Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" is one of the most seminal science-fiction films of its time. It took a genre that was dominated at the time by flashier, more optimistic franchises like "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" and provided a unique, darker vision, both thematically and aesthetically. It also merged themes from both sci-fi and noir, popularizing a cyberpunk aesthetic that would influence all sorts of media from series like "Battlestar Galactica" and "Ghost in the Shell," to video games like "Cyberpunk 2077" and "Deus Ex." While Scott himself doesn't strictly consider the film "science fiction," it certainly left a significant impact on the landscape of the genre.
The film follows former cop Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, in an alternate dystopian version of Los Angeles circa 2019, where he's tasked with hunting down a rogue group of synthetic humans, known as replicants. The replicants are nearly indistinguishable from regular humans, leading to some difficult detective work from Decker. The film's mix of psychological tension and a deeply engrossing setting make it absolutely captivating. Ford's performance as Decker, one of the most significant roles of his career, also plays a part in making the movie as special as it is.
However, according to Paul M. Sammon's 1996 book "Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner," Ford wasn't actually cast as Decker until very late in the pre-production process. Before they settled on him, Scott and company struggled mightily to nail down a lead for the film.
The Search For Deckard
According to "Future Noir," "Blade Runner" was still without a leading man less than three months before principal photography was scheduled to begin, leaving the film in quite the predicament. Ridley Scott and his creative team were in a wild search for their star, and a whole lot of big-name actors were being considered for the role of Deckard, including Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, and Tommy Lee Jones.
In "Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner," a 2007 documentary about the film's production, screenwriter Hampton Fancher revealed he wrote the character of Deckard with veteran movie star Robert Mitchum in mind, but that didn't pan out. Similarly, Scott met with Dustin Hoffman multiple times regarding the role, but talks disintegrated over creative differences. With so many of their potential choices exhausted, the name Harrison Ford finally came up.
Looking back, one might assume Ford would've been among the first names to be considered for the role of Deckard. But it's important to remember that the actor was relatively less established when casting for "Blade Runner" got underway, as Fancher explained in "Future Noir:"
"No one can remember who finally came up with the idea of casting Harrison Ford, but I do recall his name being in the air over Hollywood at the time. Don't forget, this was still a year before 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' was released—'Raiders' came out in 1981. The perception of Harrison Ford in a lot of people's minds at that point was still that he'd done some good work in the 'Star Wars' pictures but was basically a terrific character actor."
Scott, however, wasn't going to let casting troubles prevent him from making what was a deeply personal movie to him, so he considered taking a chance on this young character actor.
A Rising Star
While Harrison Ford is now known as one of the greatest movie stars of his generation, his career was by no means an instant success. Ford moved to Hollywood in 1964 at the age of 22, hoping to start his acting career. Acting in bit roles over the next couple of years, Ford eventually became unhappy with the status of his career, and took up carpentry as a way to support his family, something he spoke about on his episode of "Inside the Actors Studio."
Ford finally got his big break when he met George Lucas, who cast him in a key supporting role in "American Graffiti." A few years later, Lucas would hire Ford to play Han Solo in "Star Wars: A New Hope," giving him one of the definitive roles of his career (even if Ford wasn't always a fan of Lucas' writing).
"A New Hope" was Ford's first foray into science-fiction as well as his first star-making turn, with his performance receiving multiple rave reviews. Washington Post writer Gary Arnold compared Ford to a young Jack Nicholson in his 1977 review.
"Han Solo is the film's most flamboyant human role, and Harrison Ford has a splendid time capitalizing on its irresistible style of cynical heroism. It would be professionally criminal to flub such an ingratiating, star-making assignment, and although Ford plays in a relaxed, drawing style, reminiscent of Jack Nicholson at his foxiest, he maintains a firm grip on this golden opportunity."
But while Ford was making a big name for himself, he was still seen as a somewhat untested talent, making him a less-than-obvious pick to portray Deckard in "Blade Runner." It wasn't until Ford received an endorsement from one of Hollywood's biggest directors that he was given serious consideration.
A Life-Changing Endorsement
According to "Future Noir," what really cemented Harrison Ford as a real contender for the role was a phone call between actor Barbara Hershey and Steven Spielberg, who was working with Ford on "Raiders of the Lost Ark" at the time. Hampton Fancher explained that Spielberg's enthusiasm for Ford was palpable, and really got the ball rolling on bringing the actor into the fold on "Blade Runner:"
"Spielberg seemed really hyped on Harrison; Barbara told me Steven told her Harrison Ford was going to be the biggest star in Hollywood. Scott and Deeley must have heard something like that, too, because the next thing I knew they had flown over to England. Spielberg showed them some 'Raiders' rushes, Michael and Ridley talked with Ford, and that was that."
And so Ford was cast as Deckard, and the rest is history. His performance showed that he had both the capability to be a movie star, leading an action-packed film with his charisma, as well as a fantastic actor, masterfully embodying the inner turmoil at the heart of Deckard.
Despite Ford's continuing distaste for the film, and his rocky relationship with Ridley Scott himself, his role in "Blade Runner" is one of the most iconic in a career filled with genuinely iconic roles. The one-two punch of playing Deckard and Indiana Jones within a short time-span locked Ford in as a bonafide Hollywood leading man for the rest of his career.
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