If Harrison Ford had listened to the advice of studio heads early in his career, he would have remained a carpenter and never gone on to star in some of Hollywood's biggest films and become one of the industry's most bankable stars. Born July 13, 1942, in Chicago and raised in a middle-class suburb, he had an average childhood. An introverted loner, he was popular with girls but picked on by school bullies. Ford quietly endured their everyday tortures until he one day lost his cool and beat the tar out of the gang leader responsible for his being repeatedly thrown off an embankment.
He had no special affinity for films and usually only went to see them on dates because they were inexpensive and dark. Following high school graduation, Ford studied English and Philosophy at Ripon College in Wisconsin. An admittedly lousy student, he began acting while in college and then worked briefly in summer stock. He was expelled from the school three days before graduation because he did not complete his required thesis. In the mid-'60s, Ford and his first wife, Mary Marquardt (his college sweetheart) moved to Hollywood, where he signed as a contract player with Columbia and, later, Universal. After debuting onscreen in a bit as a bellboy in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966), he played secondary roles, typically a cowboy, in several films of the late '60s and in such TV series as Gunsmoke, The Virginian, and Ironside.
Discouraged with both the roles he was getting and his difficulty in providing for his young family, he abandoned acting and taught himself carpentry via books borrowed from the local library. Using his recently purchased run-down Hollywood home for practice, Ford proved himself a talented woodworker, and, after successfully completing his first contract to build an out-building for Sergio Mendez, found himself in demand with other Hollywood residents (it was also during this time that Ford acquired his famous scar, the result of a minor car accident). Meanwhile, Ford's luck as an actor began to change when a casting director friend for whom he was doing some construction helped him get a part in George Lucas' American Graffiti (1973). The film became an unexpected blockbuster and greatly increased Ford's familiarity. Many audience members, particularly women, responded to his turn as the gruffly macho Bob Falfa, the kind of subtly charismatic portrayal that would later become Ford's trademark. However, Ford's career remained stagnant until Lucas cast him as space pilot Han Solo in the megahit Star Wars (1977), after which he became a minor star. He spent the remainder of the 1970s trapped in mostly forgettable films (such as the comedy Western The Frisco Kid with Gene Wilder), although he did manage to land the small role of Colonel G. Lucas in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979).
The early '80s elevated Ford to major stardom with the combined impact of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and his portrayal of action-adventure hero Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which proved to be an enormous hit. He went on to play "Indy" twice more, in 1984's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989. Ford moved beyond popular acclaim with his role as a big-city police detective who finds himself masquerading as an Amish farmer to protect a young murder witness in Witness (1984), for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work, as well as the praise of critics who had previously ignored his acting ability. Having appeared in several of the biggest money-makers of all time, Ford was able to pick and choose his roles in the '80s and '90s. Following the success of Witness, Ford re-teamed with the film's director, Peter Weir, to make a film adaptation of Paul Theroux's novel The Mosquito Coast. The film met with mixed critical results, and audiences largely stayed away, unused to the idea of their hero playing a markedly flawed and somewhat insane character.
Undeterred, Ford went on to choose projects that brought him further departure from the action films responsible for his reputation. In 1988 he worked with two of the industry's most celebrated directors, Roman Polanski and Mike Nichols. With Polanski he made Frantic, a dark psychological thriller that fared poorly among critics and audiences alike. He had greater success with Nichols, his director in Working Girl, a saucy comedy in which he co-starred with Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver. The film was a hit, and displayed Ford's largely unexploited comic talent. Ford began the 1990s with Alan J. Pakula's courtroom thriller Presumed Innocent, which he followed with another Mike Nichols outing, Regarding Henry (1991). The film was an unmitigated flop with both critics and audiences, but Ford allayed his disappointment the following year when he signed an unprecedented 50-million-dollar contract to play CIA agent Jack Ryan in a series of five movies based upon the novels of Tom Clancy. The first two films of the series, Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), met with an overwhelming success mirrored by that of Ford's turn as Dr. Richard Kimball in The Fugitive (1993). Ford's next effort, Sydney Pollack's 1995 remake of Sabrina, did not meet similar success, and this bad luck continued with The Devil's Own (which reunited him with Pakula), despite Ford's seemingly fault-proof pairing with Brad Pitt. However, his other 1997 effort, Wolfgang Petersen's Air Force One, more than made up for the critical and commercial shortcomings of his previous two films, proving that Ford, even at 55, was still a bona fide, butt-kicking action hero.
Stranded on an island with Anne Hesche for his next feature, the moderately successful romantic adventure Six Days, Seven Nights (1998), Ford subsequently appeared in the less successful romantic drama Random Hearts. Bouncing back a bit with Robert Zemeckis' horror-flavored thriller What Lies Beneath, the tension would remain at a fever pitch as Ford and crew raced to prevent a nuclear catastrophe in the fact based deep sea thriller K-19: The Widowmaker.
As the 2000's unfolded, Ford would prove that he had a strong commitment to being active in film, continuing to work in projects like Hollywood Homicide, Firewall, Extraordinary Measures, Morning Glory, and Cowboys & Aliens. Ford would also reprise one of his most famous roles for the disappointing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.