By J.D. Reed
November 16, 1998 12:00 PM

On a recent afternoon in Bethesda, Md., where he’s filming scenes for next summer’s romantic drama Random Hearts, Harrison Ford was graciously signing autographs when a gaggle of blushing teenage girls approached. Awkward and awestruck, one called out, “Are you still a sex object?” Ford looked at her with that lopsided killer of a smile and arched an eyebrow. “Still?” he asked.

Yes, still. Whether he likes to admit it or not, Ford is one intriguingly—and enduringly—sexy package: the green-gray eyes, the slept-on hair, the endearing scar on the chin. His slightly battered, comfortable face and the suggestion of bemused wit that animates it have launched countless fantasies in the darkness of movie theaters.

He is America’s most durable action hero: whip-cracking adventurer Indiana Jones, wisecracking space rogue Han Solo, flag-waving CIA agent Jack Ryan—even Quinn Harris, the bristly bush pilot of Six Days, Seven Nights. And he’s adorable, to boot. “Everybody is goo-goo-eyed over Harrison,” says Melanie Griffith, his costar in 1988’s Working Girl. “He’s just so handsome and sweet and elegant and cool and macho.” Air Force One‘s Wendy Crewson couldn’t agree more. “It’s the imperfections on that otherwise perfect face that press my buttons,” says Crewson, citing Ford’s scar (the result of a car accident some 30 years ago) and “carpenter hands” among her favorite features. Or as Witness costar Kelly McGillis puts it: “He’s not a pretty boy.”

Indeed not. And no one seems bothered by the fact that he’s a weathered but wondrous 56, an age at which most sex symbols have hung up their spurs and reached for their golf clubs. “My daughter loves him from Star Wars, I adore him, my mother adores him, my grandmother adores him,” says Crewson. “He just spans the generations.” MacKenzie Phillips concurs. She was 12 when she worked with Ford in 1973’s American Graffiti, and now, at 39, still recalls the first time she saw his chiseled brow peeking out from beneath that cowboy hat. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, he’s so cute,’ ” she says. “I didn’t look at him and think, ‘Wow, he’s so old, like my dad.’ I thought, ‘If only I were 17, I might have a shot.’ ”

Ford himself doesn’t get it—or at least does a masterful job of pretending he doesn’t. “Why this sudden outpouring for geezers?” he quips when informed of his selection as PEOPLE’S 1998 Sexiest Man Alive. “I never feel sexy. I have a distant relationship with the mirror.” And he delights in pointing out his own flaws. Sitting in a Washington, D.C., hotel room on a recent afternoon, Ford lifts his upper lip with a slightly ragged fingernail and points to his four top front teeth. “They’re not real,” he says. “I fell on my gun in a Gunsmoke episode about 25 years ago and knocked them out. I’ve got a completely imbalanced, irregular face and a nose that’s been broken three or four times. One eye is higher than the other. When people photograph me, they have to kind of twist the lights around to make me look like a movie actor.”

If he says so. But it isn’t good lighting that has allowed Ford’s films to gross more than $2 billion and put five of them among the top 30 moneymakers of all time. So what makes women—and men—keep buying tickets to see the 6-foot actor save a life, a country, a lady? “Mel Gibson is too perfect. Arnold Schwarzenegger is too well-endowed,” Patriot Games director Phillip Noyce once told The Washington Post. “But Harrison Ford is the way we would be, if we could be our most heroic selves.”

Fortunately he’s a hero with a sense of humor. During the making of American Graffiti, Ford was one of the “resident rowdies,” recalls costar Candy Clark. “They stayed up late, drank beer and did silly things like put beer bottles on top of the revolving Holiday Inn sign.” On movie sets he’s notorious for cracking jokes or even mooning the camera. And while filming Sabrina in 1995, he tried to persuade the prop crew to replace the plastic glasses costar Greg Kinnear sat on with real ones. “He has this mysterious shroud around him, yet when you get to know him, you find he doesn’t take himself too seriously,” says Kinnear. “He can have a good time and joke around.”

In fact, Ford is much happier on the set hanging out and bantering with the crew than hitting the cell phone or the champagne in his trailer. “He’s very manly,” says his Fugitive costar Sela Ward, “the kind of man you feel would protect you no matter what, a guy who could fix things or build you a table. Women love that.” Ford, who stays in shape playing tennis, also performs most of his own physical scenes, which has resulted in abrasions, separations, cracks and breaks that only seem to add to his aura. “I like running, jumping and falling down, or fighting or rolling around with people,” he admits. “Whatever is on for the day.”

That unaffectedness is a turn-on for Anne Archer, who played his wife in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. “He’s a hero type, but not unattainable,” she says. “He feels like a real person. There’s nothing that makes a man sexier to a woman than to realize that he’s a good guy. Harrison’s a very good guy.”

Loyal, too. In an industry where stars change handlers at the drop of a headline, Ford has kept the same manager, Patricia McQueeney, for 28 years and will go out of his way to help a friend. When Patriot Games producer Mace Neufeld lost his wife, Helen, to cancer in 1995, Ford flew across the country for the funeral. “That’s who Harrison is,” says Neufeld. “He’s the guy who would see someone being robbed or a kid running in front of a car, and without thinking, he’d go after it. He’s shy and guarded, but he’s a really good friend.”

The 20-million-dollar man (his price per film) is no slouch in the smooching department either. His leading ladies like to tell tales about the magic moment when their lips met his. “A great kisser,” raves Lesley-Anne Down, his costar in 1979’s Hanover Street. And Griffith admits she welcomed the technical problems on the Working Girl set that forced her to reshoot her love scenes with Ford: “I was like, no problem, let me get back in that bed with Harrison.” Which helps explain why Karen Allen still laments missing her chance for a full-fledged buss. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ford asks Allen to kiss his bumps and bruises “to make them all better,” she says. “So I’m kissing him, and I go to kiss him on the lips, and he passes out! I got ripped off!”

Women weren’t always lining up to sample the wares. The oldest son of actor-turned-advertising-executive Christopher Ford and home-maker Dorothy, Ford grew up in Park Ridge, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, with his brother Terence, now 53, also an actor. A member of the class of ’60 at Maine Township High School East, he participated in few sports or theatrics and wasn’t exactly a dream date. “He was a tall, skinny kid with long legs,” recalls classmate Marilyn Fox Spiegel, now a marketing executive in Encino, Calif. “He pushed around the audio-visual stuff.”

But Spiegel also remembers Harry, as he was known then, having a “quiet self-confidence and wry sense of humor,” which he worked to best advantage. “The girls were sympathetic to me because, the guys were throwing me off the hill every day at recess,” he says. And as classmate Karen Anderson Miller, a federal housing manager in Reading, Pa., recalls, “When we were graduating, he was elected the boy with the biggest line. I think it meant pickup lines.”

Although he began performing in plays at Wisconsin’s Ripon College, Harry Ford was still no irresistible force. “Obviously he’s very handsome,” says Chicago consumer-marketing executive Bill Haljun, Ford’s roommate at the Sigma Nu fraternity house. “But he was also kind of shy. He wasn’t a chick magnet.” Ford did attract fellow student Mary Marquardt. Married in 1964, they set off for Hollywood, where Ford worked as a carpenter while trying to make it as an actor. “They were a wonderful couple,” says Carole Cole, Nat King Cole’s daughter and a friend of the Fords at the time. “Harrison had almost the stereotypical artist’s temperament—he wanted to do things his way—and Mary provided a very solid foundation.” Even so, the couple divorced in 1979 after having two children, Benjamin, now 32 and a chef, and Willard, 29, a teacher and the father of Eliel, 2. Ford won’t discuss the breakup, except to say, “I was young and impatient, and I was a lot angrier, and that made it difficult.”

These days, Ford claims he has mellowed. Married to screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; Kundun) for the past 15 years, he mostly shuns the limelight in favor of the Upper West Side Manhattan apartment they share with their children Malcolm, 11, and Georgia, 8-with restorative trips to their 800-acre spread in Jackson Hole, Wyo. “They’re not in the celebrity-ocrisy,” says Random Hearts novelist and Jackson Hole neighbor Warren Adler. “They’re family people.”

Although he prefers to keep details of the union private—”We enjoy our life together, nothing much more to say”—Ford takes care to tend the romance. He never forgets their anniversary and insists that the most important things a man and woman can share are “devotion and commitment. I have a romantic vision of life,” he says. “I’m romantic about everything, in that I really hope for the best.”

And while his steady stream of female admirers can be disconcerting (“I’ve watched women on the street become paralyzed with thrill,” says Alan Pakula, who directed Ford in Presumed Innocent and The Devil’s Own), the couple have found ways to cope. “Melissa is so cool about him—nothing fazes her,” says Melanie Griffith. The star himself usually opts for ducking. Innocent costar Bonnie Bedelia remembers walking with Ford in 1990, when he spotted two women approaching. “He just grabbed hold of me and pulled me into a doorway,” she says with a laugh. “And by way of explanation he said, ‘They look like screamers.’ ”

Now if only he could figure out why they scream. “God knows, I don’t know what ladies like,” he says. “I think it has to do with movies I have made and people’s impressions. It has to do with being allowed into someone’s emotional world over a long period of time.”

Ford attributes his lasting success in part to his lack of trendiness: “I’m like old shoes. I’ve never been hip. I think the reason I’m still here is that I was never enough in fashion that I had to be replaced by something new.” He has made one small concession to changing times—the addition last year of a single earring in his left lobe. But he shrugs off any special significance. “I don’t think in and of themselves earrings are sexy,” he says. “If I did, I’d have six of them.”