Harrison Ford Turns 80: From ‘Empire Strikes Back’ to ‘The Fugitive,’ His 10 Greatest Performances

Indiana Jones. Han Solo. Rick Deckard. They’re some of the most enduring characters in the history of Hollywood and Harrison Ford, who turns 80 on July 13, is responsible for bringing them all to the screen.

He’s one of the biggest box office stars of all time, having headlined Tiffany franchises such as Indiana Jones and Star Wars, and a few B+ series such as the Jack Ryan films. But Ford is also an accomplished actor, whose success is attributable to the way he grounds his characters in even the most fantastical situations. When Ford rode to the pinnacle of his fame in the 1980s, he was the antithesis of the steroidal action heroes on display in films like “Rambo: First Blood Part II” and “Predator.” Those heroes dispatched their enemies with cyborg-like efficiency. Ford’s characters always broke a sweat. They showed their fear. Indiana Jones may have prevailed, but you got the sense that he knew that with one false step it would have been his ass and not the Nazi mechanic getting shredded by the propeller in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Ford had the good sense to mix things up too. Indiana Jones and Star Wars made him bankable, but he used the clout to get edgier films like “” and “Indiana Jones” made. There were false steps along the way, of course. Missed opportunities, such as his boneheaded decision to pass on roles in “Traffic” and “Syriana,” and money grabs that were unworthy of his talent (sorry “Firewall” stans). But through it all, Ford has kept audiences entertained thanks to an alchemic combination of charm, humanity and heart, making him a true icon.

10

Morning Glory

This rom-com with Ford as a past-his-prime newscaster forced to shill on morning TV came and went when it was released in 2010. That’s a shame, because he’s at his crotchety best as a Indiana Jones reporter incongruously tasked with making frittatas on morning television. Rachel McAdams is the star, but Ford and Diane Keaton, as his daffy co-host, get the best zingers. Hearing Ford dismiss Keaton for getting a Pap smear on camera is worth the price of a rental alone.

9

What Lies Beneath

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Ford has made a career out of playing good guys, so it’s refreshing to see him break bad as a philandering professor with a devastating secret. Here, the actor shows the seedy underbelly of someone who, on the surface, seems like the picture perfect hubby. It’s a shame that Ford didn’t alternate his heroic roles with a few more meaty villains. Although he did reportedly pitch Martin Scorsese on letting him play Max Cady in “Cape Fear” — one of cinema’s greatest what ifs?

8

Witness

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Ford earned his first and only Oscar nomination for his understated work as a detective forced to hide out in Amish country with the family of a murder witness. When the movie opened in 1985, it demonstrated that Ford was an actor and a movie star. Watching him as Detective John Book, who against his better judgment begins to let his guard down as he falls in love with the mother of an Amish boy, is to be reminded of what a subtle, sensitive performer Ford can be under the right direction. He’d go on to collaborate with director Peter Weir to even greater effect on 1986’s “The Mosquito Coast,” but more on that later.

7

Presumed Innocent

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Another canny exploration of the darker recesses of the Ford persona. “Presumed Innocent” finds the actor as a talented prosecutor who is charged with investigating the murder of a colleague, who also happens to be his mistress. The twist ending is ludicrous, but watching Ford work all the angles up until the big reveal is nothing short of arresting. In a sign of just how much the movie business has changed in the last three decades, “Presumed Innocent,” a pitch-black thriller, was a huge blockbuster when it debuted in the summer of 1990.

6

Working Girl

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In another era, Ford could have given Cary Grant a run for his money as a romantic comedy lead. “Working Girl” belongs to Melanie Griffith as a secretary hoping to break into the c-suite, but Ford’s roguish businessman Jack Trainer provides the film with the necessary fizz. He’s a worthy object of Griffith’s and the audience’s affection.

5

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

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“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is more admired, and Ford did do the heavy lifting of establishing an iconic character in that 1981 adventure. But his portrayal of Indiana Jones ripened over the years and by the time “Last Crusade” rolled around in 1989 that signature fedora fit like a glove. And the third outing gives Ford a chance to flex his comedic chops — it helped that Tom Stoppard provided a witty polish to the script. Plus, Ford and Sean Connery, playing Indy’s strait-laced father, sparkle together, and there’s some genuine pathos in their estranged relationship. Why, oh why, didn’t the Indiana Jones series end on this high note? If it had, we would have been spared the 

4

Blade Runner

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Ridley Scott’s hard-boiled futuristic love story has been justifiably heralded as one of the greatest films of all time. But critics tend to focus on the sets and the production design, giving too much love to the rain-swept vision of urban life and not enough props to Ford’s performance as a former cop tasked with hunting down replicants. It’s the kind of grizzled role Humphrey Bogart would have played in an earlier era, and one that Ford embodies to world-weary perfection.

3

The Fugitive

THE FUGITIVE, Harrison Ford, 1993. ph: Steven Vaughan / ©Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection
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Tommy Lee Jones won the Oscar for portraying a Javert-like lawman, but Ford is equally impressive as Richard Kimbell, a surgeon unjustly convicted for murdering his wife. It’s an extraordinarily physical performance. He makes you feel the cracked ribs, sprained ankles, pulled muscles that Kimbell is battling as he races against time to find the real killer. And Ford’s work in the film’s initial scenes, as Kimbell alternates between grief over his wife’s savage death and outrage at being accused of the crime, ranks among his finest on screen. As for “The Fugitive,” it’s a taut, propulsive adventure that holds up remarkably well.

2

The Mosquito Coast

MOSQUITO COAST, Harrison Ford, 1986, (c)Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection
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Audiences weren’t ready to watch Ford go off the deep end when “The Mosquito Coast” opened in 1986. His Allie Fox, a brilliant inventor who moves his family into the jungle, was too off-putting, too narcissistic and deluded to watch unravel on screen. So the film collapsed at the box office and received only a half-hearted critical endorsement. But that’s a shame, because Ford digs deep into Fox’s heart of darkness and what he excavates is both frightening and unforgettable to behold

1.

The Empire Strikes Back

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Nothing in Ford’s canon can top Han Solo, the brash bootlegger who rediscovers his moral compass. And in “The Empire Strikes Back,” Ford has never been better, nailing every sarcastic aside and each longing glance at Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia. Their farewell just before Han gets frozen in carbonite ranks as the space opera franchise’s emotional highpoint. The first “Star Wars” may have established Ford as a movie star, but it was “The Empire Strikes Back” that made him a legend.

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