Ordinary hero Harrison Ford, he's our man, if he can't do it, nobody can

August 07, 1993|By David Kronke | David Kronke,Contributing Writer

Forget those arduous years of film school, those hours poring over terms like "mise en scene" and "cinema verite." Let Harrison Ford clear up the secrets of moviemaking for you.

"They used to have this thing that they called 'telephone logic' that they were teaching people at MGM. Mike Nichols told me this," Mr. Ford said in a recent interview. "If you're going to the telephone, and you're going to get bad news, go with a smile on your face, otherwise they're not gonna know when you get bad news. If you're gonna get good news, you go with a frown on your face, so that you can make a change of statement.

"That's about all you need to know about movies."

That out of the way, Mr. Ford is ready to discuss his latest effort, the action-adventure film "The Fugitive." After a long day of dishing with the press ("There's always the chance that I'll suddenly decide to tell the truth," he said with a weary smile), he spoke about his position in the Hollywood hierarchy and his relationship with his audience.

"The Fugitive" is based on the popular '60s TV series about Richard Kimble, a doctor falsely accused of the murder of his wife. While evading the persistent Deputy U.S. Marshall Sam Gerard (played here by Tommy Lee Jones), the good doctor must also find the one-armed man actually responsible for the murder.

But fans of the series may be surprised that this "Fugitive" has none of the existential underpinnings that distinguished the David Janssen series and little time for character development. Essentially, it is, as actress Sela Ward puts it, "a chase film."

Though producer Arthur Koppelson had pursued the vehicle for years, he also happily pared it down to its bare essentials. In one breath, Mr. Koppelson spoke at length about "my passion for the series;" in the next, he admitted that for the most part, "We set it aside."

Ms. Ward, who portrays Kimble's wife, can attest to that fact. She recalled the night of her big scene -- the last moments she and her husband have together before her murder. The evening was frittered away with second unit material of random cops entering and exiting the Kimbles' apartment.

"Then, at 4 a.m., they said, 'OK, let's get this,' " she recalled, still not believing that the scene was hastily thrown together. "I was so horrified I could barely get the words out."

"There's very little time to sketch in his life before the circumstances lead to his becoming the fugitive," Mr. Ford conceded, adding that he never saw an episode of the series all the way through.

Still, director Andrew Davis ("Under Siege") said, Mr. Ford was the perfect choice to portray Kimble: "He's very good at playing the victim, very good at playing the guy who's running away from something. He's played a person in jeopardy a lot.

"He even makes fun of it," Mr. Davis added, mimicking a gesture from Mr. Ford's acting repertoire and saying, "[He'll say], 'You mean, No. 72?' He's almost a silent movie actor. He has the body language and the ability to exaggerate things."

Mr. Ford agreed that his established persona makes it easier for audiences to relate to his characters' predicament. "I'm the designated driver in a way," he said. "I'm the audience's emotional representative on screen. . . . There's more emotional connection between you and a character who's an ordinary man who behaves extraordinarily than if it's an extraordinary man all the way through."

With action films these days constantly trying to outdo one another with their stunts and violent set pieces, Mr. Ford admitted that it's hard to find projects in which character and plot aren't overshadowed by ever-escalating thrills. "In the Indiana Jones movies, there was a humor behind it all that makes those wildly extravagant stunts work," he said. "But in other films that I do that have some action element, I do try to keep it down to a realistic scale. When it gets too big, too wild, too crazy, too much of a stunt for the sake of a stunt, it takes you out of the movie."

While making "The Fugitive," he continued, "there were a couple of times when I thought we were dangerously close to not meeting our obligation to be realistic." He voiced his concerns, he said, and now, "they're not in the movie, they were scaled back."

Indeed, Mr. Ford considers himself lucky that he can affect the final outcome of his films. Through it all, though, he remains a Hollywood outsider, eschewing the glamour of Los Angeles for the comfort of his Wyoming ranch, which he shares with his wife, screenwriter Melissa Mathison ("E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial").

"This is where I work, that's where I live," he said, conceding that he doesn't make it into town too often. "I work once a year. The audience only has a certain amount of interest in any person. It's best, I think, to be very careful about how much product you put out. It's better to be a little scarce than to be always available. And I need that time for my private life. I just can't bare to work more than once a year."

Mr. Ford is likewise pragmatic about the people who see his movies. "I don't think of people who see this as fans, I see them as customers," he said. "It's a service occupation. I'm an assistant storyteller. . . . Your opportunity to continue doing the job you're doing depends upon the degree you are of service to the people."

Which means, he admits, that it can be difficult to convince the customers that he's anything less than a hero -- for example, he probably wouldn't fare too well playing a villain, as evidenced by the tepid audience response his film "The Mosquito Coast" received.

"As long as you keep in mind the limitations that that relationship imposes, you have an obligation to stretch their expectations from time to time," he said, which is the closest he would come to saying he has become typecast. "You want to do something different, but it may become more and more difficult. And it is difficult."

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