HARRISON FORD arrived at the private hangar he uses to fly in and out of Santa Monica Municipal Airport with the expression of someone waiting in line at the DMV. It's not that he is rude or mad, there's just other places he'd rather be -- the sky is crystal blue, and for a guy who owns a few planes and a helicopter, the prospect of another earth-bound interview just isn't that scintillating. ¶ Munching on a bran muffin, the sinewy 65-year-old movie star admits as much: "I don't know if 'patience' is the word, but the press and promotion, it does take a different kind of energy and a different kind of commitment than making the film itself, but I'm ready for it." ¶ He'd better be: After nearly two decades, Ford is returning to his most iconic role with " Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," the mega-release that arrives in theaters May 22. For Ford, it's been years since he has had a major hit (you have to track back to his creepy career departure in "What Lies Beneath" in 2000 or the more familiar heroics of "Air Force One" in 1997) and, considering how beloved Indiana Jones is to filmgoers, you can imagine Ford feeling plenty of bittersweet emotions by donning the old fedora. But you'd be wrong, he said, taking another bite of that dry muffin.
"It's not really a sentimental thing," Ford said. "I feel close to a lot of the people involved, so it was nice to be able to revive those relationships and work on this character. The character is special because it's really brought so much pleasure to so many people. That's what's special about it . . . [while filming] we knew we were making what we know will be a popular success -- or what we anticipate will be a popular success -- and there's no feeling that we're making something that deserves anything less than our best effort."
Maybe it's just the adrenaline roles he's played through the years, but, in person, Ford seems especially laconic and unimpressed by the dream factory aspects of Hollywood. The Chicago native lives on an 800-acre ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyo. (he calls California "the silly state," although he has a residence in Santa Monica) with his girlfriend, actress Calista Flockhart, and their 7-year-old son, Liam.
Want proof that Ford takes a distant flight path from his celluloid creations? "My son doesn't really know who Indiana Jones is. So far, he vaguely knows what I do for a living and that it has something to do with 'Indiana Jones,' but anything he knows about it is from friends, and it's not extensive."
That will probably change this summer. The franchise that has grossed $620 million domestically has been on hiatus since "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" in summer 1989, and little Liam will see his dad staring out from billboards, television screens, magazine ads, toy aisles and Burger King cups. The actor no longer finds any of that surreal or interesting. "I'm at peace with it myself," he said as some prop planes buzzed overhead.
Indiana Jones was created by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (Lucas has been a producer and writer throughout the franchise, Spielberg has directed), and everyone involved wanted to see the hero back but, for reasons of creative agreement and scheduling, it took a little longer than expected.
Ford explains: "It worked like this: George and Steven have a rough discussion about the story. George goes off and creates the basic story line. It goes back to Steven for comments and approval. And then when those two have satisfied each other, then it comes to me and I get to have my say about it. That entire process? That takes about . . . 18 years."
It would seem reasonable to assume then that this is the final farewell to the character that the American Film Institute ranked as the second greatest screen hero (just behind Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird"). But Lucas has hinted that there might yet be one more movie there, and Ford himself is vague, suggesting that in another decade we might have "Indiana Jones and the Hunt for Haight-Ashbury."
That talk may just be part of the team's smoke screens, though; the secrecy surrounding "Crystal Skull" has been a bit staggering. Here's what is known: It's 19 years after "Last Crusade," and the grizzled Indy has aged appropriately, he's still a college professor, and his sense of fashion has not changed a whit. He will meet up again with Marion Ravenwood ( Karen Allen, back for the first time since the franchise launched with "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in 1981) as well as a young sidekick in a 1950s greaser named Mutt Williams ( Shia LaBeouf).
This time the quest involves a death-defying scamp through Peru, power-pulsing Crystal Skulls that may or may not be of extraterrestrial origin and a Cold War nemesis.
"I was happy to acknowledge the passage of time because I'm not sure how you could do it without that. I think there's some good fun to be had with his age and doing the things he does at the age he might be, would be, could be. For me, it actually wasn't so hard. I was in better shape probably than I have been in the others." Even if Ford didn't get goose bumps as he walked in front of the camera, others did: "Everyone who saw Harrison on the set kind of turned into a little kid again," Lucas said. "He really defines Indiana Jones."
Ford knows how his character echoes in pop culture, and (because he sees the moviegoing public as "my customers") he goes out of his way to sign autographs and say hello to fans. Sometimes it gets a bit much, though: He's a volunteer pilot back in Wyoming, and he's picked up some stranded hikers through the years only to see the gesture reported on in the news.
"I'm part of a county search and rescue with a lot of people, but suddenly it's all about me," Ford said. "I really got tired of picking people up and having them show up on 'Good Morning America.' The next time maybe I will just push them back out. 'Hi, I'm here. Never mind.' "
That little fantasy brings a big grin to Ford's face for the first time during the interview and he laughs out loud. Then it's time to go. Asked what he thinks about a whole new generation of kids playing with fake bullwhips in their backyard this summer, the customer-service actor shrugged. "They'll get over it. I did."