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Harrison Ford

True to life

Harrison Ford stars as Capt. Alexei Vostrikov and Liam Neeson is Capt. Mikhail Polenin in "K-19: The Widowmaker."  

Harrison Ford stays true, strong despite epic acting career

(CNN) -- An intrepid pilot, known to sweep in and rescue people stranded in the Wyoming wilderness.

A rugged, attractive and much-sought-after bachelor, with a slender, starlet girlfriend almost 23 years younger than he is.

A skilled carpenter, handy with a saw. A hardy outdoorsman and owner of an 800-acre ranch. A man of few words, great pride and the tremendous respect of his peers.

Need more proof that Harrison Ford is a man's man, an all-American male? Just watch his movies.

Ford has made an indelible mark on American cinema for parts of the last four decades with his on-screen machismo and gruff, subtle sensitivity.

From the blustery star-pilot Han Solo of "Star Wars" fame to the adventurous Indiana Jones, his portrayals of swashbuckling yet vulnerable, multi-dimensional heroes have spawned legions of fans and some of the best-grossing films of all time.

Ford tries to recapture that magic this summer, playing an intense nuclear sub commander in the Paramount release, "K-19: The Widowmaker."

Today, even as a reclusive 60-year-old grandfather, he remains a leading man in the eyes of Hollywood executives and movie audiences -- male and female, young and old, all around the world.

"He's a movie star in the same sense that Gary Cooper was a movie star, or Humphrey Bogart," said actor Brian Dennehy, who starred opposite Ford in the 1990 film, "Presumed Innocent."

"They're tough, reliable, substantial people. Genuine American alpha males."

Building a career -- literally

Growing up in suburban Chicago, Harrison Ford was hardly a tough, unbeatable force like the character of CIA stalwart Jack Ryan from "Patriot Games" or terrorist-toppling president James Marshall in "Air Force One."

In fact, Ford says he was shy when he was young and often pushed around by his bigger classmates.

Ford was still looking for direction when he entered Wisconsin's Ripon College in 1960. He found his legs on stage -- and his calling in life -- after enrolling in a drama class.

"I had a degree of success in college and people spoke kindly of my efforts," said the ever-understated Ford.

He left Ripon before getting a college degree. He then married his former classmate Mary Marquardt and worked as a summer-stock performer at a local theater, where he acted before moving to southern California in fall 1964.

Ford quickly landed a part in a play at the Laguna Beach Playhouse, but thereafter mostly found frustration after being turned down for numerous roles.

Desperate to make ends meet, he began working as a carpenter -- learning the trade primarily from how-to-books. It was also during this period that a minor car accident left Ford with his trademark scar.

Ford got a break in 1966, signing a seven-year, $150/week contract after auditioning with Columbia's director of new talent.

Unimpressed by Ford's portrayal of a bellhop in the film "From Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round," the executive freed Ford from the contract and the actor inked a new pact with Universal Studios -- this one for $250 a week.

But it wasn't long before the actor tired of his small roles in TV shows such as "Gunsmoke" and yearned for something more.

"I was wearing out my face doing episodic television playing the same character over and over again ... usually an innocent or someone falsely accused or the younger, more sensitive brother," Ford recalled.

Ford as Han Solo in the 1977 blockbuster, "Star Wars."  

The action hero takes over

In 1970, Ford signed with agent Patricia McQueeney, who found him an appealing if difficult talent to represent.

"Harrison has so much dignity that he did not like being humiliated at all. So he was cranky all the time," says McQueeney. "He would go out on appointments and scare the casting directors to death."

Ford's career stalled. He turned down many offers, deciding to continue with carpentry rather than take undesirable parts.

His persistence paid off in 1973, when he played ill-tempered drag racer Bob Falfa in George Lucas' coming-of-age comedy-drama "American Graffiti."

His film career revived again in 1977, when Ford played the reckless but heroic Han Solo in "Star Wars." McQueeney recalled the audience at the movie's premiere being "dumbstruck because [the film] was so good."

"Harrison came over to me and said, 'Patricia, this is an absolute miracle,'" she says. "Because he knew, as I did, that movie was going to kick his career off into another plane."

On cue, Ford's profile steadily increased as he took a comedic spin in "The Frisco Kid" and reprised his Han Solo role in "The Empire Strikes Back." The career demands, however, took a toll on his marriage, and Ford divorced Marquardt in 1979.

Two years later, the actor took center stage for himself -- and his career took off -- when he appeared as professor/action hero Indiana Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the first of three Stephen Spielberg movies based around the character. A fourth Indiana Jones movie is to be released in 2005.

An intellect and adventurer, macho yet vulnerable ("Why did it have to be snakes?"), facing perils while maintaining his sense of humor, the character showcased Ford's wit, gritty but likable demeanor and unassuming nature.

"The character of Indiana Jones gave me the opportunity to express the enthusiasm that that character had for life -- the challenges, intellectual and physical -- that he found along the way," says Ford.

"I never considered myself indomitable, but I knew how to pretend it. I never thought myself brave, but I knew how to represent it."

Ford's personal life hit a high in 1983 when he wed screenwriter Melissa Mathison, buoyed by the success of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" one year later.

Perhaps his biggest professional achievement came in 1985 when he earned his first and only Oscar nomination in "Witness," playing a conflicted Philadelphia cop hiding out in Amish country from corrupt members of the city's police department.

Ford began the 1990's with a role as a lawyer-turned-suspect in the courtroom thriller "Presumed Innocent," then as a lawyer-turned-sensitive soul in the drama "Regarding Henry."

But his trademark remained action movies, as he reminded viewers again in 1989's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and 1992's "Patriot Games," his first take as the CIA hero created by best-selling author Tom Clancy.

His performance as a man evading police while searching for his wife's killers helped make "The Fugitive" one of 1993's most successful films.

After earning his fourth Golden Globe nomination for his role in the 1995 romance "Sabrina," Ford won a People's Choice Award for acting presidential in thwarting a terrorist plot in 1997's "Air Force One."

Ford as Indiana Jones and Sean Connery as Jones' father, Professor Henry Jones, get tied up in "The Last Crusade."  

The next Sean Connery?

With film after film raking in millions, few could rival Ford's popularity in the late 1990s. A USA Today survey tabbed him the nation's favorite actor and PEOPLE magazine chose him as "Sexiest Man Alive" in 1998, and the American Film Institute gave Ford its lifetime achievement award two years later.

But as his fame grew, Ford increasingly shirked the spotlight. While others attended premieres or parties, Ford was more likely to don a disguise before setting out in New York City, retreat to his Wyoming ranch or take off in his helicopter.

"He's generally a very private man who ... picks his friends very carefully," said Ivan Reitman, who directed Ford in the 1998 comedy "Six Days, Seven Nights."

Despite his reticence, Ford promotes his movies on the interview circuit "with as much grace and efficiency as I can muster" when his movies come out. And he is unfailingly kind to fans -- or, as Ford calls them, "my customers, the people who are supporting my life."

"I've always found him to be incredibly gracious and polite with people I would frankly like to throttle," says Kristin Scott Thomas, Ford's co-star in the 1999 romance, "Random Hearts."

"His friends also describe Ford as a family man, proud of and close to his four children. But his devotion to family could not save his second marriage to Mathison, with location shoots far from home and other absences contributing to the relationship's demise. Despite repeated attempts to make it work, the couple separated in 2001.

But Ford soon found love again, spending most of 2002 coupled with Calista Flockhart, the 37-year-old star of "Ally McBeal."

"They're very much a couple," says PEOPLE magazine senior editor Anne-Marie O'Neill. "Their friends say that they are clearly in love with each other."

Harrison Ford and actress Calista Flockhart arrive at the premiere of "K-19: The Widowmaker" in Los Angeles on July 15, 2002.  

Flockhart, admittedly, is not the only woman to have been smitten by Ford. Even after turning 60 on July 13, Ford is still only four years removed from his "Sexiest Man Alive" honor and one of Hollywood's most bankable actors. And Ford has no plans to call it a career anytime soon.

"I have not found anything in my life, other than flying, that presents me with the kinds of opportunities and challenges and mental stimulation that acting does," he says.

Ford says he hopes to emulate Sean Connery, who has remained an action star and sex symbol into his 70s. Given his star power and durability, few doubt Ford's ability to remain a presence in Hollywood for a long time.

"If Harrison Ford picks the right roles and plays it right, he will be the next ... sexy geezer star," says PEOPLE's movie expert Leah Rozen.

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