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The Selling of the President

Gene Seymour is staff writer at Newsday

Childish as this may sound, it gives you the giggles to find out that Han Solo took his time before he started flying for real.

Harrison Ford got his pilot’s license just last fall and has flown his two small planes so many times since that he’s already logged, as he carefully puts it, “more hours than is typical for someone with a license for the amount of time I’ve had.”

Ford describes flying as “a long-held ambition that I’ve converted into a passion.” He’d only started taking lessons two years ago at age 53. What took him so long?

“I’ve never trusted myself to do certain things until I got to a certain age,” he says, deadpan as a judge’s sentence. “I never rode motorcycles till I was past 45--I wasn’t too much of a wild child. I knew my limits. And rarely exceeded them.”

This doesn’t sound like “Star Wars’ ” swashbuckling space jockey. If anything, Ford comes across more like a real-life shuttle astronaut, chilly and remote, taking stock of every contingency, appraising each situation with an engineer’s attention to detail.

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If nothing else, such traits contribute to an impressive presentation. Phrases roll out like crisp faxes without wrinkles or snags. No smudges on the syntax.

There is little mystery or superfluousness cluttering the messages Ford sends out on this bright, sticky Manhattan morning. And the primary message is this: I’m working here.

He’s sitting, relaxed but focused, in a penthouse suite overlooking a corner of Central Park, the sides of his more-cropped-than-usual head as steely as his purpose--which is to promote “Air Force One,” his latest movie in which his lucrative good-guy persona is recruited for the highest office in the land.

As war-hero-turned-president James Marshall, Ford gets to kick, gouge, punch, shoot and squirm his way out of a perilous predicament: The chief executive’s plane, also carrying Marshall’s wife, daughter, staff members and Secret Service agents, has been seized by Russian nationalists whose fanatical leader (Gary Oldman) demands the release of a renegade general.

The film, which opens Friday, is directed by Wolfgang Petersen, whose 1993 film, “In the Line of Fire,” also orchestrated gut-twisting suspense over a president’s fate, with profitable results.

Shooting on Petersen’s latest exercise in terror-in-high-places stopped many months ago. As a matter of fact, Ford is leaving the mainland within hours of this interview for Hawaii to begin working on the romantic comedy “6 Days and 7 Nights” with Anne Heche. But as far as he’s concerned, he’s on the clock for “Air Force One.”

“Right now, I’m still making this movie,” he says with velvet-shrouded intensity. “I’m representing the interests of the people who put so much money into this thing. And I feel responsible, not only for them but for all the people who invested their sweat and tears and hard work from the screenwriter to the director to the dolly grip.”

Ford’s intensity has, in the past, burned on contact with others in the film industry. He’s been known to wield his immense clout, either by withholding or tempering his support for a project that didn’t meet his expectations, as reportedly happened with “The Devil’s Own,” released by Columbia earlier this year. He also threatened to terminate his long relationship with Paramount earlier this summer, when the studio had been considering opening the beleaguered James Cameron film “Titanic” on the same weekend as “Air Force One.” Paramount and Cameron ultimately announced plans to release “Titanic” in December.

He is happy to throw his weight behind what he and his co-workers described throughout the shoot as “Air Force Fun.” “It was an easy film to make. The set was complete from Day 1. There were never any weather problems. The lighting was quick and easy. And we had a very organized director and a very organized production.”

Such basic satisfactions would seem to align themselves nicely to remarks Ford made two months ago at the tribute to Sean Connery at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Ford praised his “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” co-star for embodying a work ethic he could relate to. “We’re of the show-up-on-time-do-it-and-go-home school of acting,” Ford told the audience.

Is it really as simple as that?

“No,” Ford says now, grinning. “But it’ll do for a crowd at Lincoln Center. . . . And I think I then further characterized [movie acting] by saying, ‘It ain’t brain surgery.’

“I’ll say it again. It ain’t brain surgery. But it is nonetheless a craft, a skill that demands that you twist yourself into emotional situations connected with the issues you’re dealing with. It helps to have your craft skills developed so that you can give expression to a variety of different moods and psychological situations. It helps to know how to support your fellow actors and contrive to get them to support you. All these things take time to develop. And there’s no mystery, really, to the acting process. There are occasional surprises. But no mystery.”

One of the surprising things about “Air Force One” is that Ford, one of the fittest-looking 55-year-olds in the Western hemisphere, wasn’t the initial choice to play the two-fisted warrior-president.

“This was a script that Kevin Costner originally had and he gave it to me. Kevin knew this was a big commercial movie and his schedule didn’t allow him to do it. And he told [the producers] he would let it go only if I could do it. Now Kevin and I are not intimates. I’ve met him on a number of occasions and I like him very much. And,” he says with a laugh, “I like him a lot more now because he really threw a winner my way.”

Ford met the real president shortly after accepting the part. Both he and Glenn Close, who plays the vice president, were guests at a birthday party for Bill Clinton in Jackson, Wyo. Ford’s home, a large ranch far from the Hollywood crowd, is nearby. Clinton agreed to arrange a guided tour of the presidential plane. (The movie’s set is “pretty close” to the real thing, Ford says.)

But he and Ford didn’t talk very much about what it took to “play presidential.” That’s established, Ford says, “when [Marshall] gives his speech at the beginning before the Russians,” vowing no negotiations with terrorists.

“It was a tense moment, a very short moment. But it was important. That speech had to be brief and bold and it was probably the most rewritten part because it had to establish the president’s authority and serve as an armature on which to build the rest of the plot. Every word, every bit of meter counted and it took a while before we got something that pleased us all.”

Forget about finding any real-life presidential counterparts to James Marshall. (Or, for that matter, anyone like him emerging as a contender in 2000.) It is better to regard him as another addition to the gallery of Harrison Ford characters who find themselves suddenly overmatched by dire circumstances and have to use everything within their means to level the playing field.

Whether it’s Indiana Jones or Han Solo, “The Fugitive’s” Richard Kimble or “Blade Runner’s” Rick Deckard, CIA agent Jack Ryan (“Clear and Present Danger”) or Philadelphia cop John Book (“Witness”), Ford has established himself as the movies’ most reliable personification of resourceful, often panicky heroism in the face of overwhelming odds.

Yet despite his aversion to taking unnecessary risks (like riding motorcycles before middle age), Ford has sometimes taken on such quirky roles as the obsessive inventor in “The Mosquito Coast” (1986), the brain-damaged lawyer from “Regarding Henry” (1991), or the more reserved rich brother in “Sabrina” (1995).

None of these three films were big moneymakers, and conventional wisdom blames Ford in part for choosing to go against type. Ford, for his part, wishes he could tell conventional wisdom where to get off.

“Look, it’s interesting for me to do these movies precisely because it’s dangerous, because I shouldn’t be doing it in terms of a set idea of who I am and what I should be doing. You can’t expect to put a film like ‘Sabrina’ on a level playing field with a big audience for the Indiana Jones movies; it’s not a reasonable thing to do.

“But it is reasonable for me to expand people’s understanding of what I’m interested in. I choose all the films I want to do based on how good the material is regardless of genre. It’s interesting for me to work with a Mike Nichols or a Sydney Pollack or a Peter Weir, so I do it. There’s no sense in having the freedom I have and the opportunities I have without exercising them from time to time.”

He understands, however, “there are limits to the commercial viability of some roles. It’s clear that people are less comfortable with me playing a bad guy than a good guy. It’s clear they have in mind something particular when they come to see . . . and forgive me for calling them this . . . ‘Harrison Ford movies.’ They are not Harrison Ford movies. They’re Steven Spielberg movies. They’re Sydney Pollack movies. They’re Wolfgang Petersen movies.”

Ford remembers being miffed being characterized by another actor as a “brand name” rather than an actor. “And somewhere there’s a tension between the reality of what he said and the fact that what I’m doing is acting, giving emotional and physical expression to ideas.”

Still he recognizes that much of this dilemma between Harrison Ford, craftsman, and Harrison Ford, trademark, owes much to what he calls “this lucky thing that’s happened to me"--meaning that he has managed to appear prominently in some of the most successful films ever made.

“Forgive me if this sounds self-aggrandizing, but the thing that pleases me most is when people say to me, ‘I like all your movies.’ Which tells me that when they see something I’m in, they’re sure it’s going to be good.

“Of course, I don’t do this myself. But . . ."--the intensity builds here--"I don’t, on the other hand, choose movies that simply have nothing to offer except commercial viability, and I don’t work with people who think that way. I work with people who have the same ambitions for quality as I do. That’s what makes me viable. That’s what keeps me alive year after year commercially. Nothing more than that! It’s what I choose to do that gives people satisfaction.”

He reacts with genuine pleasure when hearing that Michael Jordan says Harrison Ford is one of his favorite movie actors. Does that make Jordan his favorite basketball player.

“He is!” Ford laughs. “I’ve never been a sports fan. But from what I’ve seen of Michael Jordan, I admire him as an artist. It’s clear he has some control over his mind and body that’s almost supernatural and I imagine that comes from a very strong mental condition.”

It also comes from preparation, a trait that Ford holds so dear that he’s been known to get prickly toward those who aren’t prepared.

He clarifies. “What I don’t like is somebody who puts something in the way of giving their best, whether they do it purposely or out of a failure of character. I don’t like that. That doesn’t mean I want everybody coming to work knowing exactly what they’re going to do because that’s the way I work for sure.”

In film acting, Ford says, “there’s a tension between efficiency and indulgence that has to be maintained. You have to be disciplined in this business. There are actors who say, ‘I don’t need to hit my marks. Let the cameraman worry about that.’ ” He shakes his head. “It just doesn’t work that way.” He pauses. “I’ve just indicted two types of acting behavior and I’ll tell you I’ve rarely seen them abused. I’m only using them as illustrative examples.”

Is it satisfying for him to look back on his own work? “No,” he replies quickly. “No, I don’t enjoy looking at it and I never have. It doesn’t amuse me. I like to look at dailies, the rough cuts of what I’m doing. The test screenings. I stay involved up to the point when they start striking prints. It’s history and I’m on to something else.”

So he’s never been inclined to analyze his movies from a distance of years? “Absolutely not. I think that’s counterproductive to the way I work. If I analyze, I’m only looking for failure or trying to repeat success. And that doesn’t work for me.”

He is reminded of Satchel Paige’s immortal axiom: Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.

“I’m not worried that it’s gaining on me,” he retorts, ever the cool pilot, fielding all contingencies. “I just don’t see any reason to stand still and let it catch up.”


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