Fans can argue all day long over whether Han Solo or Indiana Jones is Harrison Ford’s most iconic role, but few would argue that Han Solo made him famous. That being the case, the idea that he got Han Solo by sheer luck may make some fans scratch their heads.
“It wasn’t just luck,” fans will protest. “He worked with George Lucas before Star Wars.” That’s true, but it wasn’t really how he got Han Solo. As is the case with many legendary stories, a little bit of serendipity is at play.
What did Harrison Ford do before ‘Star Wars?’
A talk show or two that had Ford as their guest has played a clip from Ford’s first movie called Dead Heat on a Merry Go Round. Released 11 years before Star Wars, the movie features an impossibly young Ford, all of 24 at the time, in a walk-on role as a bellhop.
It was such a small part that Ford wasn’t credited at all. He didn’t land a credit until the 1967 Western A Time for Killing.
Those two titles prompted reactions of “What?” and “never heard of it” even at the time. Suffice it to say Ford was hardly an overnight success. When Robin Williams won his Oscar for Good Will Hunting, he recalled that his father told him that going into acting was fine but “have a backup profession, like welding.”
And that’s just what Ford did. It looked like acting wasn’t going to pay the bills, so he took up carpentry. And it was his carpentry work, more than his acting work, that turned him into the ultimate scoundrel, despite his previous experience with George Lucas.
How did Harrison Ford land the role of Han Solo?
Han Solo may have made Ford famous, but it didn’t make Lucas famous. Lucas’s first hit was the 1973 film American Graffiti, about a wild night a group of teens have in 1962 with drag-racing romance and the like. The drag racing element was particularly important to Lucas, who was a car aficionado. Ford played a small but memorable part in that movie as a gruff “bad guy” racer who antagonizes the heroes.
Fans not unreasonably figure that Lucas must have remembered Ford from American Graffiti and cast Ford as Han Solo on that basis, but as Ranker notes, that’s not exactly how it went down, according to the book Star Wars Conquers the Universe, casting director Fred Roos knew that Ford was a carpenter, so Roos hired him to install a door at the studio.
“Harrison had done a lot of carpentry for me. He needed money, he had kids, he wasn’t a big movie star yet. The day he was doing it, George happened to be there. It was serendipitous,” Roos said.
Director Brian De Palma was preparing Carrie at the same time Lucas was preparing Star Wars, so the directors held their casting sessions at the same time, with actors reading for both movies. Ford turned out to have just the sort of insouciance that Lucas was looking for, and both their lives changed forever after.
Indiana Jones was a lucky get too
So since Ford got Han Solo and became an international superstar, Indiana Jones must have been an easy get too, right? Actually, no.
Even though George Lucas produced and co-wrote the story to Raiders of the Lost Ark, his first choice for the role was Tom Selleck. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, Selleck went on to do Magnum PI instead, although Selleck was philosophical about it.
“Look, I made a deal with Magnum and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m proud that I lived up to my contract, and some people said, ‘You’ve got to get into a car and drive into a brick wall and get injured and get out of Magnum and do this [Raiders].’ I said ‘I gotta look my mom and dad in the eye, and we don’t do that,’ so I did Magnum…that’s not so bad is it?” he told the BUILD series.
Ford would probably say the same about his roles.