John Wayne Could Have Cost Harrison Ford His Chance To Work With Gene Wilder On The Frisco Kid
One of the most oddly fascinating chapters of a movie star’s career is Harrison Ford’s awkward three-year run in between “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” and “Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back.”
After a rough 10 years that saw him kicked out of Columbia Pictures’ New Talent Program, and relegated to smallish roles in films like George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation,” Ford finally broke through as the dashing rogue Han Solo in Lucas’ blockbuster space opera. With the entire country mad for anything even tangentially related to “Star Wars,” it seemed like all of the actors were primed for superstardom. This was especially true of Ford, whose banter with Carrie Fisher’s unflappable Princess Leia drew the film’s biggest laughs.
Ford’s presence, delivery, and undeniable good looks should’ve had every major studio and director in Hollywood knocking on his door — and, to an extent, he was in high demand. But now that he’d hit it big, Ford was eager to make up for lost time. He wanted to prove to everyone who ever doubted him that he wasn’t just another pretty face, but a serious actor with a range that stretched far beyond a wisecracking intergalactic smuggler.
He was also smart enough to understand that he had to flick on that high-wattage leading man charm, which led him to Robert Aldrich’s comedic Western, “The Frisco Kid,” and into direct conflict with John Wayne.
A casting showdown with the Duke
“The Frisco Kid” was a fish-out-of-water buddy comedy starring Gene Wilder as Avrim Belinski, a Polish-Jewish immigrant who heads west from Philadelphia to San Francisco to become a congregation’s new rabbi. He’s in over his head until he’s befriended by Tommy Lillard (Harrison Ford), a savvy bank robber who gets him into and out of trouble.
According to Brad Duke’s biography, “Harrison Ford: The Movies,” the producers were about to offer Ford the part of Lillard when John Wayne suddenly expressed interest in the role. Even though the aging star had several decades on the much younger Ford, if you were making a Western and the Duke was interested, you had to consider him. Evidently, Aldrich — also nearing the end of his career — was particularly intrigued by the prospect of directing Wayne. When the Western icon ultimately passed, Ford believed Aldrich was disappointed. Per Duke’s book:
“Ford had always felt as though he was in competition with Wayne. Although Ford had played a plethora of cowboy roles during his episodic television years, his director jokingly harassed him with constant comparisons as to how Wayne would have done the job.
The film’s producer Mace Neufeld recalled, ‘I think Harrison always felt when Aldrich was shooting a scene, that Aldrich was looking at him and seeing the picture of John Wayne, and he gave him a pretty hard time on the film ….'”
Tom Selleck’s loss was Harrison Ford’s gain
As with just about every film Harrison Ford made in between his first two “Star Wars” gigs (aside from “Apocalypse Now”), “The Frisco Kid” was a box office disappointment. Though Ford and especially Wilder received kind notices from critics, the movie was deemed a forgettable mediocrity, and a sad, late-career misfire for the director of “Kiss Me Deadly,” “The Dirty Dozen,” and “The Longest Yard.”
Even with “The Empire Strikes Back” on the horizon, Ford had to be sweating it. “Heroes,” “Hanover Street” and “Force 10 from Navarone” were stale showcases for a guy who’d blown everyone’s doors off in “Star Wars.” It wasn’t unheard of for a surefire movie star’s career to get derailed by repeatedly choosing the wrong project. Just as industry professionals were beginning to wonder whether Ford was a one-trick pony, Tom Selleck was forced by his commitment to “Magnum P.I.” to drop out of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ rip-snorting adventure about a dashing archaeologist who battles Nazis while looking for the Ark of the Covenant.
Fortunately for all involved, Ford was available. His fifth and final go-round as Indiana Jones will hit theaters on June 30, 2023.