When he was on-set in Tunisia, stricken with dysentery, and prepping for a Raiders of the Lost Ark scene that required him to battle a swordsman, Harrison Ford had an idea. “I was puzzling how to get out of this three days of shooting,” he later told a Reddit AMA, “so when I got to set I proposed to Steven [Spielberg] that we just shoot the son a bitch.”
Out of a mix of lazy, committed brilliance came one of the movie’s classic scenes, but also one of the most iconic characters as well. From his roguish swagger as Han Solo, to his roguish swagger as Indiana Jones, even to his roguish old man swagger as the president in Air Force One, no actor has parlayed his timeless roles into a career like Harrison Ford’s. You can have your Chaplin, your Bogart, your Newman, your Streep. Hollywood history is full of more acclaimed performers. But as a pure movie star? We’re calling it: Harrison Ford is, stealthily in plain sight, the greatest movie star of all time.
Not that this is a numbers game, but here come some numbers. Ford’s 40 movies so far have grossed almost $4 billion, the fourth-most ever; once The Force Awakens gets through its theatrical run, he’s certain to be No. 1, and probably by a margin of about $1.5 billion or so. Whether it’s the movies themselves, or whether it’s him, people just love going to see Harrison Ford’s movies. Dude’s not even that much of a celebrity. What do you really know about his personal life or politics? Practically zilch. He’s just straight-up star.
But where are his awards, you retort? Movie stars should have awards. Harrison Ford was nominated for an Oscar once. You remember what it was for? No, of course not. Which says more about what the Academy rewards than it does about Harrison Ford’s merits. Labeling someone the “best actor” indicates that they’re at the top of their craft and knows how to appeal to voters. “Movie star” means that people know your name because you’re in movies, and will admit that they want to be you. Occasionally, these two qualities overlap inarguably: Brando, DeNiro, Daniel Day-Lewis, Vivien Leigh, Sophia Loren. They inwardly live their roles so much so that they become who they play.
Harrison Ford doesn’t care about any of that bullshit. He lost that Best Actor Oscar in 1986 (Witness, the Amish detective drama). William Hurt beat him. Fine actor, that William Hurt. Wasn’t he that guy in that one movie? Anyway Harrison Ford took it like a man and then went and made Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Sean Connery played his dad. They killed Nazis and drank out of the Holy Grail. The movie made $200 million.
Harrison Ford has played some heavy-hitter roles — The Fugitive was awesome and nominated for Best Picture. But Harrison Ford doesn’t need hardware to tell him he’s doing it right. The Golden Globes nominated him a few times before deciding the hell with it, and tossed him a lifetime achievement Cecil B. DeMille Award in 2002. Maybe Harrison Ford noticed? He’s a curmudgeon in real life, same as on-screen. His non-iconic roles skew towards the same kind of upstanding WASP-y doctor type stuck in increasingly thrilling situations: Frantic, The Mosquito Coast, Presumed Innocent, and Air Force One, to name a few.
Glitz and glamor don’t define Harrison Ford, yet he’s a Hollywood throwback in that his two defining roles drew from the giddy mythology of the early days of cinema, the Saturday double-features, the popcorn flicks. That he shot to stardom as Han Solo, an almost literal space cowboy, skirting the edge of the law in outer space, shows how well he fits the ur-American film genres of sci-fi and Westerns. He’s a louche John Wayne, a Cary Grant with calluses, a Steve McQueen who understands Shyriiwook.
Even when he appears in a Criterion Collection shoo-in like Blade Runner, itself a high-minded sci-fi grounded in classic noir tropes, he still manages to gently take the piss out of it. In a 1992 assessment, the Washington Post said Blade Runner “never feels heavy or pretentious,” largely because of its lead actor not getting hung up on biblical references and moralistic predictions about the future of humankind. When it premiered in 1982, Harrison Ford said, “It’s a film about whether you can have a meaningful relationship with your toaster.” That toaster movie went on to be named the third best sci-fi movie of all time by The Guardian.
You notice these performances are Harrison Ford without having to call a lot of attention to himself. It’s what separated him from the courtly Clark Gable, the ever-earnest Jimmy Stewart, and the visibly self-torturing Marlon Brando. Try to name a Gable, Stewart, or Brando role and you default to the larger contexts of the movies themselves. Harrison Ford has made an entire career out of playing variations of his own persona. Jack Nicholson, likewise, does the same — but insistently conveys Nicholsonness in every role, because he likes to remind you that he’s Jack Nicholson. Harrison Ford is being Harrison Ford not because he likes Harrison Ford, but rather because pretty much everyone who goes to movies likes watching Harrison Ford in movies. It’s no fluke that he’s the only person with two separate roles on AFI’s 50 Greatest Heroes list, both of which are in the top 15, or that his stretch from 1977 to 1997 (Star Wars through Air Force One) was a 20-year run ranking with the best an actor has ever enjoyed.
His personality dictates the character without overwhelming it. Just look at this infamous scene from The Empire Strikes Back. Han Solo is facing certain doom at the hands of Boba Fett and Darth Vader. He’s about to ostensibly be killed in front of his best friend Chewbacca and the woman he loves, Princess Leia. Harrison Ford does not hyperventilate nor does he play meek. Han gives Leia a comforting glance, stops Chewie from ripping a bunch of Stormtroopers’ arms out of their sockets, and accepts his fate. He then tops it off with the line that encapsulates both Han Solo and real-life Harrison Ford: After Leia gives one last “I love you,” Solo replies with mic-dropping, “I know.”
Originally Han was supposed to reply with a stale, ultimately hokey “I love you” to Leia. But after reading that mush for a few takes while shooting Empire, Harrison Ford decided to make movie history instead. He proposed the much better line to director Irvin Kershner and dropped it in a take before the crew broke for lunch.
In this sense, Han Solo is Harrison Ford, but he’s still Han Solo. The same with Indiana Jones. Granted, all of them aren’t as grumpy as the IRL Harrison Ford. But a guy can’t be charismatic all the time. He wasn’t born a limelight guy, actually; he took up acting gigs while he was working as a carpenter in California in the early ‘70s. He got to play Han Solo because he agreed to help director George Lucas run lines with would-be actors during the casting sessions for Star Wars. Lucas liked his detached take on the antihero so much he just decided to give him the gig over the dozens of actors who showed up to read for the part. Indiana Jones also fell into his lap after Spielberg’s and Lucas’ original choice, Tom Selleck, was barred by TV network CBS from appearing in the movie due to a contractual obligation. Tom Selleck got to star in Magnum P.I. while Harrison Ford got to go find the Ark of the Covenant.
The sorts of films that really drove Harrison Ford’s fame were not immediate critical darlings, but he nonetheless won over film intelligentsia. In his original Star Wars review for The Washington Post, critic Gary Arnold said the star “has a splendid time capitalizing on its irresistible style of cynical heroism. It would be professionally criminal to flub such an ingratiating, star-making assignment, and although Ford plays in a relaxed, drawing style, reminiscent of Jack Nicholson at his foxiest, he maintains a firm grip on this golden opportunity.” Seems about right. And in a 2000 reappraisal of Raiders of the Lost Ark, critic Roger Ebert said of the actor, “Harrison Ford is the embodiment of Indiana Jones — dry, fearless, and as indestructible as a cartoon coyote.” Later, Ebert said, “What he proved in the Star Wars movies, and went on to prove again and again, is that he can supply the strong, sturdy center for action nonsense.”
Even when they’re haters, critics can’t help but praise the confluence of man and performance. In what he must have thought was a serious dig in his review of The Empire Strikes Back, Vincent Canby of the New York Times described Harrison Ford “as cheerfully nondescript as one could wish a comic strip hero to be.” Since when is that a bad thing?
His style may be classic, but Harrison Ford’s stardom is distinctly modern, ecumenical. He’s apathetic to his own casual image. Robert Pattinson picked up on this easy disdain for the celebrity machine; Channing Tatum, who makes this whole acting thing seem effortless, has as much Harrison Ford in him as he has Ginuwine and creatine. That Harrison Ford demeanor has been co-opted many times, in fact, but never matched. Tom Cruise’s early work — Risky Business, Top Gun — were basically Han Solo channeled through a dude whose parents bought him a Beamer in high school. Chris Pratt is molding himself in a Harrison Ford mode: Pratt’s performance in Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy are full of Han Solo’s winking stylistics.
It’s no wonder then that Pratt’s name has been constantly bandied about to play Indiana Jones in the inevitable reboot. But that’s another thing that makes Ford the best movie star: no one can fill his shoes in those iconic roles. As Uproxx writer Mike Ryan once put it, “Recreating a character described as a reluctant hero needs a reluctant actor,” and that just doesn’t happen anymore.
One key to Harrison Ford’s success, paradoxically, seems to be that he was neither expecting to become the greatest movie start ever, nor does it particularly intrigue him. In a 2010 ABC interview about Star Wars, he told interviewer Peter Travers, “As a character, [Han Solo] was not so interesting to me.” Spoken like the only guy big enough to play Han Solo without letting it go to his head.