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Harrison Ford: Hollywood Hero

From on-screen heroics to real-life rescues, the legendary actor's work is never done

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"I love acting probably more than I did before," says Harrison Ford (above).
Photo by Timothy White

 Harrison Ford lands his green Citation jet on the tarmac of the Santa Monica airport, then heads to his sleek offices overlooking the runway. The graying action star looks fit and appealingly weathered. He wears a tiny silver hoop in his left ear, which Han Solo fans on the Web lament as an unhip vestige of a midlife crisis.

Settling into a chair in a conference room, Ford leaves the door ajar so he can keep a protective eye on his plane as his copilot prepares to stow it in its hangar. He tears hungrily into a couple of cartons of Muscle Milk. "Haven't had a chance to eat today," he explains.

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It's nearly 5 p.m.,and earlier in the day he flew to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he keeps a ranch, to attend the funeral of his friend Blake Chapman, who died piloting a small plane in a snowstorm. "Seventy-three-year-old cowboy, professional pilot. Great guy. We spent a fair amount of time together flying up into the wilderness." Although Ford grieves the loss of his friend, he finds one consolation: "He lived his life doing what he wanted, right up to that moment."

Perhaps the contemplation of mortality has triggered a mellow mood; in conversation today, Ford shows no hint of the irascibility for which he — and his screen characters — are famous. Though he'd rather be wearing blue jeans than the navy-blue suit he wore to the funeral, he's cheerful and relaxed — even, you might say, helpful. He readily dishes up his sardonic wit: "More people are kicked to death by mules than die in aviation accidents worldwide," he says with his familiar lopsided grin. He responds to questions deliberately; when they veer into private areas, monosyllabically. "I'm good at vague answers," he concedes.

Like Blake Chapman, Ford is living the life he wants to live. As one of Hollywood's richest men, with a reported $300 million fortune, Ford enjoys privileges — and faces challenges — his friend never did. But they shared a code of honor rooted in the fundamental American values of reliability, independence bordering on cussedness, and a commitment to give the best of oneself to any task. "I take pleasure in being useful," he says. A key to his character is that he was a carpenter who became a movie star but never gave up being a carpenter — literally or metaphorically. At 68, he succeeds as a movie actor, family man, aviator, philanthropist, and builder.

Ford's a classic now — "like old shoes," as he puts it. Three years out from having earned $65 million for his most recent Indiana Jones film, he can claim one of the most charmed acting careers ever, playing a raft of beloved characters in timeless movies. In the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series, as well as in such blockbusters as The Fugitive, Presumed Innocent, and Clear and Present Danger, Ford played the everyman, the reluctant hero drawn into extraordinary circumstances. "He's authentic," says his longtime friend Tom Brokaw, "the same kind of guy you see on-screen. I get into trouble when I use this expression, but Harrison is a man's man. He is not a Hollywood dandy in any form. He likes to take a belt from time to time, and he has a wicked sense of humor."

He still adores making movies. "I love acting probably more than I did before," Ford says. "I like working and problem-solving with people on a story." But the transition from having his pick of plum action roles to finding intriguing character parts for a man his age has been tough. The failure of last year's Morning Glory — a comedy costarring Diane Keaton in which his vain and aging news-anchor character joins a morning show — hit Ford especially hard, according to his friends and business associates. "I just want to make good movies that people want to go see," he says. "I hate making movies that people don't go to."

Ford is eager for people to see his new film, Cowboys & Aliens, an unlikely hybrid of a western and an alien-invasion movie that he's hoping will be a hit. He was thrilled to grow some stubble for the movie, put on a dirty hat, and gallop across the glorious New Mexico range. "Nothing better," he says, laughing.

Director Jon Favreau says Ford was perfect for the part of ornery rancher Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, who rules the 1875 desert town of Absolution with an iron fist. "Harrison is like John Wayne in the autumn of his career," says Favreau. "In movies like The Searchers and True Grit, Wayne was always giving a younger man a run for his money."

In this case the younger man is Daniel Craig, the film's principal star. "I give enormous credit to Daniel," says Ford. "He gave me the room in his movie to make a part that was probably as much fun to play as any I've ever had." Ford claims somewhat convincingly that it's liberating to hand off the leading-man baton. "The leading man has a special responsibility to carry the audience. I can just dodge in, and that's wonderful."

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On the set, Ford regaled the cast — including Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, and Olivia Wilde — with his war stories. Despite assorted orthopedic issues from a career's worth of running, jumping, and falling down, he rode as hard as anyone. "Harrison was in better shape than any of us," says Wilde. "He's ripped."

In his personal life, say Ford's friends, he's never seemed happier. Last year he married actress Calista Flockhart, 46, his sweetheart of 10 years. Together they are raising her 10-year-old son, Liam. "Yeah, I'm his dad," says Ford with obvious affection. Though he would rather live in Wyoming, domesticity and parenthood have grounded him in Los Angeles, where Flockhart appears in the television series Brothers & Sisters and Liam is enrolled in school.

Ford's stable home life allows him to satisfy his need for adventure more than ever. In 1995 he fulfilled a lifelong dream of earning his pilot's license. "I wanted to see whether I could learn something new," he says, "especially something really challenging on a technical level that requires hands-on skills." He completed rigorous training for both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, and has logged some 4,500 hours in the air. Today his fleet includes a chopper, a 1929 open-cockpit plane, and a transatlantic jet. Ford flies himself to movie locations, transports his family on vacations, and has made many transatlantic flights. "Flying absolutely reinvented my life," he says. As a pilot he can reclaim a measure of privacy, escaping the paparazzi who hound celebrities in public airports. Piloting also allows him to sidestep special treatment — the aspect of fame he most dislikes. "When I'm flying, I've got to do it according to the rules, just like everybody else," he says. "I'm not cut any slack for any other reason. I'm just another pilot. I love it."

And aviation has opened up a world far from the insularity of Hollywood. Ford has been active with Young Eagles (an organization that exposes children to the magic of flight), giving hundreds of kids rides in his planes. He also embarks on rescue and humanitarian missions. In 2000, as a member of Wyoming's Teton County Search and Rescue Volunteers, he saved a dehydrated hiker stranded in the mountains; the young woman was stunned when Indiana Jones swooped down in his Bell 407 helicopter. The following year Ford rescued a 13-year-old Boy Scout who had wandered off a trail and spent a rainy night lost in the wilderness near Yellowstone National Park. Though the boy didn't get Ford's autograph, he told his friends he got something better: a hug. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Ford flew doctors and supplies to the remote town of Hinche, buzzing the airstrip to clear it of goats and chickens before circling back to land. Rather than tour devastated areas trailed by news crews, Ford kept a low profile. "It was a small contribution," he says.

As a longtime environmentalist, how does he justify burning so much jet fuel? "Although I have eight airplanes," he quips, "I fly only one at a time." Turning serious, he gestures to the Citation and says, "I have the most efficient engine on my airplane that you can possibly have." For the past 20 years Ford has offset his carbon footprint with efforts on behalf of Conservation International, an environmental nonprofit. As the organization's vice chair, he meets with CEOs and international leaders. "He has extraordinary intellectual capability and applies it intensively so that we can be effective around the world," says Conservation International CEO Peter Seligmann. Example: Ford has helped the organization persuade Walmart to sell more sustainable food products.

He has set aside for conservation almost half of his 800-acre ranch in Wyoming, at the foot of the Tetons, abutting the Snake River. By banning elk hunting on the spread, he has created a refuge for the animals that live on the property. "I love the ethic of the West," he says. He notes that the minister at this morning's funeral extolled 10 western virtues that Blake Chapman lived by, including: "Finish what you start, be tough but fair, take pride in your work, do your best," says Ford. With maturity, he says he's getting better at living up to these values.

He has four grown children from his first two marriages, as well as three grandchildren. A native of suburban Chicago, he headed to Los Angeles as a college dropout and aspiring actor in 1964, accompanied in a Volkswagen Beetle by his college girlfriend (and new bride) Mary Marquardt. The couple, who divorced in 1979, had two sons — Ben (now 44) and Willard (42) — while Ford took small acting jobs and supported the family as a top-notch carpenter. "I had my first children when I was 24," he says. "Babies raising babies is maybe not the prettiest thing in the world to watch."

Ford's breakthrough as a teen hot-rodder in American Graffiti in 1973 led George Lucas to cast him in 1977's Star Wars. A few years later he was playing Colonel Lucas in Apocalyse Now when he met Francis Ford Coppola's assistant, Melissa Mathison; she became a screenwriter (best known for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial), and his second wife in 1983. During his peak acting years, Ford was often away on location while the couple's two children — Malcolm, now 24, and Georgia, 21, attended school in New York City. He spent long holidays with them in Wyoming, but the separations were difficult. "My wives have been good mothers," he says with genuine appreciation.

Ford and Flockhart wed last June, in the middle of shooting for Cowboys & Aliens, at the Santa Fe mansion of former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who officiated (Liam was the ring bearer). The groom wore Wrangler jeans; the bride, a simple white sundress. Any particular reason why he chose that moment to wed for the third time? "Because we'd lived together for 10 years and it seemed like we were going to get along," Ford deadpans. Pause. "And I love her and she wanted to get married, and I wanted to get married."

Ford and Flockhart are a warmly affectionate, demonstrative couple. They show up occasionally at Hollywood events but would rather stay home than walk a red carpet. They attend Liam's football games and last year took him trick-or-treating (Flockhart dressed as Miss Piggy while Ford was nearly unrecognizable in the black habit of a very large nun). Ford has also been spotted wearing a Happy Father's Day T-shirt made by Liam. "I've learned a lot about being an appropriate father over the years," he says.

The couple recently purchased an estate on the west side of Los Angeles for a reported $12.5 million, and Ford is overseeing a major renovation of the house. He's in his element on the job site, occasionally wielding a hammer himself. He is meticulous — woe to any subcontractor who does subpar work. Does he ever tell workers to rip things out and start over? "Yep," he says.

Ford plans to focus on this construction project until he and Calista and Liam move in near the end of the summer. He isn't sweating that he has no new role lined up. "I've been enormously lucky," he says. "I've had a long run." Eventually, it would be nice if other juicy character parts come his way. He enjoys being surprised by a great script. "I like waiting for something to drop out of the sky," he says.

The Citation is in its hangar, and the boss is heading home to his wife and son. Before he goes, he is asked what he considers the most important things in life. "People and work," he says. After a pause he adds, "And learning." After all these years, he's achieved a remarkable balance: feet on the ground, head in the clouds.

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