Few actors in Hollywood history have racked up as many classic roles as Harrison Ford, whose leading man looks and grounded personality rocketed him to stardom in the late '70s. Working with some of the most notable directors of his generation including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Alan J. Pakula, Peter Weir and Mike Nichols, he has traversed the farthest reaches of space and the deepest recesses of unexplored jungles while showing a willingness to go against his public image in more daring roles along the way.
The Chicago-born actor originally majored in philosophy at Ripon College in Wisconsin but discovered theater acting during his senior year, which led to a shot at breaking into show business by moving to Los Angeles in 1964. Taking occasional gigs as an extra or bit player, he supported his wife and children by working as a carpenter for celebrities like Joan Didion. In honor of his birthday on July 13 that will find the screen legend turning 80, here’s a look at the roles that truly show the impact and range of a true American original.
After turning up in a handful of brief roles on the big and small screen, Ford had his first major speaking role in this low-budget smash hit from young filmmaker George Lucas, which inspired a wave of '50s nostalgia in the '70s including TV's Happy Days. Ford was working as a carpenter at the time, with stints including the expansion of Francis Ford Coppola's office, but his smooth appearance here cruising around with dice hanging from his rearview mirror made him a face moviegoers never forgot.
Outer space's most famous swaggering bad boy pilot, Han Solo, became an instant iconic character embodied by Ford in Lucas' game-changing blockbuster. Initially hired to just read lines with the auditioning actors (all pooled together at the same time as Brian De Palma's Carrie), Ford was the obvious choice and went on to reprise the role on the big screen in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).
Ford's sudden fame had some unexpected and immediate repercussions, such as his participation in this belated sequel to 1961's The Guns of Navarone. Playing a role originated by Richard Harris, Ford was so newly popular that the initial cut of the film released in the U.K. was drastically overhauled, beefing up Ford's part considerably by the time it hit American theaters. Ford continued the wartime theme with his next film, Hanover Street (1979), while his brief role in Apocalypse Now shot far earlier was more attention-getting upon the film’s release in 1979.
Ford got to show off his comedic chops in Robert Aldrich's light Western buddy romp opposite Gene Wilder (as a rabbi in the Wild West), which became a favorite among many Gen-Xers thanks to its frequent cable TV play throughout the '80s. Incredibly, John Wayne was originally intended for the bank robber role inherited by Ford.
Ford’s most beloved leading man role reunited him with story co-creator George Lucas, this time in tandem with director Steven Spielberg for an action-packed, endlessly quotable salute to classic adventure serials. Eye-popping stunts, snappy dialogue by Lawrence Kasdan, and groundbreaking visuals effects (which earned one of its five Academy Award wins) made this a modern roller-coaster ride that’s still influential today. Ford would pick up his fedora and whip again for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and a new entry scheduled for release in the summer of 2023.
Widely misunderstood on its original release during the very crowded summer of 1982, Ridley Scott’s visually stunning science-fiction rumination on the nature of humanity itself cast Ford as a hunter of replicants in futuristic Los Angeles who comes to question the purpose of his latest assignment. The initial theatrical version of the film with Ford’s narration has since become eclipsed by the film's "Final Cut," and Ford returned to the ambiguous role of Rick Deckard again in the Oscar-winning Blade Runner 2049 (2017).
A winner of two Oscars for Original Screenplay and Film Editing, this gritty crime film from director Peter Weir casts Ford as John Book, a cop entrusted with helping a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas) who’s witnessed a murder tied to police corruption. What follows is an unusual potential romance between Book and the boy’s widowed mother (Kelly McGillis), and the film became an unexpected smash hit with its memorable barn-raising sequence remaining one of the decade’s cinematography highlights.
Peter Weir and Ford (who had just earned a Best Actor nomination for Witness) teamed up again for one of the most divisive roles in the star’s career. Adapted from Paul Theroux's dark adventure novel, the film chronicles an American family’s ill-fated attempt to build a new, simpler life. Ford’s departure here from his usual heroic roles was a shock for many viewers at the time, but since then it’s been reappraised as one of his finest performances.
Mike Nichols' modern take on the screwball workplace comedy finds Ford as the romantic foil to Melanie Griffith's enterprising office assistant, whose treacherous boss (Sigourney Weaver) brings out the ultimate test of character for everyone involved. Ford allows both of his fellow stars plenty of room to shine with his own relaxed, charming performance as a business mover and shaker showing his comfort with a different kind of leading man role.
One of the earliest entries in the legal thriller wave of the '90s, this adaptation of Scott Turow’s bestselling novel mixes courtroom drama with a dark murder mystery involving prosecutor Rusty Sabich (Ford), who ends up accused of the murder of his mistress. Alan J. Pakula's direction and John Williams' evocative score are among the many assets of this whodunit whose twist ending became one of the most buzzed-about of its era.
Mike Nichols and Ford veered far away from their previous comedy with this heartfelt tearjerker, an early screenplay by J.J. Abrams. Here Ford plays a morally bankrupt lawyer who has to piece together his entire ability to speak and process his memories after surviving a shooting at a convenience store, with Annette Bening matching him as she watches her husband transform slowly before her eyes.
One of television's biggest early examples of "must-see viewing" took three decades to reach the big screen, but the wait was worth it with Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble, whose false conviction for his wife's death leads to a daring escape and a perilous manhunt. Tommy Lee Jones took home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as the U.S. Marshal on his trail, and it proved to be one of Ford’s biggest hits of the ‘90s in a role first offered to Michael Douglas and Kevin Costner.
Ford’s canny knack for picking solid literary properties continued when he stepped into the role of Tom Clancy's CIA analyst turned Acting Deputy Director Jack Ryan (also played by Alec Baldwin, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine on the big screen, plus the John Krasinski streaming series). Director Phillip Noyce’s Patriot Games (1992) introduced Ford as the character, but they really hit their stride with this propulsive thriller about a secret, illegal U.S. government war being conducted in Colombia and the collateral damage it causes across North and South America.
Action films don't get much more high concept than this fast-paced Wolfgang Petersen hit with Ford as a U.S. president whose plane gets hijacked by Soviet terrorists led by Gary Oldman, while Vice President Glenn Close has to make tough calls on the ground. Though the filmmakers got to scope out the real Air Force One, Ford’s plane in the film is highly fictionalized for security reasons; unfortunately, it's also questionable whether any real president has ever shouted "Get off my plane!"
Though the trailer unfortunately gave away this Robert Zemeckis film's key twists way before it opened, we'll be more spoiler conscious and just say that this atmospheric blend of ghost story and murder mystery features one of Ford’s most unusual roles. Here his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) finds their quiet life in Vermont disrupted by visions of a seemingly murdered woman who might be connected to the new neighbors next door. Or could there be something more diabolical afoot? We'll never tell…
Oscar-winning writer Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) shifted gears to write and direct this well-received biopic about legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson, played by Chadwick Boseman. Ford offers sturdy support as Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, whose decision to break the sport’s racial barrier ended up cementing the career of a name that lives on in sports history. Long in development, the film originally had Robert Redford slated to play the role that eventually went to Ford.
As many working actors today will tell you, there is no greater test of your skills is acting opposite a CGI character. Ford works wonders here in this latest adaptation of the perennial Jack London adventure classic about heroic canine Buck’s journey across the Yukon after being abducted from his owner. Ford earned some of his strongest recent responses for his performance here as the kindhearted frontier loner who takes in Buck (now CGI-animated) and plays a major role in teaching the four-legged adventurer about the true meaning of home.