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Harrison Ford returns to the ‘Star Wars’ universe -- for one night

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Harrison Ford isn’t someone who dwells on his past on-screen moments much, especially when it comes to the “Star Wars” films that turned him into an international superstar. That was clear Wednesday night when he shrugged and chuckled when asked how many times he had seen Han Solo get the deep-freeze treatment in the second “Star Wars” film: “Well, I saw ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ when it came out but I haven’t seen it since. So it’s been 30 years. What I remember about it is that we probably learned some things about storytelling from the first movie. So the second one was probably better.”

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When he said that, I was standing with Ford in a corridor of the ArcLight Hollywood, which was hosting the red-carpet revival of “Empire” as a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Friday is the actual 30th anniversary of the film that clearly stands as the best of all the “Star Wars” sequels and, in the view of some fans, matches or (as Ford suggests) even exceeds the 1977 classic that began the saga of the Skywalker family. Rest assured, debates like that don’t cross Ford’s mind often; the actor, now 67, has kept the Jedi universe at arm’s length for years. He has made it quite clear that he is grateful for the role of Han Solo and all the wondrous opportunities that came from it, but he makes it equally understood that he has long since moved on from a character that he finds fairly limited.

That will make true “Star Wars” fans wince -- the rakish Solo is the most popular “Star Wars” character after Darth Vader, and without Ford’s wry work in the role the original trilogy would be a far clunkier affair. We love Han Solo because he is the human charm and cynical soul in a universe of light-speed technology, mecha-fixation and alien ritual. He is funny, arrogant, randy and exasperated -- which makes him the desperately needed Rhett Butler or Rick Blaine for a film series that spends a considerable amount of time talking about tractor beams and protocol droids.

But, for Ford, Solo is just not that compelling -- not when he looks back more favorably on less cartoonish roles such as John Book in “Witness,” Richard Kimble in “The Fugitive” and Jack Ryan in “Patriot Games” and Clear and Present Danger.”

It’s revealing that Ford put on the old fedora for a fourth Indiana Jones movie in 2008 but whenever he has been asked about returning to the role of space smuggler Solo he rolls his eyes. He also declined hundreds of invitations through the years to appear at “Star Wars” conventions, film festivals and fan events. He broke with that tradition, though, for this anniversary event, which had such a good cause and raised more than $40,000 for St. Jude, a facility that pledges never to deny treatment because of a family’s inability to pay and stands as the only research center for pediatric cancer where families never pay for treatment that is not covered by insurance.

Even with that good cause in place, I have to say I was surprised when I heard Ford had agreed to do the event. I was also surprised and pleased (not to mention a bit nervous) when Lucasfilm, which organized the event, asked me to handle the on-stage interview with Ford. I had done a major feature on him a few years ago but I didn’t feel as though we had an especially good rapport, although that’s not especially surprising; Ford is a notoriously tough interview. He finds very little charm in doing press, and the whole modern notion of celebrity runs counter to his workmanlike view of acting as a craft. This is a guy who had given up on acting not long after “American Graffiti” and was working as a carpenter on a project at Francis Ford Coppola’s office when George Lucas asked him to help run lines with actors who were auditioning for parts in a new outer space fantasy film. Ford didn’t seek out “Star Wars”; it found him. And after the mega-success of the 1977 film, Ford was the only one of the principal returning stars that declined to sign a two-sequel deal; even then he was a little leery of it all.

At the ArcLight, Ford did the red carpet, where he gamely answered the same questions over and over and posed for photos with three other actors from the “Star Wars” saga -- Billy Dee Williams, who played Lando Calrissian; the dapper Ewan McGregor, who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the more recent trilogy; and Peter Mayhew, the towering British actor who portrayed Chewbacca and arrived at the event wearing a giant, silver Wookiee ring on one finger and clutching a walking cane fashioned to resemble a lightsaber.

After Ford made his way inside the building, I got a chance to say hello and he was all smiles. “Calista is home with our son, so it’s just you and me tonight,” he said. He graciously made a point to say hello to my wife, Tracy, and our kids, Addison and Benjamin. “I have a son named Ben too,” he said to my 8-year-old, who came to the event wearing a vintage “Empire” shirt. That shirt’s original owner was me; I was 10 when “Empire” came out and “Star Wars” and comic books were the major obsessions of my youth. I didn’t feel a need to tell all of that to Ford though.

In the green room, Ford sat and chatted with Williams, who was resplendent in his blue suede shoes and silk scarf. Jim Gianopulos, the co-chairman of 20th Century Fox, stopped by, and he and Ford stepped into the hallway for a private chat. I headed for my seat in the theater. It was interesting to see some familiar faces in the audience -- “Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan sat with his brother and frequent collaborator Jonah Nolan, and Iron Man director Jon Favreau and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige paused to say hello as they walked by with popcorn in hand.

The movie was great, as always. Seeing it on the big screen reminded me how powerful and absolutely essential the music of John Williams was to the film. I was struck by how effectively the movie uses the presence of Darth Vader and how imaginative it was for Lucas to use so many different alien landscapes in his epic; these days we’re inured when it comes to otherworldly climates and vistas, but back in 1980 the arrival on an ice planet and a swamp world was powerful stuff.

When the movie was over, I made my way to the front of the venue to start my microphone duty. I told the crowd that it was Mayhew’s birthday and asked everyone to do a Wookiee impression as a birthday salutation and, thankfully, a good number of people played along. I brought up Ford and we did the Q&A. He was less chipper in the spotlight but there were still plenty of great tidbits and insights.

He talked about getting the role of Solo for the first movie and he also sang the praises of “Empire” director Irvin Kershner (or “Kersh,” as the actor fondly called him), who is struggling right now with some health issues. Ford also talked about the 1970s cinema troika of Lucas, Coppola and Steven Spielberg and how fortunate he felt to work with each of them and during a time of such restless accomplishment in the medium.

He talked about the late Alec Guinness too, and how the elder actor helped Ford find a place to live in London when the first “Star Wars” film was gearing up in England; he also noted, playfully, that Guinness seemed so old to him back then and how strange it is to think that he himself is now several years older than the Obi-Wan Kenobi actor was in 1977.

He also acknowledged Favreau in the audience and spoke very highly of the filmmaker, who will soon direct Ford in “Cowboys and Aliens.” The most interesting tidbit might be the fact that Ford said he sat down and watched the first “Star Wars” in the days before the screening so he would be ready to recapture the place and moment that preceded the sequel’s premiere in 1980.

I’ll try to get a complete transcript of the interview and, if I do, I’ll post it here soon.

I can tell you now that the very first question I asked him was about the impact of “Star Wars” -- the movie was a major pivot point in Hollywood history and, right or wrong, for a generation there was every day before the release of “Star Wars” and every day after the release of “Star Wars.” Ford said that he is still surprised by all of that: “I’m not sure I understood it then and I’m not sure I understand it now,” he said, and, well, give him points for not trying to pander to the audience.

Some “Star Wars” fans might not hear the passion they desire in Ford’s answers but I would remind them of this: On a night when he could be anywhere in the world, one of the biggest movie stars in the history of Hollywood -- a man who is the Gary Cooper of his time -- sat down in a dark theater with “Empire” fans and he returned to the strange, frosty ridgelines of Hoth and, when it was all over, everybody in the room left with a warm feeling.

-- Geoff Boucher

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PHOTOS: Top, Harrison Ford on the red carpet at the ArcLight Hollywood (Reuters). Second, Peter Mayhew and Ford reunite on the red carpet (Reuters). Third, star-warriors Mayhew, Ford, Billy Dee Williams and Ewan MacGregor before the “Empire Strikes Back” screening (Reuters). Fourth, Mayhew and Ford in their “Star Wars” roles of Chewbacca and Han Solo (LucasFilm). Fifth and sixth, Ford and Geoff Boucher during the Q&A (LucasFilm).


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