Harrison Ford Flies Again

Harrison Ford flies again.
Harrison Ford flies again.Photograph by Joe Pugliese

“That’s where I crashed.”

Harrison Ford is at the controls of his green-and-white Bell 407 helicopter, hovering above the Penmar golf course, where eight months earlier the 73-year-old actor crash-landed his vintage World War II plane shortly after takeoff. Ford suffered a broken pelvis and ankle and a scalp Laceration requiring five weeks in the hospital followed by six weeks of rehab at home confined to his bed, a wheelchair, and crutches.

Ford had been planning on a 20-minute flight. He’d gone mountain biking that morning and felt good. As always, he’d performed a meticulous preflight check, and everything seemed fine as he took the open-cockpit, single-­­engine Ryan ST3KR to 1,100 feet. Then the engine died, and all he could hear was the wind. He radioed the control tower at Santa Monica Airport.

“Ryan 178 engine failure, request immediate return.”

“Ryan 178, runway 21 clear to land.”

Ford knew he’d never make it to 21.

“I’ll have to go to three.”

“Ryan 178, runway three clear to land.”

Ford woke up at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center five days later. “My first question was, ‘Did I kill anybody on the ground?’? ” he says. He doesn’t remember the crash. “I knew I wasn’t going to make the runway,” Ford says, “so I was going to the golf course. What I regret more than anything is that I don’t actually remember the maneuvering, what decisions I made, after I decided I was going to the golf course.”

That Ford didn’t kill or injure anybody on the ground was a remarkable feat of flying. The small, nine-hole course is bordered by residential streets interspersed with parks, a day care center, and a playground. Had he missed the golf course, there might have been a different ending to the story.

“When the engine quit, my training had prepared me to deal with it in a way,” says Ford. “I really didn’t get scared. I just got busy. I knew what I was going to do, and I knew how to do it. The mantra aviators carry around in our heads is: Fly the airplane, first thing. Fly the airplane — even if it doesn’t have an engine, fly. Don’t give up that ship, matey. And even though I don’t remember the details of it, I guess I was able to do that, because the way I landed, the wings were level. I didn’t stall it. I’m here.”

(Ford’s plane after his crash in Venice, California on March 5. Photograph by Jonathan Alcorn / Getty Image)

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the cause was a problem with the carburetor that would have been virtually impossible to detect during maintenance. The pilot was blameless.

Ford banks the helicopter west, and the Pacific Ocean opens up below. Off the beaches of Malibu, surfers are bobbing on their boards. “If I fly lower, they give me the finger,” Ford says.

They have no idea that they’re flipping off Harrison Ford, which is the way Ford likes it. Up in the air, he’s just another tail number.

Ford pilots the helicopter into the L.A. hills, dipping and rising with the undulating landscape. “This is called contour flying,” he says. He sets the copter down on a flat piece of grassy land hidden by the surrounding hills. “I’m not really supposed to do this,” he says. “But I like it here. No one can see you, and the sound doesn’t bother anybody.”


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Ford takes the helicopter back up to 800 feet and heads toward Santa Monica Airport, where he has his own hangar, containing his other seven aircraft, including a Cessna Citation Sovereign jet, a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, and a replica of a 1929 Waco biplane. He flies over the emerald green field of the Will Rogers Polo Club, where a match is under way, the riders’ brightly colored shirts and white jodhpurs sparkling in the sun. “Polo,” says Ford with a wry smile. “Fuck.”

When it opens this month, surely smashing box office records to smithereens, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will introduce Ford to a new generation of kids whose parents were enchanted by the original trilogy in their youth. As one of the new film’s trailers intones, “Every generation . . . has a story.” Whether every generation needs a Star Wars is something Disney — which paid $4 billion for Lucasfilms in 2012 — is sorely hoping for.

“What I identified with in Han Solo,” says Ford, “is that he’s the one character in the films who when they start talking about the Force, he’d say, ‘What? Huh? Come on!’ I identified with that as an actor and as a human being. That was my reality context through the whole thing.”

Ford is sitting in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, where he’s come to talk about the $200 million J.J. Abrams–directed film — or rather not talk about it, since the cast and crew have been under a strict code of silence about the plot and the fates of various characters. He’s wearing a tight dark T-shirt, blue jeans, and brown leather lace-up ankle boots. Gone is the curmudgeon who used to seethe on late-night-TV couches. Instead he is unfailingly polite, to the point of calling later to apologize when he feels he has answered a question rudely. Ford is 6-foot-1 and weighs 175 pounds. He looks to be in great shape, though he dismisses the Hollywood lore that he does all his own stunts. “I do physical acting,” he says. “I run, jump, and fall down. I pretend to hit guys, and I let guys pretend to hit me. Stunt guys do stunts.”

(Photograph by Joe Pugliese)

In the decades after the original Star Wars trilogy, Ford said he was happy to be through with Han Solo. While filming 1983’s Return of the Jedi, Ford lobbied the writers to kill off his character, suggesting a scene where Solo would sacrifice his life for the greater good, to show his development from smug, sardonic rebel to altruistic hero, if not necessarily a die-hard believer in the Force. So when word leaked in 2013 that a new Star Wars film was in the works, the franchise’s delirious fans fretted over whether Ford would sign on. Not only was he the crankiest member of the original cast, but — from Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher to Chewbacca — he needed the job the least. But when George Lucas called him, Ford said yes immediately.

Among big-name movie stars, Ford stands out for his endurance, both physical and professional. Try to think of another actor who is still playing roles he debuted in the 1970s, and doing so to tremendous fanfare and financial reward. With three marriages, five kids, and more than $5 billion in box office worldwide, the septuagenarian isn’t just looking back on his long career, he’s reliving it. His other mega-franchise, Indiana Jones, is still in play, with Steven Spielberg saying he wants to make a fifth installment to follow 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which grossed $787 million. And a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner, in which Ford will again play the replicant-blasting detective Rick Deckard, is in the works, to be directed by Denis Villeneuve and co-starring Ryan Gosling.

Ford’s other iconic moments can sneak up on you. The incorruptible CIA agent Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger; Melanie Griffith’s heartthrob in Mike Nichols’ Working Girl; the obsessive father who drags his family to the rain forest in Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast; the accused wife-killer Richard Kimble on the run from Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive; the U.S. president staring down hijackers in Air Force One; the prosecutor framed for the murder of his mistress in Presumed Innocent; the husband searching Paris for his missing wife in Roman Polanski’s Frantic; his Oscar nomination for playing a good cop protecting an Amish boy from some bad cops in Witness. Smaller roles include the anxious Army officer who gives Martin Sheen his upriver mission in Apocalypse Now, a scene in which even George Lucas didn’t recognize him despite Ford’s impishly wearing a Lucas name tag on his uniform. Other parts weren’t as durable. Who can say why 1979’s The Frisco Kid, a Wild West comedy starring Ford as a bank robber and Gene Wilder as a rabbi from Poland, didn’t do big business? (Sample dialogue . . . Wilder: “Tommy, I’m not a rabbi.” Ford: “Don’t say that! You are a rabbi. I’m a bank robber. I’m a card player and a whoremonger. That’s what I am. You are a rabbi.”)

“I’ve always understood acting like a carpenter,” Ford says. “An acquisition of a range of skills is what got the job done more easily, more economically, with greater satisfaction for the client. It’s an experience of making me feel more useful.”

The new Star Wars movie is set 30 years after Return of the Jedi. Ford’s original smooth-cheeked, impetuous Solo is now the grizzled older man in the cast, with relative unknowns Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in leading roles and support from Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, and Girls’ Adam Driver. Not to mention, of course, Hamill and Fisher, who were assigned trainers and nutritionists to prepare. Fisher’s mother, the actress Debbie Reynolds, boasted that her daughter had lost 40 pounds for the role.

Shooting began at Pinewood Studios, outside London, in June 2014. The first day, Ford says, “I worked with Daisy and John and worked in the Millennium Falcon with Chewbacca. The second day, they closed the door on me.”

Someone — Ford will only say it was “an unnamed co-conspirator” — accidentally shut a door of the Falcon on the actor. Ford hit the deck, breaking two bones in his leg and dislocating his ankle. As he lay on the floor, he calmly cracked jokes while the cast and crew panicked. J.J. Abrams ran over to help and ended up fracturing a vertebra, requiring him to wear a back brace for the rest of the shoot. “It was a good lesson that hydraulic doors don’t open up when you try to lift them,” Abrams says. Ford’s injuries sent him home for a few months to recuperate before returning to the set.

(Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Photograph by Kobal Collection)

Abrams says he’s thrilled with Ford’s performance. “I knew Harrison Ford would be in the movie,” he says. “But I didn’t know if Han Solo would be. But Harrison reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out a performance as funny as it is touching and thoughtful. He brought spark and fire to the part. It was a true gift.”

Fisher says the experience of acting with Ford hadn’t changed over the intervening decades. “He has a strong impact,” she says. “He can still make me uncomfortable and comfortable faster than anyone I know or don’t know.” They also found time to relax. “Adorable is not a word you would associate with Harrison,” says Fisher, “but after a few beers, he’s the most adorable person in the world.”


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Filming wrapped last November. Four months later, Ford was back in the hospital, this time recovering from the crash landing.

“I can’t believe what I put my wife and my son and all of my family through,” Ford says. “It was quite horrible for them.” He adds that his wife, the actress Calista Flockhart, has been “very supportive of what flying means to me. I’ve flown many trips with her since the accident, and she has not asked me to change anything.”

Is the plane salvageable? “Fuck no,” says Ford, laughing. “Actually, it probably is salvageable. But I don’t want that airplane back in my life. That’s not the deal. That’s not the understanding we have.”

Ford’s first marriage was to his college sweetheart Mary Marquardt, with whom he had two children, now in their forties. When Marquardt became critically ill with multiple sclerosis in the mid-2000s, Ford and Flockhart looked after her and took care of the medical bills. His second marriage was to screenwriter (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Kundun) Melissa Mathison. The couple separated in 2001, after 18 years of marriage and two children; the reported divorce settlement of $90 million still stands as one of Hollywood’s most expensive partings. Mathison died of cancer this past November; she’d recently finished working with Steven Spielberg on The BFG, an adaptation of a Roald Dahl story.

Ford and the 51-year-old Flockhart have one child, 15-year-old Liam, whom Flockhart adopted just before meeting Ford in 2002. They split their time between an 800-acre ranch near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and a 13,700-square-foot house in L.A.’s Mande­ville Canyon that they bought at Flockhart’s urging for a reported $12.6 million in 2010.

“I told Calista I didn’t want to buy the house,” says Ford. “She said, ‘We’re buying this house.’ I said, ‘No, we’re not.’ She said, ‘Yes, we are.’ I said, ‘If we buy this house, I’ll have to do everything to it.’ We bought the house.”

Ford and a small crew spent 18 months working on the interiors. “I had to bring it up to a standard that I could live with,” he says. “I had to rehang doors and windows, refit every cabinet door, lots of detail work. The architects thought it was finished. I didn’t.”

Ford’s skill as a carpenter is embedded in his Hollywood creation myth. Raised in solidly middle-class Park Ridge, Illinois, by a radio actor turned adman father and a stay-at-home mother, Ford attended Ripon College in Wisconsin, then headed to Los Angeles in the 1960s. He found work as a $150-a-week contract player for Columbia Pictures and taught himself carpentry on the side. He became known as the guy to call, doing carpentry for Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, Sally Kellerman, and other Hollywood worthies.

(Ford as Han Solo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Courtesy Paramount)

He’d caught the acting bug in college. “I wanted to be a character actor,” he says. “I never thought I was going to end up being whatever it is a leading man is. The first time I was onstage, it was a college production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, and I was Mr. Antrobus with a pillow tucked into a suit way too big for me and talcum powder in my hair. Nobody knew who I was. I was excited to be somebody else. And then my plan turned to shit, and I ended up playing guys in suits who were smart and capable and morally motivated and all that.”

Ford’s first break was George Lucas’ 1973 California-cruising hit American Graffiti, in which he played Bob Falfa, a handsome Stetson-wearing stranger in a ’55 Chevy. But he wasn’t able to give up his carpentry work until the release of the first Star Wars, in 1977. “I was on a carpentry job when I got the call to play Han Solo,” Ford says. He was paid a reported $10,000 for the film.

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The dozen years between 1977 and 1989 saw the Ford franchise blow up, with three Star Wars movies and three Indiana Jones films. The checks got bigger, with Ford eventually earning around $25 million per picture. He slipped beautifully into the archetype that Bogart embodied in Casablanca, the guy who is tough on the outside and doesn’t want to get involved, but his better nature wins out and he rises to the task. Between the blockbusters, he made quieter movies such as Mike Nichols’ Regarding Henry, written by a then 23-year-old J.J. Abrams. “Mike Nichols said something to me — this was at a time when I was having some success — and I sort of knew what he meant at the time, but it took a while to sink in,” says Ford. “Mike said, ‘Don’t let them make you into a thing. Because if they can name it, that’s what they want.’ So I did the best I could. I probably did turn into a thing.” But Ford’s talent for creating an emotional rapport with the audience has protected him from becoming just another action hero.

“For a lot of characters doing things that might be described as heroic, I’ve always wanted the audience to identify with them because I want them to know that it’s scary,” says Ford. “It’s not so easy to be that person, and if I wasn’t scared, they weren’t going to be scared for me.”

Ford’s success has given the reclusive star a public platform when the spirit moves him. He testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in support of Tibetan independence in 1995, resulting in the Chinese government’s banning him from ever entering the country. More recently, he has been outspoken on behalf of the environment. Last year he appeared in the Showtime climate-change series Years of Living Dangerously, in which he pressed Indonesian officials on the country’s environmental record. He’s donated a series of conservation easements on his Wyoming ranch to a land trust, restricting development. Occasionally he’s donated his services as a helicopter pilot to Teton County authorities, plucking a hiker or two off a nearby ridge and saving the local sheriff’s department the $1,000-an-hour cost of hiring its own pilot. “I was happy to help out,” says Ford. “But the next morning they’d be on Good Morning America with their whole family, saying Indiana Jones had saved them.”

Ford’s success has also bought him a lot of airplanes. At first he was content to own a plane and hire pilots to fly him where he needed to go. Soon he realized something was wrong: Why was he sitting there while somebody else flew the plane? “I realized they were playing with my toys,” he says. “I said to one guy that was flying for me, ‘You’ve got to teach me to fly.’ ‘Aw really, boss? You sure?’ ‘Yes, I’m sure.’ ”

Ford had taken a few lessons in college, but at $11 an hour, he couldn’t afford them for long. At 52 he was determined to master the skill. “I love the machinery,” Ford says. “I love the process. I love the ritual — there’s a protocol to follow that keeps you safe, the checklists and so on. There’s a combination of freedom and responsibility, especially when you start carrying passengers.”

Prior to his recent crash, Ford had two aerial mishaps. In 1999, he was in his previous helicopter, a Bell 206, practicing autorotations — in which the pilot cuts the engine to simulate an emergency — when he misjudged the moment he should have restarted the engine and the copter hit the ground and rolled over on its side in a river­bed. Neither Ford nor his instructor was injured. The next year a microblast blew his Beechcraft Bonanza off the runway after landing in Lincoln, Nebraska. Ford and his passenger were not hurt.

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A young pilot named Spike Minczeski maintains Ford’s fleet of aircraft. “He runs the aviation side of my life,” says Ford. When Ford flies his jet cross-country, he and Minczeski trade off the pilot and co-pilot roles. In 2010, Ford flew one of his planes from L.A. to Haiti to help with relief efforts after the earthquake. “I was running Operation Smile at the time,” says Randy Sherman, a friend of Ford’s who is a plastic surgeon with Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, specializing in reconstructive surgery after trauma. “And Harrison called me and said, ‘We’re going to Haiti. I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do there, but I’m going.’ And he got down there, and for two days nonstop he flew back and forth from Santo Domingo to Hinche, carrying doctors and nurses and people and cargo. He pulled it off as if it were a scheduled airline service and did it while landing on an airstrip full of people and gravel and goats.”

Every year about 30 of Ford’s aviator friends, men and women, including professional pilots, former military pilots, and people who happen to own their own planes, choose a location and fly there for several days of backcountry camping. Ford goes when his schedule allows, most recently this past October to northern Idaho, where the landscape was complemented by the fine wines, catered food, and white tablecloths stowed with the tents and gear in the planes’ luggage compartments.

Most mornings in L.A., Ford gets Liam off to school and tends to the family’s four shelter dogs. Flockhart often has to leave the house early to be on the set of the CBS drama Supergirl, in which she plays a self-made media magnate. Recently, Ford’s five-year-old grandson has been staying with them. “This morning at 5:30 he came into our bed,” says Ford. “I was asleep, and I felt this scratching on the back of my head. I turned over and said, ‘Oh, hello.’ ”

Ford has some motorcycles and cars, including a 1957 Jaguar XK140 convertible, in the garage, but his Tesla is his preoccupation. He’s annoyed by the company’s practice of updating its software remotely. “They’re always coming in and fucking with it,” he says. “Just when I’ve got it figured out, the next morning I get in, they’ve changed everything. It’s like waking up in bed with a strange woman.”

That’s not the only thing that makes him cranky. As with many 70-year-olds, it’s not hard to imagine him up in Mandeville Canyon screaming at the evening news. “My biggest concern is that we’ve allowed ourselves to get divided into affinity groups,” Ford says of the current U.S. political climate. “It’s happened because there was a commercial opportunity to create a new kind of information service that’s called ‘news,’ and it was a calculated effort to serve the prejudices of people who didn’t agree with each other and to reinforce those prejudices. And so now there’s not something called being an American. There’s no vital American interest in seeing this country as a whole prosper, to attain a moral authority as a whole, to have higher ambitions for our children as a whole, to be responsible for our activities in the world. You can have this idea and you can have that idea and we can just fuck each other blue and nothing will get done. It makes me crazy.”

Ford says he’s almost back in the shape he was before the crash. His conditioning routine is a 45-minute workout made up of stretching, strength-training on a cable machine, squats with a BOSU ball, a turn with an ab wheel, band walks, and an agility ladder — with, he says, “no talk, no rest.”

“I try to do five days a week,” he says, “but I’ll settle for three.” He also does long hauls on mountain and road bikes and has just recently felt recovered enough to get back to the punishing rounds of tennis he loves. He’s been playing with the same pro for 15 years. “We hit as hard as we can, and sometimes we go for rallies of 50 balls, hard hit balls. Sometimes we get to 200,” says Ford.

With Star Wars, Blade Runner, and a possible Indiana Jones movie on the horizon, Ford’s eighth decade can be seen as a sort of victory lap, a return to the roles that propelled him forever beyond the burdens of debt and then forced him to seek privacy and solitude at 30,000 feet. He’s not complaining. “Show business has been very, very good to me,” he mock intones.

Ford estimates that his son Liam has seen about 20 percent of his films. “And my other kids, too, probably,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Do you want to watch your daddy go drive the bus?’ No. ‘I’m going to do surgery today — do you want to come and watch?’ No. Acting is just what I do. And his mom does it, too, and beautifully, but we don’t do it at home necessarily.”

It’s hard to believe, of course, that Ford’s kids haven’t memorized every Indiana Jones whip-crack, every Han Solo wisecrack. Every child wants to believe that Dad’s a superhero. The moment he realizes Dad’s just another guy, the world loses a certain glow.

Meanwhile, in theaters across the country, moviegoers will be looking up from the dark, wondering if this is Han Solo’s final flight, and if it is, what happens next.

(Photograph by Joe Pugliese)

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