If rumours are to be believed, Harrison Ford — who turns 80 this week — might be making his last movie appearance in 2023's as-yet-untitled Indiana Jones 5. If that turns out to be the case, it would be an incredible end to an unparalleled Hollywood career.
For a whole generation of VHS movie kids, Harrison Ford has been our pilot, adventurer, and now pop-culture archaeologist.
As he turns 80 his rich career and granite cool poise have been both our fortune and our movie glory across six decades.
But it nearly did not happen. With small roles in TV fare The Virginian (1966), Ironside (1967), The Mod Squad (1968), Gunsmoke (1972) and Kung-Fu (1974) – the jobbing actor Ford almost saw his career shrink away on the small screen before it even started.
"It's not the years, honey. It's the mileage"Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
After a very brief stint as a tour technician for The Doors, Ford famously learnt carpentry in-between acting work to keep the bills paid. Having already starred in George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) in a breakthrough moment as competitive rogue Bob Falfa — and a precursor role for Han Solo — Ford was now back fitting a wooden floor for the film’s producer Francis Ford Coppola.
It was there that he caught the attention of Coppola’s American Zoetrope pal George Lucas who was readying a B-movie space caper called The Star Wars.
Many actors tested solo for Han Solo. Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Kurt Russell, Nick Nolte and John Travolta all got within fourteen parsecs of the role. But it was Ford who completed the Kessel Run first.
As galaxy-weary smuggler Solo, Harrison Ford gave Star Wars its adult swagger, attitude, and improvised pluck.
It was a jump to lightspeed that propelled Ford into the A-list at the global box-office and a genuine movie star idol for a whole generation. From the outset, Ford’s Solo cut through the heraldry and sometimes spiritual pomp of the Skywalker saga with a great make-do-and-mend bluster.
Ford is always the audience in a Star Wars movie – passing comment with barfly put-downs, wild improvisations, and a warm cynicism.
By the time the 1980s arrived and became the decade that defined him, Harrison Ford was straddling three key roles across an un-challenged box-office triumph annually from 1980 through to 1984. Han Solo (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980), Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981) and Rick Deckard (Blade Runner, 1982) represent a striking trinity of a game-changing moment in effects driven cinema.
And Ford’s pop-culture legacy was forever assured. Never absorbed by the burgeoning artistry around him — even amidst Ridley Scott’s masterpiece dystopia that is Blade Runner — Ford’s success lies in how his most famous roles succeed amidst such technological bombast.
The Empire Strikes Back is easily his best flight in the Millennium Falcon: a surprisingly sparse epic with almost European cinema overtones and a pared down narrative that positions Solo as the emotional soul and cliff-hanger anchor of the original saga.
Read more: How to watch Star Wars in the right order
Like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Ford’s second stint in a galaxy far, far away sees him at his most resourceful, handsome, and agile. And when Ford’s stellar seadog and a rare non-Skywalker pulls a kneejerk pistol on Darth Vader in Cloud City, it becomes one of the actor’s greatest career beats. Whereas the parentage of Luke Skywalker is The Empire Strikes Back‘s plot cliff-hanger, the carbonite freezing of Han Solo is its vital emotional one.
1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark represented the moment when the two gods of the 1970s blockbuster — George Lucas and Steven Spielberg — were no longer the marquee name stars. That instead belonged to Harrison Ford.
If Solo, Deckard, and Indy are very separately pitched characters, Ford is the one who realised all we need to know about them has already happened.
Ford’s Raiders of the Lost Ark co-star Karen Allen told Yahoo how “Harrison created the perfect hero in Indiana Jones, and it is standing the test of time.” Instead of Spielberg and Lucas trying to re-wire the Hollywood system as they did in the 1970s, Ford helps Raiders become a brilliant celebration of everything the movies should be.
The film is a striking lobby poster in itself – with an open-shirted Ford whip-cracking his way to movie immortality in that original Richard Amsel poster art.
In the time immediately after 1984’s Temple of Doom, Ford was interviewed about the scope for a third Indy movie. Later quoted in a tabloid 1988 biography, Ford purportedly asserts how "I’ll be back, but it’s one at a time for me. If they’re talking five, they must be talking to Roger Moore."
Cut to 2023 and an eighty-one-year-old Harrison Ford is gearing up for the release of his fifth crack of the Indy whip for director James Mangold.
Read more: What we know about Indiana Jones 5
As the fifth Indy chapter could well suggest, time is indeed a strange thing in movie land. And wouldn’t Roger Moore had made a great Indy professor colleague?
Ford’s only Academy Award nomination to date was for possibly his best non-franchise, non-effects driven work. With the simple tale of Philadelphia cop John Book helping an Amish boy evade murderous gunmen after witnessing a police murder, Peter Weir’s Witness (1985) was exactly the title the box-office did not want Ford to do after Temple of Doom and Return of the Jedi.
And yet it is one the 1980s and Ford’s greatest cinematic works — a synth-poetic, perfect romance where the academia patience of Dr. Jones, the gangland cynicism of Deckard and the pluck of Solo strikingly combine.
Like the Millennium Falcon itself, Ford’s career needed two pilots — one was the franchise rogue cousin casting a cool eye over proceedings. The other was the everyman father figure often — as Family Guy later spoofed — looking for or protecting his family.
If his franchise, action work was evident in Jack Ryan actioner Patriot Games (1992), its 1994 sequel Clear and Present Danger, and Air Force One (1997), then the eco drama The Mosquito Coast (1986), Euro thriller Frantic (1988) and The Fugitive (1993) all pitch Ford as the non-franchise man out of his depth.
Such was Ford’s success in The Fugitive, the action film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar because it had been a massive sleeper hit at a time when mainstream hits were barely honoured.
Ford later adopted a third character trope. That of the gruff corporate old timer. Working Girl (1988). Presumed Innocent (1990), Morning Glory (2010) and even Cowboys and Aliens (2011) all pitch Harrison as snarly, almost unpleasant grouches. But are these roles maybe just what Han Solo and Rick Deckard might have been had they become morning TV anchors, dodgy lawyers, or banking moguls?
Despite working with some WW2 era directors — Guy Hamilton in Force 10 from Navarone (1978) and Robert Aldrich in The Frisco Kid (1979) — Ford’s greatest career streak was pinned to the greatest directors from his own baby-boomer, post WW2 generation.
Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now), Steven Spielberg (E.T The Extra Terrestrial), George Lucas (American Graffiti), Mike Nichols (Working Girl, Regarding Henry), Peter Weir (Witness, The Mosquito Coast), Roman Polanski (Frantic), Sydney Pollack (Sabrina), Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), Ivan Reitman (Six Days Seven Nights), Kathryn Bigelow (K19 – The Widowmaker), Alan J. Pakula (Presumed Innocent, The Devil’s Own), Philip Noyce (Patriot Games), Robert Zemeckis (What Lies Beneath), and Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One) are all key players from that new, post golden era Hollywood generation. And all of them had a non-expected sleeper hit when casting Harrison Ford.
Later, the next generation likes of JJ Abrams (The Force Awakens), Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) and James Mangold (Indiana Jones V) all achieved the unthinkable. They collectively got the often-strong-minded Ford back to that original trilogy of roles that made him.
Alongside Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, Ford was part of the returning triumvirate that purportedly supported the Disney/Lucasfilm deal even happening. In turn, Harrison Ford could well have held the very genesis of TV hits The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi in his Solo utility belt.
Some suggest that Indy V could well be his last movie. Yet, when Mark Hamill can appear in The Book of Boba Fett (2021) as his Return of the Jedi self forty-years later, Carrie Fisher can star in at least two Star Wars movies after her death and James Earl Jones continues to voice Vader half a century on, I would not bet all your Corellian credits on Ford never being part of Star Wars again.
Besides, forty-five years on it is Harrison Ford that remains the only Star Wars actor to become a true movie star from the franchise.
For now, Ford is curiously returning to the TV western world he started out in six decades ago by starring in 1923 opposite his Mosquito Coast screen wife, Helen Mirren.
After the shooting tribulations, delays, and injuries of 2023’s Indy V, Ford is currently not veering back to the big screen. I would say I have a bad feeling about this, but Ford has always marked the spot, grabbed that last minute fedora hat, and rarely disappointed.
Happy 80th birthday to the godfather of all VHS kids' movie memories and the pilot, adventurer, professor and rogue of cinema we still all want to be.
Watch: Kathleen Kennedy pays tribute to Harrison Ford