, fedora-topped Indiana Jones, first introduced to moviegoers in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

But those are just images flickering on a screen. The real Harrison Ford is more difficult to bring into focus--and he likes it that way.

He is a movie star of the highest order, an actor who seems to transcend his era the way Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy did. He has worked under some of the leading directors of his time, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Mike Nichols, Sydney Pollack, Peter Weir, Roman Polanski, Robert Zemeckis and the late Alan J. Pakula. His films have grossed more than $3 billion in North America alone--10 of them climbing above $100 million each at the box office.

Yet, when it comes to assessing his legacy of more than three decades in light of the AFI honor, Ford has no glib sound bites to impart. In fact, he admits, he is neither capable of nor interested in reflecting on his life or trying to make sense of his career for other people. He simply makes movies the way a carpenter--an occupation that paid the bills during his early, lean years of acting--makes houses. He's a craftsman, not an architect.

"I have never tried to develop a unified field theory about all of this," Ford says.

Still, the question of his legacy hangs in the air, so Ford grudgingly tackles it as best he can.

"I don't know. I just see myself as one part of these films, one of the elements involved in a collaborative enterprise--sometimes not even a collaborative enterprise. . . . It's a director's medium. We really are part of his process."

There is something refreshing about a movie star without a galloping ego on display. This is, after all, an actor who shuns naming his favorite Harrison Ford movies and rarely revisits them once they're in the can.

"I don't think I've seen a single one of the films I've been in all the way through after their first screening," he says. "It makes me too uncomfortable. I always want it to be better, but there is nothing I can do to change it now."

Pollack, who directed him in "Random Hearts" and a remake of "Sabrina," says that what he finds so appealing about Ford is his "healthy ego."

"Harrison is not looking to figure out who he is, and he's not looking to prove anything," the director says. "He is very comfortable in his own skin and with what he is doing."

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