By Karen S. Schneider
August 04, 1997 12:00 PM

HARRISON FORD IS NOT QUITE the straight arrow he seems. Yes, he believes in hard work, discipline and fixing his own leaky faucets. But he’s an inveterate prankster. And then there’s that gold loop hanging from his left ear lobe. It seems that after a recent Manhattan lunch with two old buddies—singer Jimmy Buffett and 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley—the Force of Male Bonding was with him. “We all had the same phones and watches,” Ford recalls. “But I realized I didn’t have an earring like they did.” That afternoon, he and his wife of 14 years, screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial), ducked into Claire’s Accessories, a boutique on New York City’s Lexington Avenue, and he emerged with his left ear pierced. “I didn’t have anything to drink, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he adds with a gruff laugh. Eighteen-year-old employee Tavora Escossery, who performed the impromptu piercing, recalls that Ford “didn’t flinch, and when it was done, he said, ‘That didn’t hurt.’ ” Afterward he signed a notepad: “To Tavora. You made a hole in me. Harrison Ford.” Explains the actor: “I’ve just always wanted a pierced ear.”

So what took him so long? Two decades after he first battled Darth Vader as cocky space warrior Han Solo in 1977’s Star Wars, Ford, who turned 55 on July 13, doesn’t have to wait for what he wants. He has transformed his regular-fella-forced-into-heroics swagger into more than $2 billion worth of box office receipts (a feat that earned him the Star of the Century title from the National Association of Theater Owners in 1994). Yes, there have been bumps along the way, but what’s one Sabrina compared with three stints as Han Solo, a trio of Indiana Jones films and The Fugitive, which add up to seven of the 30 top-grossing films of all time? (Star Wars, just shy of $461 million, is No. 1.) For Ford, getting his way—flying his single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza across the country (he earned his pilot’s license last year)—or getting good reviews (for his role as a U.S. President who fights Kazakhstan terrorist hijackers in Air Force One) is all in a day’s work.

A serious day’s work, mind you. “Harrison,” says Ford’s friend James Earl Jones, who worked with him in two Tom Clancy thrillers, Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), “takes his work very seriously and expects everyone to do the same.” And as actress Glenn Close discovered at a 50th-birthday party for the actual President of the United States in Jackson Hole, Wyo., last August, perfectionist Ford leaves nothing to chance.

Close recalls that “during dinner, Harrison came over, knelt down on Clinton’s left, leaned over literally across the President’s plate and said to me, ‘Would you like to be my Vice President?’ ” She accepted on the spot. “With Clinton there egging Harrison on,” she points out, “what could I say?”

In the next breath, Ford asked Clinton, who has been a dinner guest at Ford’s Wyoming ranch, for a tour of the real Air Force One; he got a thumbs-up. And, in May, he asked Jonathan Dolgen, head of the Viacom Entertainment Group—parent of Paramount Pictures, home of the Indiana Jones and Clancy films—not to open his competing blockbuster Titanic the same weekend as Sony’s Air Force One was planned. Dolgen complied. (Titanic’s opening was later moved to December.)

In addition to getting his way, Ford gets $20 million per picture and a 15 percent cut of the box office gross. That’s more than adequate motivation for the action hero to shed seven pounds off his already muscular frame for 6 Days, 7 Nights, a comedy adventure story costarring Anne Heche (due out next summer), now filming on Kauai, Hawaii. And if the rest of Hollywood is wondering whether Ford can generate chemistry with Heche—who is gay (and Ellen DeGeneres’s lover)—so be it. Director Ivan Reitman is not worried. “The two of them together are very strong,” he says. (Ford says only, “I never comment on my costars’ private lives.”) Reitman is more concerned whether the film’s insurance policy will allow Ford, who plays a pilot, to use his real-life skills and actually fly the de Havilland Beaver airplane onscreen.

Stunts of all kinds are important to Ford. Six months after Air Force One filming wrapped, he still has an injured right rotator cuff—the result of an onset fall—and filmgoers may be excused for wincing when terrorist Gary Oldman smacks Ford in the face. The star demanded that Oldman actually clock him, take after take. “Harrison doesn’t care if he has all sorts of black marks on his body,” says Air Force One director Wolfgang Petersen. “When his face was really red and swollen, I’d just push back close-ups a few days.”

Ford elaborates. “I think the fact that my face is [in the scene] adds a veracity to the experience and an emotional component that’s missing when it’s being done by a stunt guy,” he says. “Over the years I have developed a certain capacity to do stunts safely.”

Sure, teases Steven Spielberg, who directed Ford in all three Indiana Jones movies, “in all the fights, the most he ever fell was three or four feet. The best fall he ever took,” Spielberg adds, “was when he fell for Melissa.”

In fairness, Ford doesn’t claim the stunts he does are dangerous, just “hot, sweaty, dirty work—but I get very well paid for it.” As for falling for Mathison, 46, which he did on the set of the 1979 film Apocalypse Now (Ford had a small part, Mathison was script supervisor), and whom he married in 1983, Ford is also characteristically circumspect. “We have a good marriage,” he says. “We enjoy our life together. But I don’t have a recipe for other people to use in their own kitchen.”

Fair enough, but pals of Ford’s are quick to point out that circumspection is not his only mode. Buffett recalls the night he and Ford had a few tequilas too many while Mathison was working on Son of the Morning Star in Montana. The next morning, as she toured the Little Bighorn battlefield, Buffett and Ford checked out a somewhat less historical site: a nice shady trench where, says Buffett, “we were caught boldly napping.” Kate Capshaw, Ford’s close friend, costar in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Spielberg’s wife, says that the actor often lightens the on-set mood by mooning the camera or pulling out an ice-cream cone in what is supposed to be a Mayan cave.

There is one subject, however, about which Ford never jokes: the 1950 Chinese invasion of Tibet and the 1959 exile of the Dalai Lama following the Chinese suppression of a people’s revolt. Though not practicing Buddhists, Ford and Mathison became devoted to the issue after meeting the Dalai Lama in the late ’80s—Kundun, a film made from her screenplay about the Dalai Lama, is set for a December release—and two years ago, Ford appeared before a U.S. Senate committee, imploring the government to “remember the courageous people of Tibet.”

On the whole, Ford avoids using his fame publicly to promote any cause. In fact, were it not for the demands of work and the ease of seeing relatives and friends, the publicity-shy actor and his L.A.-native wife would not even keep a place in L.A. (They own a four-bedroom home in Brentwood.) Ford does, he admits, take some pleasure in their three-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Central Park West, which he decorated with antiques and—in the living room—a painting by turn-of-the-century American artist Robert Henri of a sailboat beached beneath a dark sky. Nature provides Ford’s favorite touch: the 843-acre park outside his window, about the size of his Jackson Hole ranch, his spiritual home even though the family has been based in New York City for the last two years. There, Ford plays tennis at the Vertical Club, flies his Beechcraft (at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport) and often picks up children Malcolm, 10, and Georgia, 7, from their private school. The kids love the city. “They enjoy the same things I don’t like,” Ford says, “the energy, the busyness.”

What Ford does like is catching trout (he always throws them back) in the streams on his property in Wyoming, where he has a four-bedroom colonial-style home. “I love the land, the fact that it’s undisturbed,” he says. (Mathison likes the ranch in small doses: “The winters are way too long,” she says.) Though Ford designed and helped build their house, he rarely takes out his tools these days. “There’s not much broken anymore,” he says. But though the house appears immaculate, Ford busies himself rearranging knick-knacks; he’s slightly annoyed that they’ve been moved during a recent stay in New York City. Concerned that PEOPLE staffers on hand for a photo shoot might see too much of his private life, he says, only half joking, “You can have a corner of the living room, like Barbara Walters,” a reference to a television interview he granted in the same room in March. Ford reveals only certain corners of his life.

His Grand Teton retreat is as far from the struggles of Hollywood as it is from, well, the struggles of his boyhood in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines. In grade school, the shy elder son of Christopher, an advertising executive, and Dorothy, a homemaker, was routinely beaten up by bullies. He survived, more embarrassed than bruised, to attend Maine Township High (five years ahead of fellow alum Hillary Rodham Clinton), where he was president of the social science club and the model train club. (Ford’s brother Terrance, 52, is a California-based actor.) After graduating in 1960, Ford enrolled at Ripon College in Wisconsin and spent most of his time skipping classes and sleeping.

The philosophy and English major flunked out in his senior year—but not before stumbling into an acting class. “I was terrified to get up in front of people, but I really enjoyed the storytelling part,” he says. “It was the first time I felt comfortable with what I was doing.” In 1964, Ford married his college sweetheart, Mary Marquardt (“She typed all my papers,” Ford told PEOPLE in 1989), then drove their Volkswagen bus to Hollywood. Soon after arriving, he signed a $150-a-week contract with Columbia and landed bit parts on such shows as Gunsmoke and Love, American Style. But “he was cranky and suspicious of Hollywood people,” says producer Fred Roos, then a casting agent. When the roles dried up, Ford turned to a trade he taught himself at the Encino public library: carpentry. His first big client, Brazilian composer Sergio Mendes, didn’t know a rookie was building his recording studio. “He said, ‘I can do it,’ ” recalls Mendes, “and he did an incredible job.”

Busy working on paying projects, Ford had no time to tend to his own house, a Hollywood Hills fixer-upper he bought for $18,500 soon after arriving. His wife and two sons—Ben, now 30, is a chef in L.A., and Willard, 28 (who gave Ford his first grandchild, Eliel, last year), is a substitute teacher in Oakland—spent six years in a home that lacked one exterior wall and a bathroom door. “I was out of money,” explains Ford. “Mary was wonderful about it. We were in it together.”

Almost anyone else in that situation would have jumped at the offer that came his way in 1973: a small part in the George Lucas film American Graffiti, produced by Francis Ford Coppola. But not Ford. “When they asked me to do it for $485 a week, I hung up on them,” he says. “I said, ‘You’re out of your f—king mind. I make twice that much as a carpenter.’ ” When they upped the ante to $500, he relented. Coppola later hired him for minor roles in 1974’s The Conversation and Apocalypse Now—and to build a portico entrance in his L.A. office. Lucas was using the office to work on Star Wars and asked Ford to help him audition actors.

Hollywood myth has it that Ford, miffed at not being asked to read for a part himself, displayed the perfect temperament to play Han Solo. Ford denies the tale—or at least the source of his ire—with a laugh. “No,” he says, “I was grumpy by nature in those days.”

The success of Star Wars allowed Ford to hang up his tool bag. But the year after its release, his marriage to Marquardt was over. “I don’t think they split up because he got famous,” Ford’s Star Wars costar Carrie Fisher told Vanity Fair in 1990. “They’d been married for 15 years, since they were kids, and it had just gone its course.” Ford refuses to discuss the 1979 divorce, but “I was definitely not Mr. Sweetness and Light,” he told Parade magazine in 1988. “I was an inadequate husband and father.”

Not this time around. Ford’s Working Girl costar Melanie Griffith speaks for many when she calls him a great dad, adding, “I admire his priorities.” Still, there are limits to what even he will do: for one, taking his two youngest kids to see the rerelease of Star Wars last January. “Their mother took them,” Ford says. Never mind that his children, millions of fans and one PEOPLE interviewer all loved him in the classic. Says Ford with a wry smile: “It wasn’t your 20-year-old acting onscreen.”


TOM CUNNEFF in New York City and Jackson Hole and DANELLE MORTON in Los Angeles