Walking with Harrison Ford and his horse, Cooper, you'd think he's been riding all his life. "Somebody sent me up to a casting guy at Columbia Pictures," he recalled. "The first question he asked me was, 'Could you ride a horse?' I said, 'Sure, yes, sir.' He said, 'Do you speak Spanish?' I said, 'Yes, sir.'"
He could do neither. "I certainly couldn't ride a horse, and I certainly couldn't speak Spanish," he said. "But I could lie. And that was the main talent of an actor!"
Riding came when Ford left Hollywood and moved, 40 years ago, to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz asked, "I think I know the answer, but why did you want to get out of L.A.?"
"Because it's L.A., and it's a city," he replied. "And I don't have to be there for work, so I might as well enjoy a different kind of life."
Four decades later, art is once again imitating life. This big-time movie actor is starring in a TV series, and it's being made in Wyoming's neighbor to the north, Montana. The role comes from the creator of the hit show "Yellowstone," Taylor Sheridan. For his new prequel series, "1923" (now streaming on our sister service, Paramount+), he wrote the lead character specifically for Harrison Ford.
"I was knocked out when I got the script – the ambition and the bold storytelling. It's audacious," Ford said.
"1923" is a complicated show, one part moving, two parts brutal. It's the story of the American West in the aftermath of World War I. Ford plays Jacob Dutton, a rancher and distant relative to Kevin Costner's character in "Yellowstone." Jacob's wife is played by another movie star, Helen Mirren.
Ford said, "Helen was a big part of the lure of it all for me. Because as much as we're telling the story of the condition of the West at that particular time, 1923, there's also a very important central relationship here between husband and wife. The marriage that we're portraying is one of a really deep, deep complex partnership between these two people."
The series is being produced old-school, on location (no CGI!), and with no relief from the elements. "That wind blowing up our skirts is real wind," Ford said. "When we were standing out there during the scene, and the wind was howling, and with a wind chill factor, it was 21 below zero. It was real!"
Ford has long valued being real. There's even a hint of it in a story from his 1966 movie debut, called "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round," in which he plays a hotel busboy.
The producer called Ford into his office: "He said, 'I saw the dailies from yesterday. You're never going to make it in this business. You're wasting your time.'"
Then the producer told Ford that, years earlier, a young Tony Curtis had played a grocery delivery boy, and did it with such presence that everyone said, "Now that's a movie star!"
"And I leaned across the desk, and I said, 'I thought you were supposed to think there was a grocery delivery boy.' He said, 'Get the f*** out of here!'"
"Ah, you were charming them right from the start, Harrison!" Mankiewicz said.
Even when he's playing make-believe in a galaxy far, far away, or outrunning boulders in the Peruvian jungle, or hunting replicants in futuristic Los Angeles, there's something grounded in Ford's characters.
Mankiewicz asked, "There is a genuine quality to the characters you play which is clearly, at this point, not an accident?"
"Well, I think I've always, I've gravitated towards those roles in which I play an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, who finds themselves perhaps behaving in a way they hadn't anticipated. And I think that's part of the romance of movies, is that you can find your place on screen. You can find a character, that it feels like you. And that's what I'm looking for; I'm looking for emotional connection to the audience. I don't want to put bulls*** in the way."
At 80 years old, Ford has been as busy as possible over the last two years. Work has kept him away from his home and his family. "I got two projects that were so well-written, one a comedy, I'm doing for Apple, half-hour comedy, which I never got to do. And then, this, '1923.' It's hard."
"And in amongst the two shows, you're making the fifth Indiana Jones."
"I made the fifth Indiana Jones movie; now I got to go support its release."
Movies like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and all its sequels made Ford rich and famous. But when he was a young actor in college, he didn't dream of fame. He just wanted to work.
"I imagined what the life of an actor was: You work for a discrete period of time with a group of people you've never met before, and you make something. And you work your way through that, and then you put different lives," he said. "I have lived many different lives."
Not all those lives suit him. He has long struggled with the "famous" part. It's a big reason he left L.A. for Wyoming. He spoke about fame in a 2010 interview, in which he said, "There's nothing good about being famous. You always think, 'If I'm successful, then I'll have opportunities.' You never figure the cost of fame will be a total loss of privacy. It's incalculable."
"A better word would be, instead of privacy, would be anonymity," Ford told Mankiewicz. "To walk through the world without the world watching you. I mean, it caught me by surprise, and really threw me for a while. I was really uncomfortable, because people would say, There's that guy!"
"It's not that coming up to you and asking you for an autograph?"
"No, no, no. The natural instinct of an actor is to be interested in human behavior. So, you're a people-watcher. Why are they looking at me, for Christ's sake? Why are the people watching me? Are they going to feed me now? Am I in a zoo?"
"None of that is disrespect for the fans or anything, it's just a discomfort?"
"No. I'm so grateful for the life they've given me, the opportunities they've given me," Ford said. "And I work for them. I really, I really feel that way. They support my, um, my Jones, you know, like, my habit."
"And what is that habit?"
"Telling stories. Telling stories."
If acting is Harrison Ford's habit, it is not one he is looking to break. He has recently signed on to join the Marvel Universe in a new Captain America movie.
"Doesn't sound like you're a guy thinking about calling it quits," Mankiewicz said.
"No, but I'm not going to repeat what's gone on in the last year."
"You might slow down, take a few months off, but you like this job?"
"Yeah, yeah. I like my job!"
To watch a trailer for "1923" click on the video player below:
For more info:
- "1923" on Paramount+
- "Shrinking" debuts on Apple TV+ January 27
- "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" opens June 30
- Thanks to the National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson, Wyo.
Story produced by Amol Mhatre. Editor: Remington Korper.
- From 2020: ("Sunday Morning")
- From 2010: ("Sunday Morning")
for more features.