What Makes Harrison Ford Great: An actor recovering after a crash landing that belongs in a movie

There are a lot of phonies in Hollywood. Most of the time actors will tell you that they are nothing like the people they play in a movie. Some actors even try hard to find roles that are not even close to their real personality. I’ve had a chance to meet some of them, and I always walked away from those projects feeling let down. Even though my adult mind knows and understands show business well enough to comprehend that actors are just actors—when they attempt to portray tough people in the context of a story but are afraid of a bug that crawls across the table during lunch—it’s a let down. But I have high expectations because one of my favorite actors is Harrison Ford, and he has always been at his core—the carpenter that he was when he first started. He’s always been very physical in his roles which obviously goes back to the days that he broke into the business while building a studio for a producer when George Lucas asked him to read some lines for Star Wars as Han Solo. I’m one of those people who think that Star Wars and Indiana Jones would have never been as good as they were without Harrison Ford because of what he does to bring his characters to the screen.

When the 72-year-old crashed shortly after taking off his vintage era World War II single engine craft to the air at the Santa Monica airport due to engine failure I was a little worried for him. I understand he’s old, but he’s been one of my favorite actors for most of my life. I don’t expect him to live forever, but it would be sad to see him lose his life in such a ridiculous fashion—after playing some of the most loved and most action oriented roles of any actor. Ford has played a hot-shot pilot in the Star Wars films and in every Indiana Jones movie; airplanes are a very important part of the story lines. In two films, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the Last Crusade, the feature character had to crash-land airplanes. I raised my kids on those movies so it would have been sad to see Ford die in a plane crash like so many other stars have in years past.

As details emerged from the crash it turned out that Ford was in real life every bit as creative and dynamic as Indiana Jones or the role only he could have played—Han Solo. According to a NTSB report filed after an investigation of the March 5th 2015 crash Ford took off from Santa Monica which is in a heavily residential area–lost power nearly immediately not even getting any altitude to give time to glide away from the city or make a ditch in the ocean. Ford as a very good and experienced pilot made a critical decision to turn left back to the airport instead of right because of some quick thinking of making an emergency landing. He made a call back to the tower to make an emergency landing hoping to glide back in, but realized quickly that he wasn’t going to make it. So he set up an unpowered landing over the golf course spotting a place that would take him away from the people below and hit the ground before he overshot the narrow patch of turf and into the road beyond.

He cut his head badly and broke some bones. It was the second time in a year that Ford had broken bones in his leg; the first was during the filming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Now it was during a recreational flight he was taking between film projects as he has been lobbying for another Indiana Jones film from Disney. Some would say that Ford should hang it up—that he’s too old to do these kinds of activities and that all these broken bones should tell him to stop for his own safety—but that is why I like the actor—because he’s always been an incredibly physical person and his characters have shined because of him.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark during the filming of the flying wing fight, Ford tore his ACL when the plane ran over his leg during a stunt. Then in the Temple of Doom Ford herniated a few disks in his spine aggravated by riding elephants. The film was brutal for even actors in great shape. There was even more crawling around and tumbles that Ford had to do even with his stuntman Vic Armstrong doing most of the back to camera work. Because of all the injuries on the set of Temple of Doom it is unlikely that a major film will ever feature so many live action stunts again. Liability insurance these days make such a thing prohibitive. Ford was out a month nearly shutting down the picture—ironically just as was the case for the upcoming Force Awakens. Ford spent more time hurt as a younger man in his thirties and forties than he has in his 50s and 60s and it’s good to see him getting back into the kind of roles that made him a household name in the first place.

One of my very first favorite books was The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark which chronicled the day-to-day efforts of making that classic film. Harrison Ford was every bit as much of an action hero off the screen as he was on it, and in many ways I liked the story of making the film more than the actual film. I loved the stunt guys and the general attitude on the set and I never stopped loving everything about that movie, from the sound editing, the music, to the screenplay—but most of all the dirty, gritty daily life of an action movie set in the desert. I’ve judged movies off the Raiders standard ever since—fair or unfair. I think for Ford it shaped him as an actor as well—it set the bar so high that he had to live up to it, and as a hard worker first, an actor second, Ford never shied away from holding himself to that standard. As good as he was playing Han Solo; it was really Raiders of the Lost Ark that put Ford into another universe as an actor.

For me what makes his roles better is knowing that the real person playing these roles is an authentic, and sincere person—and Ford is. He’s everything an iconic actor should be on and off the screen. When Indiana Jones crash lands a plane in the Last Crusade you want to think that such things are possible so you can believe in it when you see it on the screen. One of my favorite sequences from Temple of Doom is the plane crash in that film where Indiana Jones and the gang jumped out in a life raft which inflated during the decent. It was a real stunt and I’ve never seen it topped in any film since—and it just might work in a life and death situation. So when Ford crash landed his vintage aircraft on a Santa Monica golf course there was more at stake than an old man dying from his injuries. There was the fear that the magic of movies would remain in the realm of fiction, and that real people actually buckled under such pressure and succumbed to fate. Instead Harrison Ford always the good pilot no matter what the conditions had an escape plan already in mind when his engine cut out at the most dangerous period of flight—the take-off. Ford knew the plane was going down so he set up a situation that would do the least amount of damage to himself, his plane, and the property and lives around him. He hit a very narrow window to achieve the best case scenario.

A month later Ford was at home recovering and telling his old-time friend and producer Frank Marshall that he was ready to play some tennis. Marshall was the Nazi pilot in the flying wing sequence, so he has seen the actor hurt on set many times. And as the producer reported, “Harrison is at home and he’s up and about, he’s recovering remarkably. He made an incredible landing, to his credit. He is after all Indiana Jones.” And that is the difference between Harrison Ford and every other actor. If Disney truly wants to make more Indiana Jones films, Harrison Ford will have to be a part of them; otherwise the audience just won’t buy into the change. Indiana Jones is much better than James Bond—the fan base won’t follow a new actor the way they did Harrison Ford because there is always the belief when the actor is seen on the screen that all the things the adventurer is doing is possible in real life. At 72 years old, Harrison Ford is showing that a life lived is more important than a life saved at the expense of safety. When it comes time to make the hard decisions, Ford is as able as any fantasy character created in the mind of a writer—and that is what makes his characters better and his movies timeless—like the man himself.

Rich Hoffman

 CLIFFHANGER RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT

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