Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.
For someone who has starred in more blockbusters than any actor perhaps in film history, Cecil B. deMille honoree Harrison Ford is surprisingly erudite. When interviewed he’s not only articulate, his answers are revelatory and intelligent.
Of course, he can also be cutting – he doesn’t suffer foolish questions: ‘Do you know what suit you are wearing?’ “No. And if I did know, I wouldn’t tell you. I am not here to sell clothes.”
But he can also be generous. How much of a method actor is he? “Well, I don’t take the character home with me, if that’s what you mean. I usually settle on one approach to a scene, but I am very much influenced by what other actors bring to that scene. I enjoy the surprise. I don’t like to rehearse much. It takes away the spontaneity, and it gives the other actors a chance to see what you’re going to do. So, I prefer going for one take to preserve the freshness for both of us.”
After watching a performance of his, does he ever feel he could have done better? “I’m not sure perfection is a righteous goal,” was his oft-quoted response, one that has since been embraced by stars like Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.
Ford got his start in movies by playing minor roles in TV series and when he was passed over by Antonioni for a role in Zabriskie Point – the role that Gary Lockwood would play – he saw that as his cue, and he quit acting and became a professional carpenter, doing odd jobs for no less than famed author Joan Didion.
Another of his clients was producer Fred Roos, who suggested him for a small role in George Lucas’s American Graffiti, and when Francis Ford Coppola hired him to expand his office, he was rewarded with a role in The Conversation, which led to Lucas casting him as Han Solo in Star Wars. The rest is history.
Since then he has starred in The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and The Fugitive, all among the top ten grossers of all time. He also starred in other box office winners, Presumed Innocent, Blade Runner, and Working Girl, always playing the hero.
Why doesn’t he ever play the bad guy, we once asked him. “I’m not offered bad guy roles. If there’s a bad guy in a movie, there’s going to be a good guy. They don’t come to me to play the bad guy. They come to me to play the good guy. The bad guy roles are delicious for actors to play, and I would like to play them someday, maybe later on, when I begin to slow down.”
He has however ventured away from action-adventure movies all through his career. After the success of Star Wars and Raiders, he chose challenging roles in two Peter Weir movies Witness and The Mosquito Coast for which he received Golden Globe nominations as Best Actor in a Drama. He also worked with Roman Polanski’s on Frantic, but the public response to these was mild in comparison to his blockbusters. He segued to a Mike Nichols’ comedy Working Girl, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination, but the kudos went to his costars Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver and songwriter Carly Simon who were all Golden Globes winners.
He worked again with Nichols on Regarding Henry, the first script by then-unknown JJ Abrams. A new franchise saw him portray Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger; both doing gangbuster business. He had another top moneymaker with The Fugitive but again the honors went to Tommy Lee Jones who won both a Golden Globe and Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. After that, there were a number of flops including Six Days Seven Nights, Random Hearts, K-19: The Widowmaker, Hollywood Homicide, Firewall, and Extraordinary Measures.
He came back with Air Force One which confirmed his supremacy as a bona fide action movie star, and he had another winner with What Lies Beneath which he made for Spielberg’s company DreamWorks. During this period, he returned to playing Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which ended up the second-biggest moneymaker of 2008. Since then he has worked intermittently sometimes accepting supporting roles. Three years ago he reprised his iconic role of Rick Deckard in Blade Runner 2049.
Now approaching 80 he still retains his good looks. Looking back at his career, he told the HFPA. “The thing I am most proud of is how lucky I have been. I have worked with extraordinary people who have given me extraordinary opportunities, and they have given me fulfillment beyond my wildest imagination. They have given me purpose, and it’s better than a real job.”
His classic films? Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark.