"Oh, Jesus, no," Harrison Ford says, suddenly throwing the hulking tan pickup he is driving into reverse.
Instantly, Ford's jaw muscles tighten, his eyes harden, and the unmistakable stench of death fills the air. (Later it turns out that the unmistakable stench of death was actually a dumpster filled with day-old chicken bones.) "We can't go in there," he hisses, the unmistakable stench of fear in his voice, and it is only then that it becomes obvious. Harrison Ford is afraid.
The offer of lunch had come as Ford climbed behind the wheel, and was then followed by 10 minutes of circling through the narrow streets at the center of town, choked almost to overflowing now with the summer tourist trade. Had Ford fastened his seat belt? Maybe yes, maybe no. It had all happened so fast. "I don't really know any good places," he said, and then fell silent again. He seemed like he meant it.
Ford came to this place 12 years ago, liberated from Los Angeles and the maw of the movie machine by the enormous success of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," a near-vertical ascendancy from which there would be--could be--no turning back. He and his second wife, screenwriter Melissa Mathison, looked briefly at Sun Valley, then drove over the Teton Pass and into the almost empty town of Jackson. "I preceded the first stoplight into town by about six months," he says, marooned briefly in a traffic jam near the new J. Crew store. "Now it's become the T-shirt center of the universe."
He is wearing jeans and a T-shirt himself, though not one of the ones that came out last year with his picture and the word "Fugitive" in huge black letters. Still, as he slips the tan tank around the corner and past the tightening noose of the crowds, Ford looks worried.
It is not until Ford finally finds a restaurant, and noses the old butte of a Chevy that he drives past an exit-only sign, that the trouble begins. Outside the restaurant Ford spots a small group of people--international narco-terrorists? crypt-robbing Nazi swine? Darth Vader, party of eight? who?--and begins backing into the street so fast that he narrowly avoids hitting a dumpster. The stench of death and fear--and something else that you can't quite put your finger on--fill the truck.
"I don't think, um. . . ."
Ford is mumbling softly, almost to himself. "I don't think that would have . . . ummm . . . worked out," he says. "Too many people."
On his infrequent trips into town, Ford walks with his neck stiff and his eyes riveted straight ahead, as if by refusing to engage the world peripherally he could ward off the intrusive stares that follow him. He is aided in this act of camouflage by features that have a pleasing ordinariness about them. His nose sits just enough off plumb to make his face consistently interesting in films. When he is provoked--or afraid--his brow descends like the cornice of a great mountain, and his eyes form blue lakes at the foot of this undulant granite mass.
Unlike a lot of actors, Ford doesn't ever refer to himself as an artist, preferring to engage in a rear-guard campaign of reductionism, describing himself variously as a "worker in a service industry" and an "assistant storyteller." He deflects all attempts to correlate the success of his films with any underlying personal affection that audiences might feel for him.
"I think that that's a result of a relationship not to who I am, but a degree of satisfaction with the product that I am part of," he says, sounding strangely like a vacuum cleaner salesman. "I make audience movies. I work for them. And I think they have a sense that I am a loyal, and to whatever degree, capable employee of theirs."
Well, whatever. This faithful old retainer has punched the clock--and anything else that got in his way--in seven of the 20 top box-office movies of all time. He was named "star of the century" earlier this year by the National Assn. of Theater Owners, who apparently felt that with domestic ticket sales of more than $2 billion , Ford could spot Macaulay Culkin six years and still carry the title on into the millennium.
With "Clear and Present Danger," his second installment in the canon of espionage author Tom Clancy, Ford has earned ecstatic reviews for himself and more than $28 million for Paramount in the first five days of release. Audiences may just as eagerly flock to see Stallone and Schwarzenegger in their armor-plated adventure vehicles, but when their no-brainer formulas get even slightly overheated, epic disasters like "Last Action Hero" periodically result. On the other hand, people do not go to Harrison Ford movies, they go to see Harrison Ford in movies.
Just as the film version of "Clear and Present Danger" is less shrill than Clancy's book, Ford's portrayal of CIA analyst Jack Ryan is shaded with more ambiguity than the author's hero. This Ryan is vulnerable to the seductions of power, and he is often afraid--vulnerability and fear being two of the qualities Ford is best at projecting.
"He's a hero, but he's also a guy you can relate to as a human being, not one of these all-conquering supermen," says "Fugitive" director Andrew Davis. "He has a vulnerability that has you cheering for him. When we were doing the scene at the dam in 'The Fugitive,' when he was on the edge there, ready to jump, Tommy Lee Jones was just standing there kind of marveling at how scared he looked."
Ford's Ryan is also so hopelessly moral that, at one point, the agency's corrupt director of operations dismisses Ryan contemptuously as "a Boy Scout."
Ford is himself a Boy Scout, having never lost the calling since he took the oath four decades ago in Morton Grove, Ill. Life has gotten more complicated since then. "I guess most often I see complexity, rather than simplicity, in issues," he says. "Enormous complexity. I don't think that anybody knows what the truth is anymore. It isn't that easy. We see these images night after night of Rwanda, but there's no emotional context for it. And it loses its power to shock and offend. I think we feel diminished by that."
It is Ford's job to stand next to the primordial campfire, telling stories by the light of a flickering projector, his sash full of merit badges. "If you can become involved in somebody's simple emotional circumstance, a finite situation," Ford says, referring to Han Solo, Indiana Jones and now Ryan, "and you can understand it--if you can feel that somebody like Jack Ryan has an effect over his life and the situation--that's positive. I think that's something worth doing."
Surprisingly, it is Ryan who has greater resonance for Ford than either Indy or Han Solo, the two towering serial pillars of his box-office success. With bullwhip and blaster, they man the flanks of his testosterone triptych, while Ford stands staring out from the mirror in the middle--an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.
"Um . . . ," says Harrison Ford. "Ummmm."
He is silent for a moment, the words clotted in his throat, then the quiet in the room lengthens into an excruciating absence. Unscripted, Ford speaks in sentences that often seem to have coasted to a halt, only to sputter back to life again after he has turned the whole thing over in his head several more times. When the words come, they seem to erupt from him like magma that has been churning just below the surface.
When Ford made "Mosquito Coast" in 1986, one of his few box-office failures, his friends were quick to note the similarities between the actor and the character he was playing, a crackpot moralist who moves his family from middle America to the middle of a tropical rain forest.
"I'm disappointed when a movie makes $35 million," Ford says, "but I would do 'Mosquito Coast II' in a minute because I loved the character. Not a lot of people wanted to see me play that part, but I didn't make the choice for them, I made it for myself, thinking that enough of them would enjoy him for the same reason I did. His innate intelligence, his skill with words." Ford seems to be considering the similarities to himself.
"Undiluted, I can reach that strength if I feel strongly enough about something," Ford says. "I have a degree of impatience with those things I consider to be inept, a degree of irritation with people I consider to be undisciplined, and I have thought there were things wrong with the world that should be fixed. Of course," he adds, "he was bent."
And, of course, even before the stoplight, Jackson Hole was not exactly the forest primeval. Ford insists that he was not running away from anything when he abandoned Hollywood, but to something here. "It matched the vision I had of what beautiful is," he says. "I always wanted to live someplace where nature was predominant, but truthfully, we were only looking for 10 or 20 acres. When we were unable to find the kind of land we wanted, I finally bit the bullet and bought a place much larger than I had imagined because it had everything I wanted. It works very well for us."
Even on the threshold of this wilderness, Ford has not been able to overcome his need to impose order. Before he can be comfortable sitting in the log cabin he has built among a stand of blue spruce trees, he must first carefully rearrange the furniture. "I have to go around and put everything back where it belongs because people moved things three or four inches and it makes me crazy," he says, embarrassed enough to note this compulsion, but not enough to stop.
One of the first places he takes visitors to the ranch is a stream that runs behind the cabin, where he sometimes fishes for native cutthroat trout. It is a perfect place. Ford built it to be perfect. "We dug a channel and built these islands," he says, "and put those trees in there with their butts buried in the bank to look like they fell over. That was five or six years ago, and now it looks dead natural."
Making it look dead natural on film is Ford's talent as an actor, and he brings to the emotional landscape of his work an excavator's eye. "What makes me happy is the process of getting in it up to the elbows, and seeing that it sucks, and trying to work my way out," Ford says. "That makes me happy, or at least it engages me, which is the closest I come to happiness. I don't think I quite understand happiness."
As a contract player at Columbia Pictures in the '60s, Ford received acting instruction from Method teachers. "I found it all quite baffling, and of no use," he says. "I just felt silly. I sure needed some system, some method of work, and I didn't have one. But I felt what I was learning in acting class was how to be good in acting class. It didn't have anything to do with what the job became once you had a job."
Ford is just beginning to be achieve the necessary gravitas to be compared to stars of the old Hollywood aristocracy, but all the action in his films seems to obscure the obvious link to the first great naturalistic screen actor: Spencer Tracy. "Tracy was a great dramatic actor who appeared to do everything very naturally too," says Mace Neufeld, producer of the Jack Ryan movies, says. "He was handsome, but not pretty, willing to let the scars show the way Harrison does. Harrison has that rare ability to project what's going on in his head through his eyes, without using dialogue."
During the filming of "Patriot Games," for example, Ford suggested eliminating almost all of the dialogue in a scene at CIA headquarters in which a spy satellite watches a raid on a terrorist base in the Middle East. As the terrorists are being killed thousands of miles away, the audience watches Ford's eyes. "The camera sits on Harrison's face for a long, long time," Neufeld says, "and he tells the whole story with his eyes. Very few actors could take that kind of close-up."
Ford claims not to have been influenced by Tracy's naturalness, Gary Cooper's marshmallow masculinity, or the men-at-work comedies of Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. "I never went to the movies very much," Ford says. "When I was very young I'd go to Saturday matinees, and then I didn't go to movies much until I was in college, dating, when the main draw was that it was, you know, dark. I still don't go to movies much. Maybe it's the same as not eating hot dogs after you've worked in a slaughterhouse. You know it's all made from ears and ass-parts."
The white house in which Ford, his wife and children--7-year- old Malcolm and 4-year-old Georgia--live was originally intended to be the caretaker's quarters, but when it was finished, its dimensions seemed to fit the family so perfectly that one day they just moved in. (Ford also has two sons, Benjamin, 27, a chef at Campanile in Los Angeles, and Willard, 25, who recently presented Ford with a grandson, Eliel.) Ford designed the house on the backs of napkins while he was working on "Frantic" for Roman Polanski in Paris, then sent his sketches by fax to his contractor every night after returning from the set.
Not far from the house there is a large red barn, and behind that, a corral made of buckboard fencing where a couple of horses stand. Ford has filled a large workshop with the most elaborate carpentry tools imaginable. Beyond this three-acre family compound, a gravel road twists back through towering blue spruce trees, and smaller stands of aspen and hawthorn, to the guest cottages.
Ford recently placed 389 of his 800 acres in perpetual trust to serve as a wildlife habitat, and plans to use only a couple of other small sites to build houses for his children. Then they will all be protected--the sandhill cranes, the nesting bald eagles, the great blue heron rookery, the herds of elk, and Harrison Ford himself--from the advancing encroachment of his fellow man.
He has been in a more or less constant state of retreat since he was a boy, trying to account for a first name that--however suggestive of danger and romance it may seem now--had the disadvantage of being merely odd then. "I think it's Yiddish for 'son of Harry,' " Ford says, "even though I wasn't son of Harry. That was my mother's father, a Russian Jew, who died in the influenza epidemic of 1916." His other grandfather was a blackface comedian in vaudeville, who died of alcoholism at the age of 25, leaving Ford's father to be raised in an orphanage by nuns.
When he was very small, Ford would often spend hours at a second-story window, waving at people as they passed by on their way to work in the morning, watching them wave as they walked home again that night. But when Ford's father moved the family from Chicago to suburban Des Plaines, young Harry began to attract a less welcome kind of attention. Day after day he was taken to the top of a hill by the boys his age, and pushed down it. He did nothing, and no one with a bullwhip ever came to his rescue.
"They weren't so much beatings as exercises in ritual humiliation," he recalls. "It wasn't important that I suffer physically, just that I not think that I was the equal of my mates. I knew the ritual had a form and a shape to it, and that it was far more efficient just to tumble down the hill in a satisfying way and then make my way up, rather than have to fight those guys to get back into the parking lot."
This torment was never explained, but Ford always understood why he was being punished. "They might have sensed an underlying arrogance that they didn't want to allow to blossom," he says, smiling. "That probably came from the distance at which I held myself from people. And still do."
After four mostly disastrous years at Ripon College in Wisconsin, Ford had so few options--and the implied responsibility of his impending wedding--that he improvised a career choice. He would be an actor. "It was important to be able to announce to people what I was going to do with my life, even if it was only to say the thing that appalled them most," he says. "It proceeded naturally enough from the fact that I wasn't going to graduate from college. Now I was off on an adventure, with no sense really of what the odds were because I never knew anybody who was in that work. I don't think my family thought it was going to work out, but they never discouraged me. Discouragement was something I was always happy to have. Some resistance, you know?"
He found plenty of that in Hollywood, where the hills are alive with the sound of actors being rolled down Doheny Drive on their aspirations. There is a sizable legend that surrounds Ford's early struggles as an actor, but the truth is, he arrived with virtually no experience and was signed almost instantly by first one, and then another, studio to development contracts. It is true that he didn't become a star until he was 35, following "Star Wars," but he says now the thought had never occurred to him.
"I never had an ambition to be a star, or thought of myself as star material," he says. "There wasn't anybody like me then who was a movie star. I always thought I was going to be a character actor, and never had a higher ambition than to do a TV series."
Unable to separate himself from the rest of the herd of young, nondescript bit players in TV series, Ford simply gave it up at one point and became a carpenter. "I told people that I wasn't available for interviews unless it was something really special, that I didn't want to do episodic television," he says. "But I never thought I was quitting the movie business. I was actually making a better living as a carpenter."
In 10 years as a carpenter, he worked on bookcases for Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, a deck for Sally Kellerman, and four movies. In 20 years of celebrity journalism, he has become the most famous carpenter since Jesus of Nazareth. "And we really don't know how good he was," says Ford, hard as cherrywood.
"He takes his work seriously, deadly serious," says Neufeld, "but he doesn't take himself seriously as a movie star." Ford had some difficulty early in his career with director Robert Aldrich when he made "The Frisco Kid" in 1978. Ford's part was originally intended for John Wayne, but when the Duke dropped out, Aldrich got stuck with the kid who would become Wayne's box-office successor.
"I think every time Aldrich looked at Harrison, he saw John Wayne," says Neufeld, who also produced that picture. "Harrison was aware of that, but he was always fun to be around, very funny. Where he's underrated is that he's a real filmmaker, as well as a movie star and an actor. He's involved up to his neck in the script, and he's always pushing to make it better."
Just as Ford was turning 52 last month, rumors began to circulate that he was about to sign on for another installment in the Indiana Jones series, which he seems to be considering. He says he has no interest in playing Jack Ryan again for at least three years, perhaps five, by which time he will be nearly 60. Will audiences who think Keanu Reeves is buff still want to see Ford in an action picture in the year 2000?
"One of the things I always thought was great about this as a job is you get to play older people," he says, "and you get to be in different kinds of movies when you're an older person. But I do sometimes think I would like to do something else with my life besides this. The hard part is that I've never been able to think of what."
He had planned to take this year off from filmmaking, so that he could watch the complete cycle of the seasons at his ranch. But next month he will start work on Sydney Pollack's remake of "Sabrina," the 1954 comedy written and directed by Billy Wilder. Ford will take on the role played by Humphrey Bogart in the original (the Audrey Hepburn role is still uncast). "I'm always taking a year off," he says ruefully. "And I really mean it, and I really do try. But I didn't want to leave for a year's sabbatical with 'Clear and Present Danger' as the last thing I left on the table. I've done too many grim, anxious movies lately, so I wanted to do a comedy."
Director Davis, for one, thinks the only thing that would keep people from one day speaking of Ford in the same breath as Tracy is his need to lighten up a bit. "I would love to do a comedy with Harrison--he should play Steve Martin's brother," Davis says. "Having seen him when he isn't on camera, there's a twinkle in his character that hasn't been on screen yet. If he allows himself to stretch, I don't think there's any question he could be in that league."
There has also been talk of a sequel to last summer's hit "The Fugitive," but Ford isn't interested. "I see absolutely no way that I could be part of (that)," he says. "I don't see how you could create a story that would be interesting to me, and would proceed from what we've done. And the studio said, 'Well, you'll understand if we try, won't you?"'
There also seems to be no chance for him to reprise his "Star Wars" role. "No, not on your life," Ford says. "The character just doesn't interest me. Han Solo only meant something in relationship to the callow youth that Mark Hamill played, he meant something in relationship to the princess. But as a character he was pretty thin."
There are rain clouds gathering across the range, and still farther away than he can see, a peal of thunder has begun rolling in his direction. Ford will take his family to the demolition derby at the Teton County Fair tomorrow, and if he is lucky, no one will recognize him there. There is one last, long silence, during which Ford's eyebrows slowly begin to knit themselves together. "They need somebody now to play Indiana Jones," he says, as if considering this for the first time, "and I'm the one whose face looks most like him."*