But in a career spanning five decades, Ford has also turned in remarkable performances in a world not so far, far away. Complex roles as philandering husbands in hits like "Presumed Innocent" and "What Lies Beneath" showed the actor was willing to risk his likable image. He made offbeat choices with 1982's "Blade Runner" and 1986's "The Mosquito Coast"—performances and films that didn't fare well at the time but have come to be heralded in recent years. And then there is his turn in 1985's "Witness" as a New York City cop who hides out in an Amish community. Alternately tough and tender, both hero and romantic lead, Ford earned his first and only Oscar nomination for the role.
This week, Ford will return to the screen in "Extraordinary Measures," which tells the true story of John Crowley (Brendan Fraser), a determined father who quit his lucrative job and dedicated himself to finding a cure for the deadly degenerative disorder, known as Pompe disease, afflicting two of his children. While Ford stars as the antisocial but brilliant Dr. Robert Stonehill, who works with Crowley to find a treatment, he's also an executive producer on the film. Ford and his producers spent six years trying to bring the story to the big screen, and the actor was active in developing the script and casting the roles. He not only refused to present Stonehill (who is a composite of several doctors) as a flawless hero; he also had his name listed after Fraser's in the credits. It's the first time since 1983's "Return of the Jedi" that Ford has not received top billing in a film.
In person, one expects Ford to be serious and intimidating—as though he might give you that look he seizes Gary Oldman with as he orders, "Get off my plane!" in "Air Force One." It's a pleasant surprise to find the actor is easygoing, relaxed, and has a sense of humor about himself. Throughout the day of the interview, several people have asked him about his early career as a carpenter. Over the years, the legend has become that Ford broke into acting while building cabinets for George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, who went on to cast him in "American Graffiti" and then "Star Wars." Ford says he is constantly running into people who claim he built a staircase or a credenza for someone, and he finds the entire mythology amusing. "It keeps coming up, and it's rarely true," he says with a laugh. "If I actually did all the work that's attributed to me, I'd still be working as a carpenter today." Fortunately for audiences, the most famous carpenter since Jesus has chosen to stick with acting for now.
Back Stage: "Extraordinary Measures" really began with you. Is it true you're the one who first came across the story?
Harrison Ford: The producers and I found a newspaper article in The Wall Street Journal by Geeta Anand and then read her book "The Cure" as a follow-up. It told the whole Crowley story in great detail, and we abstracted the film's story from that book, those articles, and her own research to tell the story.
Back Stage: You were a very active producer on the film. Is that a new role for you? You've only produced once before—
Ford: I've only taken a production credit once before. But I'm always getting involved when circumstances allow, and they usually do. I have my say on the script and sometimes other issues—certainly the director, if a project comes without one attached. But this really began as bricks and mortar; we had to build something out of it. It took six years for this thing to reach the screen.
Back Stage: Your character isn't the most likable person at times. Was it refreshing to play someone who's not a flawless hero?
Ford: I'm playing the story. That's always what I've done. I make up a character out of those things that I think will help tell the story.
Back Stage: Stonehill is a composite character, so you had some say in forming him. Did you set out to make him more cantankerous?
Ford: Not really; I wanted him to be a complicated guy. We wanted to tell a lot of story through Stonehill. We wanted to tell the reality of the independent academic researcher; we wanted to tell the reality of the fact the football coach made more money than his entire science budget. We wanted to attend to the reality of the fact that although he had absolute faith in what he was doing, he didn't have the funding to bring it to the next stage of development. We wanted to tell the reality of how difficult it is to get a drug to the marketplace. I wanted the reality of a guy that's used to working alone, who's most comfortable with students who look up to him, and anybody of a higher station than that is difficult for him to deal with. I wanted him to be both adversary and eventual ally to Crowley. I wanted to keep the story bubbling with a certain degree of conflict and drama.
Back Stage: You met with many researchers to prepare for the role. Were there quirks or mannerisms you picked up from them that worked their way into the character, such as the beat-up pickup truck he drives?
Ford: The car was my choice because it's such a descriptor of character. I wanted for the audience not to know what Stonehill was when you first meet him. I didn't want him to appear in a white coat as a professor or a scientist. Because Crowley couldn't see him—he was talking to him on the telephone—I wanted for them to know something John Crowley didn't know. I wanted the audience to see my cowboy boots, that I was drinking beer in my office, that I didn't give a shit about whether I answered the telephone or not because I was so lost in concentration on this other thing. The original versions of the script had me hanging up on him. I didn't think that was right, so I worked out this bit of business where I pull the phone out of the wall to make it ambiguous. I saw the guy as a loner, as not having a family or kids, who is interested in problems on an intellectual level: He's a medical doctor who doesn't see patients, who had probably never met a Pompe patient before. I wanted a moment where he felt betrayed by Crowley, so we could bring them back together again. I wanted to realize the emotional opportunity in all those scenes as much as possible. It's the natural way of making something.
Back Stage: As a producer, you also had a say in casting. Do you remember the last time you auditioned?
Ford: It was a long, long time ago.
Back Stage: But in the beginning you had to audition all the time. Were you good at it?
Ford: No. Rarely. For myself, I really depend on the reality of things. I don't even learn lines until I'm on the set, because I want to put the moves together with the lines; I don't want to pre-anticipate what the other actor is going to do or have any preconceptions whatsoever. I want to work very carefully on the lines so I have all my ammunition laid out and I know what I'm going to get out of the scene, but I like to have as much of the reality of what everyone else is going to be doing there at the same time.
Back Stage: You're the No. 1 box-office star of all time, with your movies having grossed more than any other actor. How do you feel when you hear that? Is it flattering? Intimidating? Or are you just amused?
Ford: What immediately comes to mind is the statement, "There are lies, there are damned lies, and there are statistics." I don't know if those figures are true, and I don't care if it's true. It doesn't mean much to me. So what? So I've been very lucky to be in films that were successful. But whose fault was that? My fault or George Lucas' fault or Steven Spielberg's fault or Alan Pakula's fault or Mike Nichols' fault? It's a collaborative enterprise, and you can't take credit.
Back Stage: With such an impressive track record, it is difficult for you when movies underperform?
Ford: No, no. I've done a lot of stuff people didn't get at the time, which later came to be appreciated to some degree. I just do one thing at a time, and sometimes it gets appreciated. You can't let that stop you.
Back Stage: Films like "The Mosquito Coast" eventually found their audience, and "Blade Runner" is now regarded as a classic. When that happens, do you feel somewhat vindicated?
Ford: I'm not looking for vindication; I'm just looking for work.
Back Stage: Do you subscribe to a particular method or technique, such as Meisner?
Ford: I don't even know what Meisner technique is. When I was under contract at Columbia Pictures for $150 a week, a seven-year contract, they brought Johnny Strasberg and Walter Beakel in to teach acting classes, which we were obliged to go to every day. We had to wear a sports coat and a tie and show up every day, and we'd have these acting classes. And frankly, I never knew what the hell they were talking about. It didn't make any sense to me; I couldn't figure it out.
Back Stage: So how did you find a system that worked for you?
Ford: I think what I finally had to do was find my own way. And that was to hold very close to what needed to be done. For me, it never became about performance; it became clear to me that the strongest position was to be alloyed to the story. The character was attendant to the telling of the story. There's no truth of a character out of the context of a story. How do you do that? Why does an actor think that he knows the truth of a character without knowing the circumstances that character finds himself in? How can an actor ever say, "My character wouldn't do that"? Bullshit. Your character does that; it's written down right there! Find a way to make it work. For me, I just make up a character out of the things that tell the story. End of problem. And then believe. The process is believe: Believe the other person; believe in your own capacity to believe your own emotional reactions—or even lack of them—just believe that it's real.
Back Stage: Writers must love you.
Ford: Well, they don't, because I give them a real hard time before we get to that point. I am famously difficult about saying, "Why are you doing this; where are you going?" But that's before we get there.
Back Stage: How do you handle a situation when you get to set and you're not agreeing with someone?
Ford: I think one of the hardest things I had to learn in becoming an actor was how to talk to people about it. Because I'd say to a director, "I have an idea," and he'd say, "Yeah, give me a break kid; I'm busy." It's the most difficult at the beginning of your career, when nobody really gives a shit about what you think. You're there to say the words and go home. But probably the most important juncture in my career: the first job I did when I was under contract with Columbia, to play a bellboy. My entire dialogue was "Mr. Jones, paging Mr. Jones, Mr. Jones, room 503," then hand this person a note and accept his tip. I got called in to the head of the new-talent program the next day, and he said, "You're never going to make it in this business. Let me tell you a story. The first time Tony Curtis was ever in a movie, he delivered a bag of groceries. I took one look at that guy and said, 'That's a movie star.' " I leaned across his desk and said, "I thought you were supposed to think, 'That's a grocery delivery boy.' " He said, "Get the fuck out of here." And I did. But I persisted in thinking I was right and he was wrong. And I did make a living in the business, and I still think that's what you're supposed to think.
Back Stage: Where did you get the confidence to deal with rejection like that?
Ford: In my case, it was by getting another job, by becoming a carpenter. To find a way to put food on the table and only take the things I really wanted to do.
Back Stage: And yet your carpentry work led to job opportunities—or so goes the mythology, that you were discovered while building cabinets for George Lucas.
Ford: I never worked for George Lucas as a carpenter. All of that stuff is bent all out of shape.
Back Stage: What about Francis Ford Coppola? Didn't you do some work for him?
Ford: Yeah, that was after I had already done "American Graffiti" with both George and Francis. Dean Tavoularis, Francis' art director on most of his pictures, designed this elaborate portico entrance for Francis' offices and had it built in the studio mill and didn't have anyone to install it. So he begged me to do it, and I said, "I don't want to be walking around in Francis' office, you know?" But I needed the money. So I said, "I'll do it, but I'll do it at night." So I came in by myself, and it took me two or three nights. One morning I was just finishing up, and in walked George Lucas and Richard Dreyfuss; they were starting auditions for "Star Wars." George had told my agent and everybody else's agent that he didn't want to see anybody he'd worked with in "American Graffiti" for "Star Wars," because he wanted all new faces. And in he walks with Dreyfuss for the first interview. And there I am on my knees, sweeping up the sawdust in my work clothes. I said hello, and Richard and I chatted. And I never got an interview. And a couple of weeks later when he was starting to test people on camera, he and [producer] Fred Roos asked me, as a favor, to read with the other actors. So I did all of the tests and read with all the other actors, and at the end, they offered me the part.
Back Stage: So maybe carpentry is a viable way into acting?
Ford: It's as good as any way. There is no way into acting; it's impossible. I knew that from the beginning. It's statistically impossible to make a living as an actor. You have to love it, and even your love for it is not going to make it happen. What is going to make it happen is luck and tenacity. I never made a living until I was 35 years old. I came out here when I was 24. But one thing I knew and recognized was that people all around me were giving up and going home. I just, quietly, never gave up.