Harrison, It’s Time to Be a Ford, Not a Ferrari

What’s a Medicare card-holding star to do, if he’s not Clint Eastwood?

Last Updated: February 16, 2010 @ 9:50 PM

No one can do grumpy like Harrison Ford. (Note to Warner Bros.: Time to reboot the “Grumpy Old Men” franchise, this time with Ford and Nick Nolte?) The actor is at his ingratiatingly grumpiest in “Extraordinary Measures,” in which he plays a dedicated scientist trying to find a cure for a rare fatal disease.

His may be a supporting part here — a sizable one, but it’s not his character who drives the story. But he is the reason this medical drama is opening in megaplexes. If it weren’t for Ford stomping around a medical research lab clad in worn blue jeans and tight T-shirts, it would be just another better-than-average TV movie sandwiched inbetween episodes of “Army Wives” on the Lifetime network. Or, make that the post-“60 Minutes” slot on CBS, given that “Measures” is the maiden offering of CBS Films, the new feature film division of the venerable TV network.

The movie is based on a compelling real life story: A businessman, John Crowley (Brendan Fraser), teams up with a medical researcher, Dr. John Stockwell (Ford), to develop a drug to save Crowley’s two fatally ill children, who suffer from Pompe Disease, a rare genetic disorder. (“Measures” is adapted from Wall Street Journal reporter Geeta Anand’s 2006 nonfiction book, “The Cure: How a Father Raised $100 Million – and Bucked the Medical Establishment — in a Quest to Save His Children.”)

So, what does Ford, now 67, have to be grumpy about?

In the film, his irascible character (a composite based on various scientists and doctors with whom the real life Crowley worked) rails against the constraints and barriers that the business world impose on science. In real life, one suspects Ford can’t be thrilled at a career in which his options, if he wants to maintain his status as a leading man, are narrowing fast.

For Ford, there’s maybe another creaking Indiana Jones sequel, or — please don’t let it be so! — a cameo in a 3D reboot of “Star Wars,” but not much else can be on the horizon. Anyone think studios are clamoring for him to star in a big-budget remake of “King Lear?”

While, Hollywood has rarely been kind to its aging stars, a large percentage of men have remained viable well into their 50s. But to maintain a busy career with top billing into one’s 60s and beyond can be exceedingly tricky, especially now that westerns, which used to serve as the last frontier for aging male stars, have disappeared.

What’s a Medicare card-holding star to do, if he’s not Clint Eastwood?

The smart ones give up on carrying a movie on their arthritic shoulders and settle instead for juicy supporting roles. Think of Sean Connery and the brio he brought to “The Rock.” Ditto for Dustin Hoffman in “Finding Neverland” and “The Fockers” and the late Paul Newman in “Road to Perdition.” To keep working, they became celluloid miniaturists. (We’ll see how well Mel Gibson, now 54, is holding up when his new suspense thriller, "Edge of Darkness," opens next weekend.)

Ford appears with “Measures” to be grudgingly taking baby steps along that path. He should think of scaling back as liberating.

For most of us, once you stop trying to climb the ladder at your job and abandon kissing up to your bosses, you can do the work for the work itself rather than for where it will get you. And so, too, for an actor, if you no longer have to carry a film and worry about maintaining your carefully built-up screen image, you get to do the role for the role itself.

Assuming that in the beginning Ford became an actor to act and not just to be a giant honking star, supporting roles will offer him more variety and nuance than have decades of playing unflappable heroes. He can stop trotting out yet another variation of Indiana Jones and Han Solo.

He should take a run at playing bad guys. Twirling a mustache is way more fun, and often a bigger acting challenge, than grunting manfully as you save the world. Maybe he should invite Quentin Tarantino to lunch and see if he can’t persuade the “Inglourious Basterds” director to write him a gleeful villain — the kind Christopher Walken can smash out of the ballpark in his sleep — in Tarantino’s next opus.

In short, Ford should be a Ford from now on — let the younger guys be the Ferraris and the Lamborghinis. He can show them that costing a little less and going a little slower doesn’t mean you’re out of the game, it just means you don’t have to win every single lap around the track.

Finally, the biggest bonus to retooling his career, for both Ford and moviegoers: He will never have to doff his shirt on-screen again.

Age should have its privileges.