Carpenter to Han Solo—Star Wars' Impact on Harrison Ford's Career

Ford’s Han Solo holds off Imperial troops in a scene from A New Hope. The 1994 special edition of the film added an additional scene of Ford’s Solo talking with Jabba the Hutt. SCREENPROD/PHOTONONSTOP/ALAMY

This article, and others about Harrison Ford and his iconic roles, are featured in Newsweek's special edition, Harrison Ford—50 Years of Hollywood's Greatest Hero.

With the exception of a small, supporting role in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation in 1974, Harrison Ford hadn't landed a role in years. The erstwhile actor had returned his focus to carpentry, and while he was always seeking new opportunities in Hollywood, he wasn't in a rush to throw away his time and energy on a job that wasn't worth it.

It was while working a job at Coppola's offices at Goldwyn Studios that opportunity walked in. "I came in and I worked for a couple days, and I was working late," Ford told Rolling Stone in a 2015 interview. "You know, finishing up the last of it, when George Lucas came in with Richard Dreyfuss. I spent a few minutes chatting with them, and that was it." Except Ford and Lucas were far from finished. Casting agent Fred Roos later asked Ford to help Lucas with auditions for Star Wars by reading with the actors lining up to work on the space opera. "I read with more than 100 actors," Ford continues in the interview. "The story that I know is that there were two threesomes that they narrowed it down to, and I was in one of them. I had no idea that that was a potential situation. They asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said, 'Sure, why not?' "

Anyone who had done even cursory reading on the making of the Star Wars saga knows the role of the cocky Corellian smuggler might have gone to Christopher Walken, Tom Selleck or Kurt Russell. It's impossible to know how any of those actors would have fared in a galaxy far, far away, but what is certain is Ford's grounded performance makes Lucas's fantastical story of space samurai work. Ford brings a mix of braggadocious and beleaguered traits to Solo that adds some much-needed humor to the absolute earnestness of A New Hope. Anyone dubious of Ford's importance to the Star Wars saga should revisit the prequel trilogy, which lacks characters providing levity of any kind (no, Jar-Jar does not count). As Ford told James Lipton in an episode of Inside the Actors Studio, "I saw [Solo] in relationship to the other two characters, and the character Alec Guinness played. Then I read the script, and I recognized the smart ass I was to be. It was clear to me... what utility there was to Han Solo to the story."

While Han Solo may look like he's having the most fun on the big screen, Ford recalls in his interview with Lipton, the making of A New Hope had its fair share of bumps on the road to success. "I thought we would make motion picture history if we just got through it. It was grueling and difficult and strange." Lucas and the rest of the men and women working behind the scenes were all competent professionals, but they had never attempted to make anything of the scope of A New Hope, which included state-of- the-art special effects, elaborate costumes and extensive shooting in the Tunisian desert. Even an actor as game and easy to work with as Ford occasionally lost his cool, famously telling Lucas, "George, you can type this shit, but you can't say it!"

Any doubts Ford or the other actors may have harbored about their labors being worth the effort were erased when A New Hope (then titled simply as Star Wars) came together and changed cinema forever. Ford would never again enjoy the comforts of anonymity, as the space opera made him one of the most famous faces in the world. The fame and popularity certainly didn't distract Ford when he returned to the Han Solo role in The Empire Strikes Back. The sequel's plot challenged Ford and his costars to make audiences care about their characters beyond being special effects delivery systems. "The story is not so much about [the conflict between the Rebels and the Empire] in the second one as it is about the characters," Ford said in an interview with the Today show shortly before Empire's release.

Viewers can see the actor rise to the challenge in the scenes showing Solo and Leia falling in love, and how the self-assured pilot struggles to keep his friends safe in the face of overwhelming adversity. And it's Ford who carries the movie's best scene not involving a paternity reveal, answering Leia's declaration of love with a simple, "I know." While the two words weren't ad-libbed in the moment (as has sometimes been claimed), they did result from Ford workshopping the scene with director Irvin Kershner. "We kept trying different things and couldn't get the right line," Kershner told Vanity Fair in 2010. "We were into the lunch break, and I said to Harrison try it again and just do whatever comes to mind. That is when Harrison said the line, 'I know.' After the take, I said to my assistant director, David Tomblin, 'It's a wrap.' "

The decision to give Han Solo a frozen time-out at the end of Empire wasn't purely for artistic reasons. Unlike Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, Ford was only under contract to act in two Star Wars movies. And also unlike Hamill and Fisher, Ford commanded the fame and opportunities to make his return in the third part of the trilogy an open question. "When I suggested to George we should bring him back [for Return of the Jedi], I distinctly remember him saying that Harrison would never return," producer Howard Kazanjian told the website Star Wars Interviews. Lucas's prediction turned out to be wrong, and Ford came back to the franchise that made him a star—with some controversial ideas about where to take the character.

"I thought the best utility of the character would be for him to sacrifice himself to a high ideal and give a little bottom, a little gravitas to the enterprise," Ford later said in an interview with Conan O'Brien. "Not that there wasn't some already, but I just wanted in on some part of it." The actor would have to wait a few decades to get his wish, as Han remains alive as Return of the Jedi comes to a close. By the end of the trilogy, Han Solo gets to enjoy fame as a war hero—and Harrison Ford reaped the benefits of playing not just a great character, but in helping create a global icon.

This article, written by Senior Editor James Ellis, was excerpted from Newsweek's special edition, Harrison Ford — 50 Years of Hollywood's Greatest Hero. For more on Harrison Ford's legacy, pick up a copy today.

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