May 29, 2001 11:00 AM

A former carpenter with a passion for craftsmanship, Harrison Ford has had the opportunity, over the years, to buy the toys of his dreams. In an open field on his Wyoming ranch sits his Bell 206 Jet Ranger Helicopter; from the garage he can choose one of six motorcycles — four BMWs, two Harley-Davidsons — to ride around Jackson Hole. His five airplanes include a state-of-the-art jet and a 1956 de Havilland Beaver, something of an aviation classic. So it was with some trepidation that screenwriter Melissa Mathison, Ford’s wife of 17 years, presented her motor-mad, but very particular, husband with a 1966 Austin Healy 3000 for his 58th birthday on July 13.

"It’s great getting old"

She needn’t have worried. “I went out for something and was going back to the house, and Melissa walked along with me,” Ford recalls. “And it was sitting around in the driveway with a bow on it. I was delighted.” A bottle of Dom P rignon from a pal provided the icing on the birthday cake. Says Ford: “It’s great getting old.”

Like his racing-green Healy, Ford has clocked some mileage — and taken his share of dings along the way — but his motor is still purring nicely, thank you, and the body’s in great shape. Check out the toned torso he bares in his latest movie, the supernatural thriller What Lies Beneath. Not surprisingly, as he has gotten older, his workouts have become more serious. “I’m probably fitter now than I was when I was 35,” he says. One strength has stayed exactly the same: Ford’s knack for finding the Everyman in the Hero and the Hero in the average Joe, Jack or Indiana. His 37 films have earned more than $3 billion at the box office; 7 are among the Top 40 moneymakers of all time. “In my opinion he is one of our very best actors,” says Sydney Pollack, who directed Ford in 1995’s Sabrina and last year’s Random Hearts. “Yeah, he’s cool, and yeah, he’s tough, and yeah, he can punch guys. But he can also hurt like hell when he gets hit. And we recognize he has given us back the truth.”

Ford, famously, doesn’t put much stock in his own mystique. You need not look further than the decor of his private office at the ranch to confirm his reputation as a no-nonsense guy’s guy: wood floors covered with Navajo rugs, a bookshelf stocked with The Flyfishing Guide to Wyoming, 24 years of copies of Fine Woodworking magazine and, in the pantry, a bottle of McCallan’s, his favorite 18-year-old single-malt Scotch. “I’ve never had lofty goals,” he says. “I just try and do the best job I can on whatever comes my way.” Right now, though, America’s most popular actor is out of a job — and not because he’s holding out for Hamlet. “I just haven’t read anything I want to do,” says Ford, who passed on The Patriot because “it boiled the American Revolution down to one guy wanting revenge.” Ford has had enough of the retribution line. “I’m also tired of films that put children in jeopardy,” he adds. “They inure us to real pain and real suffering and real solutions.”

Such is Ford’s reputation for principled contrariness that even Michelle Pfeiffer, his What Lies Beneath costar, felt compelled to declare on the Today show that “the most surprising thing is, he’s really funny.” More than that, says Wendy Crewson, who played Ford’s First Lady in Air Force One and has a small role in Beneath, “he’s got the devil in his eyes. You don’t really see that impishness onscreen, but he has got a wild side.” Melanie Griffith saw it while partying with Ford and Mathison during the filming of 1988’s Working Girl. “He was knocking back tequilas, and the last thing I remember was Harrison did one shot and he was on the floor of the bar,” she recalls. “Melissa was walking out the door, and she was like, ‘Forget this guy!’ It was pretty funny.”

And there may be an inexplicable quirk or two. “When he meets people,” claims The Fugitive‘s Sela Ward, “he looks at everybody’s shoes. When I first arrived in Chicago, I happened to be wearing cowboy boots. I noticed that he really checked out my shoes, and I thought, ‘We must be bonding over my boots. I have a farm, he has a ranch . . .’ ”

Friends say he’s a jokester

Suffice it to say that the ear-piercing he got in 1997 (lately he favors a gold stud) isn’t the only giveaway: The real Ford isn’t quite as reserved as he likes to make out. “He remembers every joke in the world — loves to tell them,” says Pollack. (Few are printable.) And his impersonations, says friend Yvon Chouinard, the famous mountain climber and founder of the Patagonia sportswear chain, are dead on. “He’s a riot,” Chouinard says. “He has an unbelievable sense of irony and cynicism.” Even his fellow luminaries aren’t spared. On the set “everybody’s getting their hair and makeup done,” says Crewson, “and he’ll flip through magazines and dish the stars.” When the camera rolls, though, he is purely professional. “I had no idea how meticulous he was,” says Robert Zemeckis, who directed What Lies Beneath, in which Ford plays a research scientist whose wife (Pfeiffer) is haunted by a vengeful ghost. Days before he was due on the Vermont set, Ford, who earned his pilot’s license five years ago, flew up in his de Havilland Beaver to check it out. “He didn’t want to walk into his house as the character on the first day without having gotten a sense of it beforehand,” says Zemeckis. “He spent hours making sure everything felt right.”

Similarly, Ford’s passion for flying — he goes up three or four times a week — knows few bounds, even if some of the landings have been a little rough. Last October, Ford was practicing emergency landings with a flight instructor in a dry lake bed north of Los Angeles when his helicopter’s motor failed — causing it to crash. Two months ago he emerged unscathed from a bumpy landing in Lincoln, Neb., that damaged his six-passenger Beech Bonanza. The culprit was wind shear. “Not a wind gust,” he points out, adding that most reports of the incident — including one in this magazine that he missed the runway — got it wrong. “To simply say that a wind gust had blown me off the runway is to misunderstand the techniques of landing. This was a wind shear, where the wind totally comes from another direction.”

Like everyone Ford has also faced real difficulties that, despite his will and resources, he can’t make better. The death of his 92-year-old father, former advertising executive Christopher Ford, of a blood ailment in February 1999 had a marked effect on the star (his mother, Dorothy, 82, lives in Laguna Beach, Calif.). “Movie grief is easy,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times last October. “Real life is not.” Says Pollack: “It was difficult for him. He handled it with his usual grace and aplomb, but he was struggling. It’s not something you end up talking about with him.”

Stoic for sure, Ford also can be sentimental. While filming The Fugitive in his native Chicago in 1992, he made a point of driving past (but not stopping at) the homes in suburban Morton Grove and Park Ridge in which he was raised — along with his brother Terence, now 55. “I didn’t realize,” he says, “the houses were so small.”

Says girls didn’t like him in high school

Back then, of course, no one knew that young Harry, as he was known, would be so big. His dream was to become a forest ranger, and — by his own estimation — his sex appeal was just this side of roadkill. “I wasn’t appealing to girls in the normal way,” he says. “I was like a beaten dog or something.” Progressing inauspiciously, he left school two classes shy of graduating from Wisconsin’s Ripon College (despite having taken acting courses to boost his GPA), wed college sweetheart Mary Marquardt in 1964 and set off for Hollywood, where for years he made ends meet working as a carpenter. It wasn’t for lack of opportunity. In 1966, Columbia Pictures exec Walter Beakel won Ford an audition for 1967’s The Graduate. “He didn’t cut it,” says Beakel. Surly, particular, and by then a father-to Benjamin, now 33, a chef (he later had son Willard, 31, a teacher and the father of Eliel, 7, with wife Aisha) — Ford didn’t do himself any favors. “I would send him out on an interview,” recalls his manager of 30 years, Patricia McQueeney, “and the casting director would call me up and say, ‘Why did you send that guy? I thought he was going to punch me in the nose!’ ”

Ford has clearly mellowed since. Although his first marriage didn’t survive the explosion of fame that followed Star Wars — he and Marquardt divorced in 1979 — Ford maintains a good relationship with his older sons. Now fully involved in the upbringing of Malcolm, 13, and Georgia, 10 — his children with Mathison, 50, whom he first met on the set of Apocalypse Now in 1976 — he concedes that fatherhood is easier the second time around. “It’s an awesome responsibility,” he says. “But they are grounded, sensible children.”

With the kids on school vacation, Ford cherishes their time at the family ranch, where he works out for an hour most mornings, studies for his aircraft instrument ratings, fishes, rides horseback and plays tennis (often with his pal Chouinard, who reports that even on the court he keeps his cool. “He won’t play a game. He just likes to hit the ball,” he says. “He doesn’t need to beat somebody”). Come September the family will head back to their three-bedroom apartment overlooking Central Park in Manhattan, where Malcolm and Georgia attend private school. Right now, Ford would prefer not to think about that; this is a man very much at home on the range, where the only sounds are the rustle of grass, the low whistle of birds and — the whububump-bang-crash of a drum kit? Yep. In the garage below Ford’s office, Malcolm has begun practicing his favorite instrument. “I wanted to encourage his musical development,” says Ford, rolling his eyes to suggest this was not, perhaps, his wisest paternal initiative. Later, though, he can’t conceal his pride as he runs his hand over a wooden helicopter that Malcolm has fixed. Woodworking-now there’s a sensible, rewarding thing for a boy, or a man, to do. Says Dad: “Nice job.”

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