The 1973 coming-of-age dramedy wasn't Harrison Ford's movie debut (under contract for $150 a week with Columbia Pictures, his first part was playing a bellhop in 1966's Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round) but it certainly led to bigger things with director George Lucas.
One origin myth had the struggling actor getting discovered while installing cabinets at Lucas' home, carpentry having been Ford's primary source of income during his first years in Hollywood.
Not true, but his side hustle did play a supporting role.
Casting director Fred Roos was an early champion of Ford's and, having hired him for his carpentry skills, put him in American Graffiti as big-talking townie Bob Falfa, who's jonesing for a drag race.
As good at playing confident and cocky as Ford was, Lucas didn't automatically see that he was right for the role of the swashbuckling Corellian smuggler.
He didn't even invite the actor to audition, not wanting anyone from American Graffiti to populate his pioneering space western. Meanwhile, Ford hadn't done much since playing Bob Falfa—just a few TV appearances and a small part in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation—and he was back to working as a carpenter.
Ford didn't even see Lucas again until Roos hired him to build "an elaborate portico entrance" at the offices of Coppola's American Zoetrope production company, the actor remembered to Vanity Fair in 2020.
"I came in and I worked for a couple days, and I was working late," Ford remembered to Rolling Stone in 2015. "You know, finishing up the last of it, when George Lucas came in with Richard Dreyfuss. I spent a few minutes chatting with them, and that was it."
And even then, Lucas still only invited Ford (at Roos' behest) to be among many potential Han Solos to read lines opposite many Lukes and Leias.
"I read with more than 100 actors," Ford said. "The story that I know is that there were two threesomes that they narrowed it down to, and I was in one of them. I had no idea that that was a potential situation. They asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said, 'Sure, why not?'"
In 2019, Mark Hamill dug up his first screen test with Ford, which was also the first day they'd ever met. "Neither 1 of us had read the script at this point, only this 1 scene," Hamill tweeted. "I asked George what kind of movie it was—'Let's just do it, we'll talk about that later.' We never did talk about it later—we just did it."
Not talking about what was supposed to be going on was sort of the theme of the experience. Upon hearing that Han Solo was being described as "the overly confident captain of the Millennium Falcon," Ford told Interview in 1977 that he wasn't necessarily going for that during filming.
"That's the difference between being able to describe it and playing it," Ford said. "It can be described as 'overly confident,' but I didn't know that at the time. I was just responding to it."
He was directed to play Han, he said, "'faster and more intense.'"
And yet, when it was all in the can, Lucas said (per Rolling Stone) that he picked Ford because he "was the best actor for the part. Harrison is handsome, dashing, and sullen, with an underlying current of sensual hostility."
Carrie Fisher would concur. The star who played Princess Leia revealed in her 2016 memoir The Princess Diarist that she and Ford (who was still married to his first wife, Mary Marquardt; they divorced in 1979) had an affair while making the first installment of the trilogy.
Talking to GQ in the summer of 2017, Ford recalled finding out that Fisher had dropped that bombshell. "It was strange," he said. "For me." But his Star Wars soulmate had died suddenly in December 2016, and he didn't want to say any more about it.
"You know, with Carrie's untimely passing," he said, "I don't really feel that it's a subject that I want to discuss."
As life-changing as Star Wars proved to be—"It gave me a life, a career that has sustained me with work, put food on the table," Ford told Rolling Stone—it was actually playing the titular archaeology professor and dashing adventurer in 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark that turned him into Harrison-freakin'-Ford.
Ironically, as conceived by executive-producer Lucas and directed by Steven Spielberg, it was another by-the-seat-of-their-pants production that somehow coalesced into movie magic.
"It was loose, that was Steven's way," Ford told Empire in 2021 for the film's 40th anniversary. "We were young and free and confident and happy—stuff happened."
And yet, despite everything, Lucas again didn't originally think of Ford for the lead.
"I was wary of Harrison and I becoming like [Martin] Scorsese and [Robert] De Niro. I thought, 'Let's create a new icon,'" he told Empire. "We found Tom Selleck, but as soon as the network heard, his option on Magnum P.I. got picked up...So then we were running short of time and Steven said, 'There's always Harrison.'"
Lucas said he wasn't sure Ford would want to sign on for a whole trilogy, the actor having been reluctant to do so with Star Wars.
"Steven said to try anyway," Lucas recalled. "I went to Harrison and he read the script and said, 'Yeah, I'll do a three-picture deal. I'd love to.'"
Once he was gladly on board, Ford remembered, "We had a guy come to my house for a couple of lessons with the bullwhip in the beginning. It's a combination of relaxation while snapping the wrist at the proper time. It's really all a matter of timing. Not an easy thing to learn."
Don't call Indy a hero, though.
"I've said this before," Ford noted, "but he's just this guy with a bullwhip to keep the world at bay."
Unlike Lucas, director Ridley Scott went looking for Ford to star in his 1982 dystopian sci-fi thriller about a jaded former LAPD officer tasked with hunting down and retiring the four remaining bio-engineered humanoids—known as replicants—in existence.
"I was interested, so we made a deal," Ford told Vanity Fair. "I don't remember anything like Blade Runner up to that point. The character, the overall story, [Scott's] storytelling skills made it an attractive offer."
The dark (figuratively and literally) picture set in the unknown wilds of 2019 was ahead of its time, only making $41.7 million worldwide, but it was nominated for two technical Oscars and became an extremely influential cult classic. And Scott's decades-in-the-making sequel, Blade Runner 2049, was a hit, making $259 million and earning cinematographer Roger Deakins his first Oscar in 14 tries.
Ford's sole Best Actor Oscar nomination came for his turn in this 1985 thriller as a detective who goes undercover in an Amish community to protect a young witness to a murder, played by then-8-year-old Lukas Haas.
This time around, the script came first and Ford was asked which director he'd be interested in working with—and he picked Australian filmmaker Peter Weir.
"Peter went off to research the Amish," Ford told Vanity Fair, "and I went off to research the police. We came together, did some rewrites on the script and shot the movie."
Weir scored another of the film's eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, but he and Ford were already off shooting The Mosquito Coast in Belize and weren't at the ceremony to witness their film's wins for editing and original screenplay.
Ford charmed as a mergers and acquisitions associate who falls for Melanie Griffith's secretary-posing-as-an-executive in Mike Nichols' 1988 romantic dramedy—which was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture.
"Great fun," Ford recalled to Vanity Fair, remembering Nichols, who died in 2014, as a "smart guy."
After a run of action movies and thrillers, the actor said he was looking for "something different, something challenging...It was a very interesting time."
Shooting Working Girl was "more like a party than a movie," he told THR. "I always loved shooting in New York, especially with Mike, because we never failed to have a nice lunch."
Too much of a party for some, though. Griffith revealed in an interview for the 2019 book Life Isn't Everything, a collection of remembrances about Nichols, that the production temporarily shut down after the director found out she was having drugs delivered to the set.
"Mike got so mad at me, he wouldn't talk to me," she recalled. "I knew I was in so much trouble. The next morning [Nichols] took me to breakfast and said, 'Here's what's going to happen. You're going to pay for last night out of your pocket. We're not going to report you to the studio, but you have to pay for what it cost,' and it was $80,000. They wanted to get my attention and they really did. It was a very humbling, embarrassing experience, but I learned a lot from it."
Who killed Carolyn Polhemus?! Is Rusty a stone-cold killer or wrongfully accused?!
Such is the mystery at the heart of the 1990 blockbuster legal thriller, based on a best-seller by Scott Turrow, starring Ford as a prosecutor who has an affair with his gorgeous colleague and then stands trial for her murder.
Ford said that he loved making the film and especially enjoyed working with Alan Pakula—so much so they reunited for what turned out to be the director's last film, 1997's The Devil's Own.
"Harrison was my first choice," Pakula told the LA Times in 1990. "I wanted someone who had an Everyman quality. He had to be someone who could be the man down the block." At the same time, he continued, "There also had to be a terrific ambiguity. He had to be a deep and passionate moralist; that was his life in the law. But there also be the dark passages, capable of obsession, capable of the murder he's accused of."
Though five actors have played novelist Tom Clancy's man for all seasons, and Alec Baldwin was actually the first, Ford's two big-screen turns as the CIA analyst-turned-Naval Academy history teacher-turned-saver-of-the-day cemented his status as the Jack Ryan.
While the character was written "with a political bias," Ford recalled to Vanity Fair, "I thought that we could tell the story with a little bit more emotional complication. We were intent on giving Jack Ryan a slightly different personality, or reality, than Clancy did. We got a lot of access from CIA because of their relationship with Tom Clancy. We're talking about important things, global power and manipulation of history."
He passed on a third go in The Sum of All Fears, however, because he simply "didn't like the script they were offering me," he told The Morning Call in 2000, paving the way for Ben Affleck.
Between Jack Ryan outings, Ford played a vascular surgeon wrongfully convicted of his wife's murder, who, thanks to a massive train crash, is able to escape and go find the one-armed man who really did it.
Another Ford film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and Tommy Lee Jones won Best Supporting Actor for his turn as the U.S. Marshall on Dr. Kimble's trail.
The Fugitive was originally a 1960s-era hit TV series loosely inspired by the case of Dr. Sam Sheppard, who was convicted in 1954 of murdering his wife but exonerated in 1966. Ford had never seen an episode, he told ScreenSlam, so his take on Kimble was solely his own.
"In any case," Ford explained, "my methodology is to create character to help tell a story, because I think the alliance between character and story then is very strong and helps the character and the story."
And he really did blend into the St. Patrick's Day parade crowd as Kimble did, or at least he tried. Plenty of people noticed him, "but we cut that part out," Ford said with a smile. "The cameras were hidden, the crew was hidden, so I just slipped into the crowd for brief moments to get those scenes."
"Get off my plane."
That's it, that's the secret of this 1997 thriller, starring Ford as the POTUS who almost single-handedly vanquishes the terrorists who hijack his ride.
The actor later shared that he ran into Glenn Close in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and took the opportunity to ask her if she'd like to play Vice President Kathryn Bennett, the role having been written for a woman. And since Ford ran into her at a birthday party for then-President Bill Clinton, he also asked if he and the filmmakers could have a tour of Air Force One, for research.
"Both of my desires were accomplished, happily," Ford recalled.
Happier still, having received a reported $10,000 for the original Star Wars, Ford's $20 million paycheck must have had him feeling like the king of the world, let alone commander-in-chief.
This 2000 thriller is especially memorable because it features a rare villainous turn from Ford. He starts out as the loving professor husband of Michelle Pfeiffer's Claire—and then starts noticing freaky s--t happening around the house.
Norman grows increasingly exasperated, insisting to Claire that she's imagining things and perhaps going crazy. And that's never a good sign.
Meanwhile, filming the Robert Zemeckis-directed thriller had its challenges, but they don't sound terrible.
"Lying in bed with Harrison, I got really shy," Pfeiffer told The Morning Call in 2000. "I couldn't stop giggling. It was completely annoying. I had to force myself to stop because the scene was supposed to be dark and dangerous. I had to be grown up. I couldn't hide behind my usual silliness."
Ford said that "Michelle brought a great sense of reality to her side of the story. I found it very easy to work with her." And, he joked, "I think it was very generous of Michelle to live with me for several months before filming began. My wife took it really well."