From College to Contract Player to Carpentry
‘My job is pretending to be Indiana Jones, or whoever, and I consider personal information about me can only water down the illusion.’ Harrison Ford
Harrison Ford has a reputation for being a very private man, and he has spoken little in public of his early life, often responding sharply when asked a question by a journalist he deems too personal. ‘I was raised in Chicago,’ said Ford once in a rare moment of self-revelation. ‘Nothing too remarkable there. Just the usual. Baseball, fooling around with cars. I was a loner type. Not very active in sports. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was a kid.’
Harrison Ford was born on July 13th 1942 of an Irish Catholic father, Christopher Ford (born John William Ford) and a Russian Jewish mother, Dorothy Nidelman (born Dora Nidelman). His father had started his working life in Vaudeville, the same as his father. But by the 1930s the American music hall was in terminal decline as radio and movies rose to become the staple entertainment of the mass market. Ford Sr cannily moved into radio, joining the Federation of Radio Actors in 1938. But within three years he’d changed careers, and became writer at WENR Chicago, though his resonant, baritone voice meant that he still did a fair bit of voice-over work.
Harrison Ford’s unusual given name came from his maternal grandfather, Harry Nidelman – ‘I think it’s Yiddish for “son of Harry”,’ Ford joked in 1994. His childhood was middle-class and uneventful, though he deliberately avoided trouble by calling himself ‘Harry’ rather than ‘Harrison’. By his own admission he was not an outstanding scholar. Loner he may have been, but he showed no special interest in the traditional pursuits of loners. No long hours with his nose buried in books. No solitary Saturday afternoons immersed in the adventures of John Wayne at the neighbourhood cinema.
‘I didn’t spend much time at the movies,’ he told an interviewer, ‘I’m not a scholar of Bogart’s mannerisms, so I miss a lot of the film references that people like Spielberg and Lucas toss around.’
Given that Ford’s father had strong ties to acting and the entertainment industry, it might seem strange there were few games of ‘dress up and make believe’ in Ford’s childhood. In fact his earliest ambition was to be a coalman. ‘My dad would get all dressed up, go to work, come home, sit at the dinner table and bitch like crazy about those bastards at work,’ said Ford. By comparison, Ford Jr thought the life of a coalman seemed far more attractive. ‘He didn’t go home at night and tell his wife how uncooperative the coal was.’ The idea of acting didn’t occur to him until much later on.
In 1948, Christopher Ford changed jobs again. He joined a growing ad agency, Needham, Louis and Brorby. With the War firmly behind them, Americans were demanding more and more in the way of luxury goods. And it looked like the new-fangled television was just the way for manufacturers to sell their products to a hungry public. By the mid-1950s, Ford was a manager at NL&B and was earning enough to move his family from the inner city to the suburb of Morton Grove.
The 12 year old Harry Ford attended MS Meltzer Junior High on Ballard Street and almost immediately ran into trouble with some of the tougher kids at the school. Every day he was taken to the top of a hill by these kids and pushed down it.
‘They weren’t so much beatings as exercises in ritual humiliation,’ Ford recalls. ‘It wasn’t important that I suffer physically, just that I not think that I was the equal of my mates. I knew the ritual had a form and a shape to it, and that it was far more efficient just to tumble down the hill in a satisfying way and then make my way up, rather than have to fight those guys to get back into the parking lot.’
The point of these indignities was never explained, but Ford had an idea of why he was being punished. ‘They might have sensed an underlying arrogance that they didn’t want to allow to blossom,’ he said. ‘That probably came from the distance at which I held myself from people. And still do.’
In 1956, Ford moved on the Maine East High School, one of the highest achieving high schools in America at the time. As he’d done at Meltzer, young Harry contrived to keep a low profile. He wasn’t athletic and confined his activities to the more nerdy pursuits, like the model railway club and the audiovisual club and, through that, became involved in the school’s amateur radio station, WMTH, though as a technician rather than as ‘talent’. In the meantime Christopher Ford’s star was still in the ascendant at the Needham agency and the family moved to a larger house in a better neighbourhood, North Ridge, in 1957.
Some of Ford Sr’s work ethic must have rubbed off on Harry, as he had a string of part- time jobs during his teenage years. ‘My parents came through the Depression and we were taught to believe that we were not entitled to comfort,’ Ford explained.
One of his first jobs was as a cook on a luxury yacht. He found his recipes in a copy of The Joy of Cooking that his mother had given to him and tells a story about how cooking a meal for his employers on a very choppy lake while feeling hopelessly seasick, ‘was probably the most heroic thing I’ve ever done.’
His longest running job was at the Evening Pipe Store, which specialized in pipes and special blends of tobacco. It was here that Harry took up smoking, a habit he’s not been able to kick.
From Maine East High, Harrison Ford went on to Ripen College in North Wisconsin, a liberal arts college that didn’t have too stringent entry requirements, following in the footsteps of another alumnus Spencer Tracy. He spent the best part of three years studying English and Philosophy, but with ever-diminishing results. Casting around for some way to boost his grades – failure was unthinkable with his father shelling out the best part of $2000 a year in tuition fees – Harry Ford approached the drama professor Philip Bergstrom and was accepted onto the course. Ford was beginning to lose his babyface looks and his voice was deepening as he matured. He was cast as the lead in The Threepenny Opera at the college theatre, The Red Barn. For Ford, it was a turning point.
An unexpected bonus of becoming involved in the campus drama scene was that suddenly, Ford had access to girls. He began seeing a girl called Mary Lee Franke who’d been in The Threepenny Opera with him, but as Mary Lee was ‘pinned’ to another boy (college-speak for ‘going steady’), the pair had to meet in secret.
As Harry entered his final year at college, he wasn’t able to muster the energy to be interested in getting a degree in Philosophy. ‘I would sleep for four or five days at a time,’ he recounted in 1994. ‘There was one class I never went to. I remember once when I slept for seven days and finally roused myself got myself out of bed, managed to get dressed – this seemed to be taking an intense effort – and actually made it to class. All of this seemed to be happening in slow motion. I even put my hand on the door of the classroom, but I seemed unable to turn the doorknob. So I let it go and went back to sleep.’ To me this sounds less like bone idleness and more like a bout of depression, though no mention of any such condition has ever surfaced in any other accounts of Ford’s youth. Despite all this, Harry Ford started seeing a new girlfriend in November 1963, Mary Louise Marquardt. Friends and teachers all seemed surprised as Ford was, by this time, something of a star on campus, and Mary was a quite sober and studious girl. But for some reason, the two very quickly became inseparable and the romance began to get serious.
By mid-1964, Ford’s combined Philosophy/English degree was in serious doubt. ‘Suddenly I discovered that I had no idea how I was going to make a living in those two areas, so I just stopped going to classes – they kicked me out a few days before graduation.’ Three days before graduation to be precise. ‘Bounced in academic disgrace, much to the embarrassment of my parents, who had made a reservation at a motel in town for the ceremony.’
Christopher Ford was far from happy to find out that after spending $8000 on his son’s education, there would be no graduation for young Harrison. ‘My parents had paid for four years of education and at the end of it there was no degree, ‘ said Ford. ‘It was not taken lightly.’
Ejected from the protected existence of college life, Ford found himself face to face with the real world. So he took two momentous decisions. He would marry Mary that summer and pursue a career on the stage.
‘It was important to be able to announce to people what I was going to do with my life, even if it was only to say the thing that appalled them most,’ said Ford later. ‘It proceeded naturally enough from the fact that I wasn’t going to graduate from college. Now I was off on an adventure, with no sense really of what the odds were because I never knew anybody who was in that work. I don’t think my family thought it was going to work out, but they never discouraged me. Discouragement was something I was always happy to have. Some resistance, you know?’
Where others might have struggled, Harry had little difficulty finding work as an actor, even in Wisconsin. ‘I decided to stick to acting, with drawing room comedy in mind. So I did one season of summer stock (the American equivalent of repertory) immediately after college, in Williams Bay. That’s a resort community on the shores of Lake Geneva. Not the Swiss one, the one in Wisconsin.’
It was the old Ford luck that led to his engagement with the Williams Bay Repertory Company. The Company had taken on three ‘resident actors’, talented youngsters who were to serve a kind of apprenticeship through the summer season. One of these young actors had let the company down and the Company director William Fucik needed a replacement. He asked around if anyone knew of a local young actor who might make an adequate replacement and Harry Ford’s name came up.
More to follow >>