THE PERFECTION OF HARRISON FORD
September 1999, Men's Journal
Rules to live by from the biggest movie star on the planet:
1. Never Compromise, 2. Never Compromise, 3. Never Compromise
"CANS ON!" commands Harrison Ford, the warm cello of his voice rising as he peers out of the immaculate cockpit of his de Havilland Beaver. It's a hot day on the tarmac at Teterboro Airport, some seven miles outside of New York City. Ahead is the midday sky over New Jersey, blue going to ash, and it's crawling with planes. Ford whispers to himself intently as he fiddles with console knobs, levers, and dials, nailing his preflight checklist, bingo.
He reaches up and carefully lifts the plane's headphones the cans from a hook on the ceiling and slips them on. He executes this without looking, having done it hundreds of times. He does it the way the world's greatest action hero would in a movie, except that this is Harrison Ford's life. He cranes his head out the Window, and yells in a high, stern yodel, "Clear!"
The aluminum propeller shudders, spins, and the plane hums, rising in tune with the roar of its mammoth nine-cylinder engine. The music seems to register with Ford, who is smiling as he speaks into a foam mike hovering just beyond his pursed lips: Teterboro tower, Teterboro tower, this is November two-six Sierra. A crackle in the air, then: Go ahead, November two-six Sierra.
If the boys in the control tower know they're speaking to Harrison Ford, they don't let on. We're all just pilots here, and that's the way Ford likes it.
Thank you, sir. I'm looking for a squawk.Over.
HIS LIFE PLAN IS SIMPLE YET HARD. "I WANT TO CONTINUE TO DO WHAT I'M DOING," HE SAYS. "THAT SOUNDS LIKE STANDING STILL, BUT IT'S NOT."
Ford unfolds a flight chart of the greater New York metropolitan area. Wearing Wrangler jeans, a green polo shirt, and brown leather shoes, he looks more like the vintage bush plane's mechanic than its owner. He studies the squiggle of navigational lines and traffic patterns as he waits for the tower to give us a squawk, our ID number in the air, which will mark us on radar.
The radio pops: November two-six Sierra, your squawk is one-five-five-two.
Radio traffic commences between other planes and the tower, and when the air is clear, Ford acknowledges, Teterboro tower, one-five-five-two is my squawk.
There's a pause over the radio, an unusual one, it would seem. Then, November two-six Sierra, please be advised you stepped on that last transmission meaning Ford has purportedly interrupted another pilot's radio contact with the tower.
Ford's head snaps back, ears clamped tight under his cans. He can't believe this is happening. "You hear that?" he says. "Damn." He looks again at the radio on the plane's console, as if waiting for the message to correct itself. A mix of embarrassment and indignation swirls in his face, and his eyes narrow. When he can stand it no longer, the outburst is sharp but controlled: "Mother-fucker! Can't believe it. Huh!" Ford stares ahead, as if he's looking at the end of the world.
The mistake, in fact, appears to be the tower's.
After a moment, the tower returns and announces, without fanfare, November two-six Sierra, you're now clear for Juliet. Ford is silent. He takes a breath. November two-six Sierra, he finally says. Pause. Clear for takeoff on Juliet. Pause. Thank you.
He lays a steady hand on the plane's throttle, then hesitates. His official business concluded, lips still pursed tight against the mike, he can't let the moment go. More than anything, he seems to want the fatal instant back, to make it absolutely perfect.
Here's what he does. He says, in effect, Hello, tower? Thank you. No, sir, I did not step on that previous transmission. Correct. That's right. Thank you. And sir? You have an efficient day yourself. Over. And then he greases the line shut.
Pride assuaged, his anger cooling, Ford gooses the throttle, and we quickly skim down runway Juliet, then jump up into smoother air as a grim-faced Ford gently pulls back the stick, the Beaver ascending, the sweet plane delivering Harrison Ford from an imperfect world.
WHAT YOU HAVE TO UNDERSTAND about Harrison Ford is that his anger is not really anger at all but the sound a man makes when he fails to be as good as he thinks he can be. You have to understand that his pursuit of perfection borders on the spiritual. His anger signals something gone awry, some detail unattended to, a fudging of an otherwise impeccable plan.
In Hollywood, Ford is famous for his knowledge of, and attention to, the craft of filmmaking. Directors say he makes hundreds of little suggestions during filming, constantly tweaking his lines, looking for a better camera angle, making adjustments to accommodate the technical necessities. "He's a guy who builds carefully and thoughtfully and simply," says Mike Nichols, who directed Ford in Working Girl (1988) and Regarding Henry (1991), "whether it's his house or a movie part or a script." Ford allows that he has a lifelong "obsession with detail, and an interest in the true nature of things."
"WHAT DISTINGUISHES MY CAREER IS NOT MY UNIQUE
What Ford seems to be struggling to do in-his life and in his movies is the right thing at the most impossible moment. Throughout his 33-year career, and with a handful of signature roles (Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Witness's John Book, and CIA analyst Jack Ryan), he has defined good conduct under pressure.
Possible motto: "Know thyself, take no shit, and provide." As an actor, he's demanding in his discipline. "I take the money," he explains, "and then I take the responsibility." As a man, he's especially private. All the hard work of being him takes place inside, in his more private rooms, and this is why his charm and appeal are so inscrutable. Life for him is a matter of conjuring up moments of rightness, and he achieves that rightness with a mountainous urge to orchestrate, negotiate, and design.
At 57 and in superb shape tousled sandy-blond hair, gold stud earring, hazel eyes, sprinter's legs and after making more than 33 feature films and appearing in 4 of the 20 top-grossing ones in history, Harrison Ford is arguably the most recognizable movie star on the planet. Lately, a typical deal for him is $20 million a movie, as it was when he played the president of the United States in the 1997 thriller Air Force One. His films have pulled in more than $2 billion, prompting NATO/ShoWest, the theater owners' conven-tion, to name Ford "Star of the Century" in 1994, an honor that he dismisses as "absolute bullshit. It was a statistical construct, which you could take apart and put together in another way."
"TO HAVE HARRISON, SAYS DIRECTOR MIKE NICHOLS, IS LIKE HAVING THE VERY BEST FERRARI OR MERCEDES. IT'S A MECHANISM READY TO DO WHATEVER IS CALLED FOR. BUT IT'S VERY QUIET UNDER THAT HOOD."
He has two rules to explain his success: "Rule one is don't blow it in the gym save it for the big game. It's [all] about what you do on the screen." And rule two: "Never claim credit for anything. 'Cause you can't righteously do that. There's luck and grace and accident."
His life plan is simple yet hard: "I want to be able to continue to do what l'm doing. That sounds like standing still, but it's not. The sum of my professional life is to create circumstances in which I can do the best work." Period.
IT'S 10 MINUTES UNTIL TOUCHDOWN in Blairstown, New jersey, and Harrison Ford is in heaven. He gazes out of the plane's cockpit at green forest racing toward the horizon; a lone red pickup drives down a gravel toad, raising a thread of dust it's all a tiny, faraway world baked in the afternoon light.
Ford starts calling out tasks: "Check the gas," and here he taps a tanned index finger tap, tap, tap against the crystal of the gauge. "Gas is good," he says. "Gas is good. Okay, and the pitch of the prop?" Here, he adjusts a lever on the console, which increases the bite of the aluminum prop in the air. "The pitch is nudge, nudge fine. Engine temp and oil pressure are also perfect." A de Havilland Beaver requires constant tuning when aloft it's a bit like flying a violin and Ford is smitten. He circles for the landing and roars earthward.
"We'll take the grass," he says, even though a paved runway is also available. "Grass is more fun." His hands and feet are knitting and paddling constantly at the pedals and controls as the grass sharpens into focus like a developing photograph. The Beaver's balloon tires bump, settle, and roll, and we come to a halt next to a maintenance shed. When the propeller quits, the only sound is a radio in the shed playing some Lynyrd Skynrd. Ford is pleased. The landing was damn near picture-perfect. Speed just right, no bounce. Fuckin' A.
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, Harrison Ford was living with his family in a run-down house near the Hollywood Bowl with a blanket for a bathroom door and a nailed-up tarp covering a living-room wall. After flunking out of Ripon College in Wisconsin in 1964 (he hadn't felt like writing his term paper on Edward Albee) and heading for Hollywood in a VW Beetle, he'd found little success as an actor. He turned to carpentry out of disgust with the movie business. Teaching himself the trade, stoically facing down his ignorance he would sit up on a roof with a carpentry book in one hand and a hammer in the other. He literally learned on the job, but he was exacting about his work, and he eventually built, among other things, Sergio Mendes's recording studio and Joan Didion's bookshelves and, ultimately, her house. Actress Sally Kellerman began calling him "carpenter to the stars."
Around Hollywood, though, people mostly knew Ford as a carpenter who'd had a few bit parts, like the one in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (his lines: "Paging Mr. Ellis! Paging Mr. Ellis... No, sir, Charles Ellis, room 607"). As if defiant about his failure in the film business, he would show up at auditions dressed in his carpenter's duds and just stare at the floor. Producers began labeling him cranky, brooding, and angry.
His behavior, Ford explains, "was a matter of being unable to hide my response to the indignities that people in power inflict on those who are beseeching. I was never good at hiding my dignity. People thought, 'Oh, this is anger.' It's not really anger, it's just indignation. I mean 'How fucking dare you?'"
One day, as he was building a doorway in Francis Ford Coppola's new studio headquarters, he looked up from his work because he heard a voice his friend George Lucas (Ford had had a small role in Lucas's American Graffiti) saying, "Ford, what are you doing? Listen. we're reading for this movie. Why don't you come up and read against some of the parts?" Ford had been in Hollywood for more than 10 years, he'd nearly given up, tanked, quit. But he hadn't. "At some point, I just figured out that the only way you win is by attrition, that everybody else gives up and you're the only one left. And it really happened!" he says, still sounding amazed. "Everybody around me was saying 'I'm never gonna make it, I'm outta here.'" Other actors had left. The movie was Star Wars. The rest is legend. Harrison Ford won.
HE WALKS ACROSS THE FIELD to a tiny diner under a bank of trees and takes a booth in the corner. An aproned cook standing behind the griddle in back looks out his small window on the room and sees Ford but makes no sign of recognition. He taps a spatula on the griddle, says a friendly hello, and goes back to work. Ford is just a guy in a booth, sunglasses thrown on the table. An old clock hangs on the wall, and it seems as if it has been turned back to about 1965. A waitress appears from out of the kitchen, and Ford orders a cheese-burger he loves to eat cheeseburgers and he laughs as he calculates that it may actually be costing him $1,000 after figuring in the Beaver's maintenance and fuel costs.
It's often hard to tell with movie actors where the screen persona ends and the civilian life begins, but not with Ford. He laughs without hubris, ill manners, or sarcasm. If he hadnt flown to this little airport in his own plane, he would probably be here anyway, working in the maintenance shed. He says that if he weren't an actor, he'd be doing "something physical," like carpentry.
His $1,000 cheeseburger arrives, and we're joined by Terry Bender, Ford's fixed-wing flight instructor and the pilot of his Gulfstream IV. Bender has just flown here from Teterboro in Ford's Beech Bonanza, just to hook up for lunch. (Ford also owns a Bell Long Ranger helicopter and a light plane called an Aviat Husky.) Gray-haired and tanned, Bender speaks in a clear, calm voice, and Ford is at ease, throwing his arm along the booth behind his friend.
Every week, Bender and Ford "attack" as many as 15 different airports in a day to keep "spooled up" on basic maneuvers like landings and takeoffs. "Harrison has a lot of endurance," he says. "He's a damn good pilot." In a month, Bender will be part of a group of pilots that accompanies Ford on a cross-country flight to Wyoming, the place where Ford feels most at home these days, on his family's remote 800-acre ranch outside Jackson. It's a place, he says, where his "mind is truly made manifest."
Ford leans forward on his elbows and starts talking about the mountains. In Jackson, in 1987, Ford helped build what has been called a Shaker mansion, a symphonic design of wood and glass, mountain air and light. He and his second wife, screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T., The Black Stallion, Kundun ), live there when their kids (Malcolm, 12, and Georgia, 9) are on break from their school in New York. (Ford also has two sons, Ben, 32, a chef, and Willard, 30. Who runs a private charitable foundation, from a previous marriage; he and Mathison married in 1983.)
AS HE BEGINS THE DESCENT, IT OCCURS TO ME THAT FORD IS MOVING MUCH TOO FAST TO MAKE A GOOD LANDING. IN FACT, THIS LANDING IS NOT GOING TO BE PERFECT AT ALL.
His property, which borders the Snake River, is a place where the Fords can mountain-bike, hike, and fly-fish. "There are places in Jackson that make me laugh just from looking at them," he says. "There are views I know that if I drive this road and come around this corner, I'm going to see the mountains in a way that's framed with the hills sweeping down, and you just say, 'Is this great or what?' Almost every time coming in from the airport, Iassess my life as worthy for simply having the smarts to [live here]."
When I ask what he does to compensate for his urban life's lack of such beauty, he says, "Fly." Then softer, more urgently, "Fly." Other pilots wander into the diner for coffee and gossip, see Ford, nod, and keep moving. If they say anything to him, it's to remark on his plane a small crowd has gathered around the painstakingly restored Beaver. One guy, though, looks intent on meeting Harrison Ford the movie star. "Wow!" he says. "That your plane out there?"
Ford turns, "Why, yes, yes, it is."
"It's beautiful," the guy says.
"Thanks," says Ford. "She's a great plane."
"Listen, you mind signing an autograph?"
"Listen, you mind if I...," says the guy, holding up a napkin with Ford's autograph, excited, "... you mind if I go out and take a look at your Beaver?"
Ford nods. A flash of wickedness brightens his face. "Gee," he says politely, once the man has walked outside, "most guys just want to look at my plane."
WHEN PEOPLE TALK about Harrison Ford, they talk about his focus, his guts. "He thrives on exhaustion," says Toby Wilson, Ford's helicopter flight instructor. "He likes the ragged edge." Each year, he and Ford attend a helicopter flight-training school in Arlington, Texas. One of the exercises is exceedingly demanding. "You do [a] full touchdown auto-rotation," Wilson explains, "where you roll the throttle off kill the power, basically and land without an engine. From 800 feet, you're on the ground in a matter of seconds. Every helicopter pilot has to do it most don't like it. Harrison actually enjoys doing it." And why does Ford like to fly? "It's a black-and-white issue," says Wilson. "Either you live or you die. And I think Harrison likes the clarity of that."
Of course, he doesn't take everything so seriously. On movie sets, Ford has been known to moon the camera and to inflict practical jokes on his costars. At a party in California in the '60s Ford once good-naturedly dogged the dapper white-suited author Tom Wolfe by mirroring his every move. If Wolfe moved left, Ford, dressed in an opposing dark suit, moved right "'Marcel Marceau couldn't have done it better," a guest at the party later remarked.
"As movie stars and their megalomania go, he's about as centered as any of them I've ever met," says his friend and occasional tennis partner Tom Brokaw. "He's very ironic, very controlled." Brokaw remembers one time when he and Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the Patagonia clothing company and a neighbor in Jackson, invited Ford to climb Gannett Peak in the Wind River Mountains with them. "We said, 'We'll get somebody to pack the gear in, and it'll be greatl' Then Harrison said, 'Yeah, I wanna do that! I wanna do that!' Suddenly, we get a call as the time draws nigh, and he said, 'I can't do it I've got to take a meeting with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, I think.'" Brokaw laughs, admiring Ford's ingenuity in bowing out. "It was a great name drop."
"He's Mr. Fantastic," says Krisfin Scott Thomas, Ford's costar in Random Hearts, which opens next month. "He can fly planes, crack whips, ride horses, seduce girls he can do it. He knows what works, what buttons to push. One day, we were doing a scene, and I couldn't get it right I was being really pathetic. I was kicking up a fuss, and Harrison was eating peanuts. And he cracked one open and he pushed it toward me, these two little nuts. That's what he was really pleased about, the fact that these two nuts just sat in their shells. It was like, you know, 'Look, the world doesn't come to an end. There are peanuts peanuts that are designed perfectly.'"
In Random Hearts, Ford plays a hard-working cop who discovers his wife was having an affair after she dies in a plane crash. He's forced to sort out questions about truth, work, and commitment. His character, says Sydney Pollack, the film's director, is "an individual who operates out of his own ethical code. He's a guy who doesn't seek or need approval from other people. But he's not egotistical he just has confidence in his own abilities. Mr. Ford has a lot of those characteristics." "To have Harrison," says Nichols, "is like having the very best Ferrari or Mercedes it's a mechanism ready to do whatever is called for. But it's very quiet under that hood."
FEEL LIKE DOING A FEW GRASS STRIPS? The voice is urgent, fun, like a boy's. We're back aloft, rising against a falling orange medallion of a sun. A rhythm is developing in his day. For Ford, flying is a kind of "walking meditation." Now, he is relishing the prospect of making touch-and-go landings. The tricky maneuver excites him: Call it another opportunity to triumph or to fail
At a grass airstrip named Trinca, in Andover, New Jersey, we bank over a red concrete building the tiny airfield's headquarters and settle on our approach. Ford responds to the wallops of wind with lightning strokes at the controls. At the sound of our engine, people step from inside the building as if suddenly awakened, as if they have been waiting all day for a plane to land and bring news from the outside world that's how glorious the flying seems this afternoon.
As we make our descent, however, it occurs to me the recognition is sharp that we are moving too fast, too quickly, to make a good landing. Even I can see it. This landing is not going to be perfect at all. Ford sees it, too, I think, because I hear him say "Oh!" in surprise, and then the Beaver's wheels hit the grass and the plane bucks ka-bounce, ka-bounce and it rises and drops again and again, as Ford begins braking the roaring craft. He's saying, "Too fast! Too fast!" His face is drawn tight in concentration. "I can do this," he announces, still wrestling with the plane in the slick grip of speed. The Beaver bumps down the runway and finally rolls to an ignominious stop.
Goddammit! Shit! What the hell happened? is what I expect Ford to say. Instead, there's just the whir of the engine at idle as he sits quietly, parsing out what went wrong. Ford lets the moment pass, he lets it sink in. Then, finally, be declares, "We're gonna try that one again" and he pours the engine on and turns the plane around, taxis, and takes off. The Beaver rises, banks, and descends on a slow, even arc, like water coming down the side of a mountain low and slow and so pretty and this time Harrison Ford is perfect.
THE SUN IS GOING DOWN, and we're crawling in rush-hour traffic across the George Washington Bridge, back into the city. Ford is at ease behind the wheel of a Jeep Cherokee, his face relaxed, as if the inner wires have finally been unhooked, as if he is arriving now at a place he could only have dreamed about this morning.
"I like beautiful things," he says. He is talking easily as he drives, gesturing freely with his hands as if he were conducting a symphony. "Gardens, buildings, sculpture. I'm a very visual person." During the flight home, Ford had looked down to admire the handiwork in someone's far-off patio or stone wall, or in the handsome silhouette of a house. "I got tired of the perceptions I was having," he says, explaining why he earned his pilot's license three years ago. It was the realization of a long-held goal. He'd tried before, as a college student, but went broke after a few lessons. At an age when a lot of guys take up fly-fishing or bear down on golf, Ford now flies at least three days a week. In three years, he's logged about 800 air hours, nearly three times that of most private pilots. Flying is Ford's idea of sport. He says he didn't know bow badly he needed it until he found it.
This, he announces, has been a damn great day in the air. Then be adds, "But any day of flying is better than..." He pauses, then lets the sentence finish itself any day in Hollywood. Ford has an odd relationship with the business that has made him so famous and so wealthy. In Hollywood, he does not see people socially. "I don't know very many people, except to have polite conversation," he says. "I don't have close relationships with executives at studios."
Tomorrow, he has a meeting with "studio guys," as he calls them, about a new Jack Ryan movie, following 1994's Clear and Present Danger and 1992's Patriot Games. Nearing the city, he starts running down a list of obligations, duties, chores. He will, it seems, neither slack off nor rest. Later in the week, he plans to fly to Washington, D.C., with Richard Gere to meet with Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's special envoy, and discuss the plight of the Tibetan people under Chinese rule, a matter of concern to both Ford and Mathison.
Now, though, he has something else on his mind. "You want to check out the apartment?" he suddenly asks. "I think we should check out the apartment. You mind?" It seems that he and Mathison are having their apartment renovated. And because Ford abhors sloppiness, he has been a taskmaster, meeting regularly with decorators, carpenters, and architects. During a previous visit to the work site, he had found the progress unsatisfactory. He appears to fear the worst.
He parks in a garage near his apartment building and walks up the street. When you're alone with Harrison Ford, it is possible to forget who he is, because he can be so polite and unassuming. His presence on a public street, however, is like a pathogen, inciting a riot of reactions. Women turn their heads in his direction as if not really knowing why; men stop and take notice. In the gathering attention, as if by rote, Ford snaps on a pair of shades and tucks his chin and keeps walking. Then, seemingly by magic, the tidal wave of his fame ebbs from the street, and he's suddenly in his building.
Up in Ford's apartment, sawhorses, unhinged doors, and sheets of drywall are propped against high, unfinished walls the work site is a dusty mess. Ford picks up a piece of metal bathroom molding, hefts it, and eyes the joint's fit. It'll do. He leads me through his children's rooms, the library, the bathroom, describing in earnest detail an apartment that is just being born. But when he enters the long, unfinished master bedroom, he begins to pace from wall to wall.
"Look at this? he says, pulling out a metal grate that covers an air duct. "You can't change the air filter easily because this has been designed all wrong! See? Somebody should have caught this problem!" He is genuinely displeased. "Now it'll all have to be changed!"
He turns, pointing at an opposite wall, at yet another example of a world out of control. "Earlier today when I walked in here," he says, "these guys were hand-sanding that wall. You can't hand-sand a wall like this! You have to block-sand it!" He mimes holding a block of wood fixed with sandpaper and makes a steady sanding motion against the wall. "Otherwise, the surface is not even." Ford shakes his head at the shoddiness. "So I had to have them block-sand it." He sights down the wall, pleased at the effect his force of will has had on it."And now" he squints "it's perfect." Squint. "Flat." True. Yes.
"LOOK AT THIS!" HE SAYS, PULLING OUT A GRATE THAT COVERS AN AIR DUCT. "IT'S BEEN DESIGNED ALL WRONG! NOW IT'LL HAVE TO BE CHANGED!"
But there's one more thing he wants me to see, something that seems to make this constant struggle of his worthwhile. I follow him and he stops and stares at the imperceptible place where a wall and a staircase meet and blend in a swooning curve. Ford is sweaty and tired from his day of flying, and he just stands there, gazing as if at proof of the universe's beauty. "Now this," he says, 'I like."
WHEREVER HARRISON FORD GOES, he brings his world with him, one filled with grace and clarity a world of order. Cleaned up, dressed in a black jacket and dark pants, he's with Mathison at a cocktail party, a good one, at Brokaw's apartment, in honor of the painter Russell Chatham. Ford, like Brokaw, is a great admirer of Chatham's paintings; they are the haunted, melancholy landscapes of a West he longs to return to. Hands behind his back, he drifts through the luxurious apartment, studying the broad canvases hung on the walls, l'm watching him, and I wonder how it is that he can look as comfortable as right ordering a diner cheeseburger as he does contemplating an $80,000 painting in a New York penthouse. Brokaw says it's very simple: "He defines himself, and doesn't let events or other people define him. There's a wonderfully authentic quality about him."
The apartment is filled with bright, interesting characters Morley Safer, Art Buchwald, art critic Robert Hughes, news editors, literary agents, and society people. Ford, who rarely attends parties, is cheerfully mingling and enjoying himself immensely, but he finds himself drawn back to the paintings. He stands looking, sipping a glass of wine. Perhaps this is because in short order he'll be lifting off from Teterboro and heading west toward mountains like those adorning the apartment walls.
"Find one you like?" asks Mathison, gliding up to her husband. She's a tall, striking woman with blonde hair, wide blue eyes, and a sharp wit. Ford is looking at a painting of aspens in falling rain. Mathison reaches up and fixes the collar on his jacket, and he says, "Well, the one I wanted has already been sold."
Ford will mention this fact more than once: that the painting that might have been perfect was sold. He'll say it not in anger, exactly, but with something more like terminal regret. What's striking is the depth of his disappointment, the pinched look in his eyes that tells me he's lost not just a painting, but an opportunity to get something right. It's a small thing, but with Ford, of course, all of the small things matter.
IT'S LATE, AFTER THE PARTY, and Ford and I are sitting in his unfinished apartment overlooking Central Park, night crawling on the tall windows. We're drinking beer and bullshitting and getting ready to light up some good Cuban cigars. We're sitting at a carpenter's worktable cluttered with tools, and Ford is happy, more relaxed than I've seen him, and it's one of those rare, easy moments when things happen because they're supposed to. "You know what I need," I tell him, half-joking. "I need an acting lesson." At first, he's taken aback, but then he smiles and says, "Oh, maybe. How much money you got?"
I check. Four dollars."
"Okay, I'll give you four dollars' worth."
He studies me, is about to speak, doesn't. I draw close, lean in. When I do, a quick tension twirls in the air. He stops me and says, "There. I just did. I just gave you an acting lesson."
He picks up his cigar and sniffs. "You make a character out of things that help you tell a story," he says. "You have to task yourself to tell the story that's there, and not insist 'God, I'd never do that!' Your fucking character has to do that! Otherwise, we don't get on with it!" He sits back, still thinking. "For me, one of the virtues is the emotional exercise. An exercise of your subcon-scious. Part of it is very useful in working shit out."
"Okay," I say, 'Tve got to play a scene where I'm angry with someone." I expect he'll stand up, maybe walk around the room, start acting.
"If I have to be angry," Ford is saying, "I know I will be. There are so many ways of expressing anger!" Something has changed in his face, and yet it remains exactly the same; it's like a face of ice, melting now at high speed from the inside.
He begins pinching off each word at the head, fast: "Because-you-know-you-can-do-it- four-five-different-ways." Rest.
Now faster: "I'mdoingitrightnow." Rest. "And it would. Come across. As anger." Silence. "Controlled anger." Silence. "Intensity."
Slowly, I begin to feel uneasy, as if in the presence of something seething, something coiled, in the room. He thrusts up a callused hand, squeezes a thumb and finger together, tight. The hazel eyes detonate. He says, each word a ragged wing beat, "Anger is just an inch of difference. It's not the obligation to shout and tear the fucking "
He halts. As if there's a sudden power loss. He closes his mouth, shuts down.
Fade to: He picks up a pencil, begins tapping it on the table tap tap tap, still so much to do here, the decorators, the carpenters, the architects .... He sits back. Looks at me again. A creak of his chair. Looks at me harder, makes sure I'm paying attention.
"You know," Ford tells me, smiling, "you can't really lose, unless they catch you acting."
A FEW WEEKS LATER, Ford is gone, flying to Wyoming. He walks out to the tarmac at Teterboro, throws a bag with a change of clothes jeans, underwear, and polo shirts into the Bell Long Ranger, and climbs in. In many ways, Ford has been training for this moment all year, and he slept a little uneasily the night before, in anticipation.
He fires up the helicopter's turbine engine, slips on his cans, and nails his preflight checklist. The helicopter lifts, then dips its head like a dragonfly and shoots up through the smog of the city, heading for Chicago.
Riding shotgun is Toby Wilson; following behind in the Beaver are Terry Bender and Alex Cowie, Ford's aircraft mechanic. A third aircraft, the faster Bonanza, is scheduled to leave the next day and will rendezvous with the others in Nebraska. The Bonanza will be piloted by Brad Eckert, Ford's other Gulfstream pilot, and Eckert's son, who's going along for the adventure. These are Ford's friends, the people he feels comfortable with, and this trip is like a cattle drive in the air.
Over the next three days, they land at airfields in the middle of nowhere Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania; Defiance, Ohio; Carroll, Iowa. They land only for fuel, for bathroom breaks, for lunch, and to sleep. They eat in little diners, Ford generally ordering cheeseburgers. By dusk that day, Ford and his friends are in Chicago, touching down at Meigs Field, on the shores of Lake Michigan. They catch a cab downtown to the Four Seasons, shower, and eat. Ford is tired but focused. They're up at dawn and airborne by six, looking for Nebraska.
It's a long push across the fields of corn and soybeans, the helicopter skimming at times just 20 feet off the ground (when it's clear and legal) toward the Great Plains. Ford loves to fly low. "It's exhilarating," he says. They emerge from the endless Sandhills and land at Chadron, Nebraska. They hangar the aircraft because storms are building in the west, bad ones, and they weather the night in a Best Western. At 8 a.m., they strike out on the last leg to Jackson.
By nine-thirty, though, a storm bas forced them to touch down at a wind-swept speck of an airstrip in Douglas, Wyoming, just across the state line. There's a kid, maybe 17, at the airfield, and he's wearing a cowboy hat and jeans and boots. When Ford asks if he can borrow a car to go into town, the kid says, real slow, "Ya know haw ta drive three on tha tree?" as if Ford's never seen a three-speed stick shift before. "Kid," says Ford, "I was driving three on the tree before you were a twinkle in your daddy's eye." Ford and his party take the jalopy and bump into town.
They eat a big breakfast in a diner that is actually a converted gas station. A half-pound of ham comes with every omelet. By late morning, they've charted a new route around the storm, but it requires Ford and Wilson to fly ahead, on patrol, to see if it can be done. They disappear into the clouds and after 20 minutes radio back that they've made it through. By midday, all four aircraft have landed in Jackson.
"I have a little ritual," Ford explained about arriving in Wyoming. "What I love to do is just walk around and say 'God, I like this.' And then we take a walk out to the river, we take a walk out to the cabins. We have walks. But part of being in Jackson is not having stuff to do. There's the quiet. It takes days to come down to it." Over the next two days, Ford goes horseback riding, motorcycling, and flying. He even buzzes up to Montana in the Beaver, to visit Russell Chatham, because he "can't get him on the phone." It's as if he can't stop flying, can't get enough of his freedom in the air. And who can blame him?
I hear about all this later, during a telephone conversation. I remember the silence of our own afternoon of flying, and I recall how, within that solitude, Ford was alert, present, reacting with minute adjustments to the bucking of the plane in the wind. I remember how pleased he looked when I did something as simple as buckle the Beaver's safety harness correctly. By the sheer force of Harrison Ford's competence, you are reminded that there are right ways and wrong ways in the world, and that these are not arbitrary things. Your landing must be perfect.