MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Harrison Ford accidentally auditioned for the role of Han Solo in “Star Wars.”
While he’s played many different parts in blockbuster films over his long career, Harrison Ford’s most important role is still likely that of Han Solo in 1977’s “Star Wars.” The success of that film propelled him from little-known actor already in his mid-30s to a guy you’d hire to star in your big-budget blockbuster. With all respect to his other iconic role, Indiana Jones, if it weren’t for Solo we wouldn’t know Ford’s name today (outside of obsessed “American Graffiti” fans, of course). The actor eventually had a sort of love/hate relationship with the role that made him a star (as we covered in an old Movie Legends Revealed, he even asked George Lucas to kill off Han in “Return of the Jedi”), but he also noted in a Reddit AMA that “Han Solo was also a huge part of my life.” But how did Ford get the chance to play Han Solo in the first place? Did it tie in with his famed early career in carpentry? Read on to find out!
In 1964, Ford moved with then-wife Mary Marquardt to Hollywood, where he soon got a spot at Columbia Pictures’ new talent program, making $150 a week. His career didn’t develop much there, and he up parting ways Columbia. He signed on for a similar deal with Universal, where he mostly wound up doing guest spots on television series. Ford later recalled that one of his biggest fears at that point was that he would become too well-known as a guest star, and that would eventually kill any chance he had at a film career.
In 1970, Ford (who by this point now had two sons with Marquardt) purchased a home in the Hollywood Hills for his growing family. It was a real fixer-upper, and he decided to handle the repairs himself, learning carpentry courtesy of the Encino Public Library. Ford soon became enamored by carpentry, noting:
To me, one of the attractions of carpentry is that it’s simple and logical. You start at one place and step by step you end up with the finished product. It’s a functional science, and it becomes a form of meditation – the mind is absorbed in simple tasks, you are no longer wrestling within your mind.
Ford’s first big carpentry job was building a $100,000 studio for Brazilian band leader Sergio Mendes. Soon he was known as the “carpenter to the stars.” Along the way, however, he never lost sight of his desire to still be an actor. Carpentry was basically a way for him to avoid having to take roles he didn’t want, like many of those guest-star appearances.
Ford appeared in a small but notable role in George Lucas’ 1973 comedy-drama “American Graffiti” (he’s the closest it comes to having a villain). The movie was a surprise hit, but it didn’t result in much of an improvement in his acting career. The producer of “American Graffiti,” Francis Ford Coppola, gave Ford small roles in his 1974 thriller “The Conversation” and in “Apocalypse Now” (Ford filmed his part in 1976, but the film wasn’t release until 1979, by which time he was already a star). But by 1976, carpentry had become his primary job (Coppola even hired him to do some carpentry work).
Luckily, Fred Roos wasn’t about to give up on Ford. A producer as well as the casting director on “The Godfather” and “American Graffiti,” Roos became a good friend of Ford and was always trying to help the actor’s career.
In 1976, Lucas was casting for his next film, “Star Wars.” His process was an interesting one: Rather than cast each actor individually, he wanted to see how they would do as a group. He’d have different groups of Leia, Luke and Han interact with each other. As it turned out, however, he had five Leias and five Lukes, but he only four Hans. In stepped Roos, letting Lucas know that Ford was available. So Lucas agreed to bring in Ford, but only for the sake of giving the Luke and the Leia of that group someone to read lines with (I don’t know who his initial group was, as I believe Lucas mixed and matched as he went along, wanting to see how the actors would work in different configurations).
In the aforementioned Reddit AMA, Ford recalled the situation: “I had helped George Lucas audition other actors for the principle [sic] parts, and with no expectation or indication that I might be considered for the part of Han, I was quite surprised when I was offered the part. My principle [sic] job at the time was carpentry.”
Ford had two big strikes against him going into the line-reading. The first was the most obvious: He had been brought in simply to read lines, not to audition for the part. The second was that Lucas was adamant about not re-using actors from “American Graffiti.” (It’s the same logic that led to resist casting Ford as Indiana Jones. Lucas didn’t want to have a stable of actors like, say, Martin Scorsese has a group of actors he works with a lot, like Robert De Niro.) Soon, though, at the urging of everyone around him (including his good friend, fellow director Steven Spielberg and, of course, Roos), Lucas began to seriously consider Ford for the role, as his line readings were continually better than the actors who were “really” auditioning for the role.
Here is a scene from an audition with Ford as Han and Mark Hamill as Luke:
Finally, Lucas decided to tentatively go with Ford for Han. Even after that decision, though, Lucas began to doubt himself and reconsidered another young actor who had auditioned, Christopher Walken. In the end, he decided to offer Ford the role, and the rest is film history.
The legend is…
Thanks to Harrison Ford: The Films by Brad Duke for the Ford quotes.
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