When they say that they don’t make them like they used to, they’re talking about people like Harrison Ford. From humble beginnings - and after a decade-plus career as a carpenter - he rose to become arguably the most iconic actor of his generation, America’s highest grossing star of all time, an influential philanthropist, a highly skilled pilot and aircraft collector and even had a spider named after him. Blessed with a dry wit, gruff delivery and magnetic screen presence, Ford to this day remains a titanic presence on screen and off.
Born in Chicago, Ford didn’t grow up aspiring to be an actor, only to avoid work in an office like his father had. Ford remarked that “the kindest word to describe my performance in school was sloth”, although he was a dedicated Boy Scout leader, and eventually graduated from Ripon College, Wisconsin as a philosophy major. It was at Ripon that he began taking drama classes to overcome his shyness. His interest piqued, Ford moved to California and signed a contract with Columbia Pictures.
His name - the same as that of an early silent film actor - initially caused problems. “They wanted me to change my name when I was under contract at Columbia. I said, "Fuck you!" So I thought about it and came back the next day and said, "Okay, I'll be Kurt Affair". They said, "All right, all right, never mind."” Although he secured several small roles, steady work wasn’t forthcoming and so he taught himself carpentry to support his wife and young children, whilst moonlighting as a stagehand for The Doors. Carpentry became his main stock and trade for nearly twelve years until he secured a key role in American Graffiti, directed by George Lucas.
He struck up a friendship with the young director, and when Lucas began casting for his next feature - an ambitious space opera known as Star Wars - he called Ford to help read lines to the auditioning actors. For the role of Han Solo, Ford read for Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Steve Martin, Burt Reynolds and Bill Murray - but eventually Lucas found his charismatic delivery too appealing and simply cast him instead. It would change his life forever. Ever the ad-libber, when he turned up for shooting on his first day, his iconic outfit featured a giant Peter Pan-esque collar in robin's egg blue. “I said "Is this just pasted on? Take it the fuck off and I'll deal with it." George wasn't there but I said, this can't be right.”