Harrison Ford: Whip hand

The jokes have been wearily predictable. The news that Harrison Ford is to return to the silver screen as Indiana Jones, some 18 years after what was billed as his Last Crusade, has prompted a deluge of dodgy ageist puns. The 66-year-old star is ironically rebranded as Indefatigable Jones, and the film, variously, as Raiders of the Lost Memories, The Saviour of a Lost Art, and The Temple of Zimmer. Then there are all the inevitable gags about whips being swapped for hips, as in replacement.

The marketing men are taking a rather different line on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which is a star attraction at the Cannes film festival starting next week and which opens in the UK later this month. They are talking about something "fresh but familiar", which is what fans will be hoping for from the old team of storymaker George Lucas, director Steven Spielberg and star Harrison Ford back in the hat as the born-again archaeologist action hero. The money men are predicting the blockbuster of the summer.

Harrison Ford has form on that. The previous Indiana films have been one of the biggest box-office successes in the history of the movies. They won Ford the No 1 slot in Empire magazine's Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time list – and took his gross worldwide earnings to almost $6bn, making him one of the most financially successful actors of his generation. Who cares that his long career has featured only one Oscar nomination when he has appeared in five of the top 10 highest-grossing movies ever.

Still, Indiana 4 has been a long time coming. Spielberg and co have been on the lookout for a good enough script for more than 15 years, rejecting three so-so ones in the process. "None of us was fully satisfied with what was produced," says Ford.

There is an irony in that. For long planning is the antithesis of the happenstance that has characterised Harrison Ford's long career. Many of the nodal points over the past four decades were happy accidents or serendipitous defaults. His big break, playing Han Solo in the first Star Wars film, came while he was a carpenter standing in to read for an absent actor. Indiana's leather coat (very odd wear for a hot-climate archaeologist) was originally intended for another actor, Tom Selleck, who at the last minute couldn't get out of his contract for the TV show Magnum PI.

Some would characterise it as the luck of the Irish, though Harrison Ford is more of an all-American mongrel than that. His father was Irish and his mother Jewish which meant, he once joked, he inherited his father's work ethic and his mother's insecurities. "I feel Jewish as an actor, but Irish as a person," he has said. "That means that in work I can be very intense and concentrated, but in life I take things in my stride." Asked what that made him, Ford quipped: "A Democrat."

He was brought up around Chicago. At Maine East High School in Park Ridge, Illinois, he was drawn to acting as "something I could do with people because I didn't like competitive sports". He was the first student broadcaster on his high school's new radio station. Four years after graduating, in 1960, he set out for Los Angeles with the dream of becoming a voice-over man. In the decade that followed he won minor roles in various TV series with the odd movie bit part, where he had to be credited as "Harrison J Ford" to avoid confusion with a silent film actor of the same name. The J was entirely invented and stood for nothing.

But he could not earn enough to make a living for his family. In 1964 he had married Mary Marquadt, a cheerleader from his high school, and they had two young sons. So he taught himself carpentry and found a variety of jobs, including one as a stage hand for that era's seminal rock band, The Doors, and another making some cabinets in the home of one George Lucas. In the best traditions of the Hollywood dream the producer offered his carpenter a part in his 1973 film American Graffiti.

Later, as Lucas became more successful – and needed a bigger office – he hired Ford to work on the extension. One day he asked him to stand in to read the lines for some absent actors on a new film, Star Wars. The director, Steven Spielberg, decided that the backroom woodworker could become an on-screen wonderworker. The role of the tough wisecracking space pilot, Han Solo, in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, projected Harrison Ford to mega-stardom.

A rag-bag of other films – some good, some bad – followed, including a role in Ridley Scott's sci-fi classic Blade Runner (1982) and a part the same year in Spielberg's ET (though his scenes as the young hero's school principal were deleted from the final cut of the film).

But it set him up for the role of Indiana Jones – the academic archaeologist and expert on the occult who repeatedly found himself running foul of Nazis, creepy human-sacrifice cults and other embodiments of evil which required him to swap his archaeologist's brush for a virtuoso bullwhip as he zoomed around the globe in search of ancient mystical relics. The Lucas/Spielberg trilogy, originally conceived as a low-budget homage to the cliff-hanger children's cinema serials, ran from 1981 to 1989 and turned Ford into a blockbuster box-office draw.

His track record since that golden era has been, shall we say, mixed. Most of his movies have been lambasted by the critics and were disappointing commercially. In 2004, he turned down the part which won George Clooney an Oscar in the thriller Syriana. "I've had films that were successful and I've had films that were not successful," he has said, laconically.

In all this Ford has kept resolutely out of the off-screen limelight. He rarely attends showbiz parties and doesn't turn up at celebrity movie premieres. With his second wife, Melissa Mathison, the ET screenwriter, he lived quietly for 21 years in a private 800-acre woodland around his home in Wyoming. His work rebuilding the woodland and redirecting trout streams – covering the ground in his own planes and helicopters, for flying is his other hobby – won him conservation awards and earned him a place on the board of Conservation International. The distinguished Harvard entomologist Edward O Wilson named a new species of ant after him – Pheidole harrisonfordi. And there is also a newly discovered spider called Calponia harrisonfordi.

His penchant for privacy made it all the more shocking when, after his second marriage broke up, Ford was photographed drinking tequila slammers in nightclubs – and even spotted wearing a stripper's bra on his head. It was a mark of the solidity of his conservative adventure-hero status that the press had a field day with something as trivial as that – as they did when he first wore an earring.

Reams were written about his mid-life crisis, a theme which surfaced again when he met his third partner, Calista Flockhart, when she spilled wine on his award at the 2002 Golden Globes. She was the pin-thin neurotic lawyer of Ally McBeal fame and 22 years his junior. Hollywood tut-tutted but the two have been together six years now and have a seven-year-old adopted son, Liam, whose school schedule – along with his mother's TV work – keeps them away from the Wyoming ranch and living in Los Angeles.

On his politics he is more public. A lifelong Democrat, he publicly condemned the invasion of Iraq, calling for "regime change" in the United States. He has also criticised his own industry for the violence of much of its output and has called for greater gun control in the United States. Last year he and Calista Flockhart joined other celebrities, including Kirk Douglas, to serve hot meals to the homeless on Thanksgiving at the Los Angeles Mission. He has recently narrated a film about the Dalai Lama "because I believe His Holiness is making a positive influence in our world".

But now it is back to the swashbuckling business of archaeology. (Indiana Jones films don't dwell much on the painstaking business of brushing dust from sand-strewn ancient digs.) Ford has once again carried out most of his own stunts. Indeed, he claims to be as fit as he was two decades ago, revealing that, even 18 years on, "the leather jacket still fits". The man who only a decade ago was voted the "Sexiest Man Alive" went on a high-protein diet for the role and upped his visits to the gym. Despite his protestations that he is not a fitness fanatic, Ford goes to the gym for 40 minutes three times a week and plays an hour of tennis even when he's not preparing for an action movie. "It's not the years, honey," as Indiana said in Raiders of the Lost Ark. "It's the mileage."

The film is resolutely old-fashioned in its action. "We didn't shoot it like a Matrix style, where if you hit somebody, they end up in this big space and you didn't feel the hurt and you don't feel the fear. I feel you very quickly lose emotional connection with the character if it's like that. We are more old school," he has said. "There's not a lot of computer-generated imagery; it's mostly done with real physicality, real sets." And Spielberg has shot "the way Chaplin or Keaton would, everything happening before the eyes of the audience, without a cut", he said, because "every time the camera changes dynamic angles, you feel there's something wrong, that there's some cheating going on". The approach was designed to mimic the feel of the original serials to which the films pay tribute.

One of the stars of the last film is absent. Sean Connery, who played Indiana's father, refused to film, announcing that he is retired. Will Harrison Ford go the same way? A fifth instalment of Indiana Jones is a distinct possibility, he says. He just hopes it won't take 20 years to pull together.

A Life in Brief

Born Harrison Ford, 13 July 1942, Chicago, Illinois.

Early life Father was a former actor and advertising executive; his mother had worked as a radio actress. Discovered acting while studying at Ripon College in Wisconsin. He never graduated.

Career Came to Hollywood aged 24, in search of voice-over work. Signed by Columbia Pictures, securing his first speaking part in 1966. Played several TV parts, but took up carpentry in frustration at his acting progress. Breakthrough came when he landed Star Wars role of Han Solo in 1975. Took on legendary role of Indiana Jones in 1981. His films have grossed around $6bn worldwide, making him one of the biggest box-office draws of all time. Also a qualified pilot of planes and helicopters, which he flies from his 800-acre Wyoming ranch.

He says "There is no barrier to Indiana Jones growing older. It's not an age-based character. We can't bang him up as much as we used to, maybe."

They Say "The guy is still in premium shape." Shia LaBeouf, co-star of new Indiana Jones movie

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