This article, and others about Harrison Ford and his iconic roles, are featured in Newsweek’s special edition, Harrison Ford—50 Years of Hollywood’s Greatest Hero.
Most actors spend their entire careers working in quiet, dignified (or not-so dignified) obscurity to the rest of the world, the memory of their roles fading in the audiences’ brains as soon as the lights go up in the theater. By the mid 1980s, Harrison Ford had attained immortality twice over by bringing to life both Han Solo and Indiana Jones. However, as some of his Star Wars costars could tell Ford, nailing an iconic character doesn’t necessarily translate into guaranteed success for the rest of the career. The difference between being greeted on the street by fans as Luke Skywalker versus Mark Hamill often boils down to whether the actor can distinguish his or her own identity in subsequent work. For Ford, three movies proved instrumental in helping him reach escape velocity from his most beloved creations—Witness (1985), Frantic (1988) and Presumed Innocent (1990).
Australian director Peter Weir’s United States debut, Witness, provided Ford with the perfect vehicle to expand his range without making a dramatic departure. The film’s plot hits most of the beats familiar to anyone who has seen a police thriller. Ford’s Detective John Book has to go into hiding to protect both himself and a little boy who has seen a murder from violent criminals—who happen to be Book’s colleagues. But while Witness’s unorthodox Amish country setting provides the elevator-pitch hook, it’s Ford’s ability to imbue a conflict that should illicite rolled eyes and impatient sighs—will the worldly, city-slicker detective stay among the Amish for the love of a woman?—with a real pathos. As Sheila Benson from the L.A. Times put it in her review of the movie, “Ford’s gifts, a blend of humor, intimacy and chemical attraction, make you want to believe in what common sense says is horse manure.” Witness was both a box office and critical success, and Ford’s work in the film garnered him his only Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
If the role of John Book in Witness allowed Ford to ground his action-hero image in the real world, Roman Polanski’s Frantic dispensed with it altogether. The Polish director’s European noir plot unfolds almost entirely from the point of view of American Dr. Richard Walker as he desperately searches for his missing wife in labyrinthine streets and seedy alleys of Paris. The hunt eventually uncovers an international espionage conspiracy involving nuclear detonators, car chases and shootouts, but the heart of the film lies with Ford’s characterization of a supremely competent and confident man becoming unravelled. According to an interview Ford gave with Playboy, he felt this aspect of the character was important enough to meet with real-life surgeons to research the role, despite the fact Dr. Walker doesn’t perform his trade on-screen. “I learned there’s a certain degree of authority they have in their world that they seem to want to take to the outside world,” Ford told the magazine. “[Walker] is someone I haven’t played before. He’s an ordinary man who faces a terrible ordeal and can’t find anyone in authority to help him.” Frantic may have disappointed at the box office, but Ford’s strong performance helped solidify the film as one of Polanski’s best and gave both filmmakers and audiences a strong example of how Ford’s steady, leading man charm worked even when he wasn’t gunning down bad guys.
That likeability was put to the test when Ford accepted the role of prosecutor Rusty Sabich in the 1990 adaptation of the hit novel Presumed Innocent. This densely plotted legal thriller is rife with lies, sex, corruption and doubles as a meditation on the morality of the justice system. But most surprising is that it also contains a role that gives Ford his most conflicted character since The Mosquito Coast’s Allie Fox. During Sabich’s investigation of the murder of Carolyn Polhemus—who was both Sabich’s colleague and partner in adultery— it’s clear the man still harbors an emotional obsession with her, no matter what he’s told his wife. Seeing the actor whose career is almost uniformly full of trustworthy, good men wrestle with his feelings over a past lover isn’t exactly the heel turn of Henry Fonda gunning down a boy at the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West, but it does show there were more facets to Ford’s abilities than previously suspected. Ford’s character may have been filled with self-doubt and uncertainty, but by the time Presumed Innocent began reaping in the critical accolades (and impressive box office returns), it was clear to both the actor and the world that Harrison Ford didn’t need a whip or blaster to carry a movie.