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Harrison Ford and the movie machine

'Firewall' actor is meticulous about his work -- and his privacy

By Todd Leopold
CNN

Ford
Key roles -- and an Everyman quality -- have made Harrison Ford one of the most successful actors in history.

THE HARRISON FORD FILE

Born: July 13, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois

Age: 63

First movie role: "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round" (1966), uncredited; "A Time for Killing" (1967), credited as Harrison J. Ford

Television guest roles: "The Virginian," "The Mod Squad," "The F.B.I.," "Ironside," "Love, American Style," "Gunsmoke"

Noted movies: "American Graffiti" (1973), "The Conversation" (1974), "Star Wars" (1977), "Apocalypse Now" (1979), "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), "Return of the Jedi" (1983), "Witness" (1985), "Working Girl" (1988), "Presumed Innocent" (1990), "Patriot Games" (1992), "The Fugitive" (1993), "Air Force One" (1997), "What Lies Beneath" (2000)

In the works: "Manhunt," in which he plays a detective pursuing John Wilkes Booth; and -- though it's still a maybe -- "Indiana Jones 4," which the principals hope to get under way in 2007

Tidbits: Responsible for the "Raiders" scene in which Indiana Jones shot the Arab swordsman (Ford, feeling ill, wanted to do the scene quickly); once piloted his helicopter to rescue a hiker; the combined grosses of his movies are the second-highest of any actor in Hollywood history, after Tom Hanks.

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Once upon a time, Harrison Ford was a carpenter. By many accounts he was a good one, a meticulous craftsman much in demand among the filmmaking community -- including (the story goes) George Lucas, who hired him to build cabinets for his house, a role that eventually led to Ford being cast as Han Solo in "Star Wars."

But if Ford, once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the wealthiest actor alive, doesn't have to devote his time to carpentry anymore, he still speaks like someone who has taken "measure twice, cut once" to heart.

Except now the project he works on is himself.

"I'm engaged in a specific job, to tell a certain story, with a certain group of people, and the work is details. The work is problem solving. The work is steady application of your energy and intellect to the process," the actor says in an interview at an Atlanta hotel, there to promote his latest film, "Firewall."

"Firewall," for example, is a project Ford shepherded for 18 months before shooting began. He helped guide the script; he helped settle on a director. He made key decisions about his character -- Jack Stanfield, a security executive for a Seattle bank -- such as the house he lives in (a secluded, obviously custom-made manse) and the car he drives (a Chrysler 300C, now the subject of an ad campaign with the movie).

And asked if he would simply want to play a character, rather than take on producing roles, he demurs.

"It would be nice, but I would have to feel very, very comfortable with it," he says.

He told a "Firewall" screening audience he has little interest in independent films and the sorts of challenges they bring, and he obviously chooses his projects carefully. "The reality of the business is that it is, um, my face. I'm the one who's going to get blamed. ... Therefore I want to be responsible to myself and to the audience for the quality of what we're doing."

Emotional involvement

In person, Ford is as sturdy-looking as the Gary Cooper-esque characters he plays on the screen. At this interview he's dressed casually but neatly, a salt-and-pepper beard covering his weathered face, a silvery hoop earring in his left ear.

The beard and earring aren't part of Jack Stanfield, but the rest of Ford's persona is. In "Firewall," his security executive is ambushed by a group of thieves led by Bill Cox (Paul Bettany), who kidnap Jack's family in order to make Jack break into the bank's system. Cox wants Jack to transfer $100 million to them, a job complicated by the merger of Jack's bank with a larger financial conglomerate.

This being a Harrison Ford movie, Jack uses his own wiles to outsmart the thieves, and everything is eventually set right.

For Ford, the main draw to "Firewall" was the family in jeopardy.

"What prompts me [to do a film] is reading a script that I get emotionally involved in, that I think will be a good ride for the audience, that I think will give me something interesting to do," he says.

Though the merger complications could have led another film down a more intricate path -- the conglomerate's boss, played by Robert Patrick, serves as a foil for part of "Firewall" -- Ford says he wasn't interested in that side of the story. "The emotional story lies with a family, not with the merger of a bank," he says dismissively. "That really is just a detail in the plot. ... Once the merger is taking place, I have very little interest in the details of that."

He has equal distaste for the interest of Hollywood gossip magazines in his personal life. Responding to a stray inquiry -- that he'd purchased property near "Firewall's" Vancouver, British Columbia, location for $13 million -- he pounces before the question is even finished.

"Rubbish. Typical rubbish," he says. "Something that appeared in the local newspaper and just went on and on and on. I kept telling people it wasn't true, which of course didn't make any difference."

Doesn't that kind of false tidbit get under his skin, though?

"Nope," he replies. "Doesn't bother me at all. It's just -- fact. Just the way it is."

'Process'

Though polite, he seems equally uncomfortable with the "Firewall" press tour, the sort of multicity grind now required of major motion picture participants.

"This is a new fact of life in the movie business," he shrugs.

Sometimes he appears -- perhaps understandably -- weary with a question, and his voice trails off. In one case, it sounds eerily like the computer HAL 9000 in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

He's also guarded about the new Indiana Jones film, which has been rumored to be in the offing.

"Well, it hasn't been announced yet," he says. "And the script goes through a process: George [Lucas] is the initiator, then it goes to Steven [Spielberg], and then Steven and I work together. ... But we're hoping it will get up and going very soon."

But Ford, even at 63, feels ready for the challenge. "Indiana Jones changes just like everybody else," he told The Associated Press. "I don't have any issues with that, and I still feel physically adequate to faking it just like I've been doing for 30 years. I'm looking forward to it. It's good fun."

"Fun," in fact, is what keeps him in the movie business -- despite the press tours, despite the years to bring a film to the screen, despite the changing colors of script pages being rewritten on location. Ford may have plenty of money, he may fly helicopters and relax at his Wyoming ranch, but a film set is still a special place, he says.

"We're playing with the big toys here," he says. "It's fun. It's great. You get to work with very talented people and do something that's hard."

So he has no plans to go back to full-time carpentry?

A laugh creeps into Ford's voice. "Are you out of your mind?" he says.

"Firewall" is a Warner Bros. film. Warner Bros., like CNN, is a division of Time Warner.

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