Happy birthday, Harrison Ford! A superb grumpy old man for 80 years and counting

<span>Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Wednesday is Harrison Ford’s 80th birthday. It’s a strange occasion for a couple of reasons. The first is that Ford is our sole remaining great movie star. Nicholson is a recluse. Pacino and De Niro dissolved into self-parody long ago. Everyone else is too young to qualify. But Ford still has it. Often when movie stars hit a peak, all the characters they play have a habit of becoming extensions of their own persona. Not Ford, though. He’s Han Solo. He’s Indiana Jones. He’s Richard Kimble, Jack Ryan, Rick Deckard. To call it an incredible career would be a gross understatement.

The other reason this birthday is weird, and I promise I mean this with affection, is that it seems as if he’s been 80 years old for decades. Because, in an industry where everyone aged 25 and over is possessed by a freakish desperation to cling to their youth for dear life, warping their faces with unnecessary surgeries to try to trick the world into thinking that they’ve somehow become frozen in time, Ford has embraced the role of grizzled elder statesman like no other.

You don’t see it so much in his films. On the rare occasion that he makes them, he still has a tendency to play the sort of tough guys who get thrown through windows (and then, as a trained carpenter, helps to rebuild the window between takes). Even in his most recent film, 2020’s The Call of the Wild, Ford exuded the sort of taciturn, lived-in charisma that most other actors can only dream of achieving.

No, Ford’s real inner old man is more likely to come out to play in his television appearances. My favourite of these is his encounter with David Blaine. While Blaine’s shtick often results in leaping, wailing histrionics from his marks, his meeting with Ford in 2013 couldn’t have been quieter. Throughout their encounter, which appears to take place in Ford’s kitchen, Blaine’s whooshy mystic nonsense falls flat against a wall of silence. At no point can you tell whether Ford is amused, bored or amazed by Blaine’s trickery. He speaks just once or twice, confirming details and announcing the name of the card he chose. When Blaine’s trick ends with the usual flourish (the playing card was inside a piece of fruit all along), Ford looks him square in the eye and growls: “Get the fuck outta my house.” It is perfect. It deserves to be the clip for which he’s remembered.

There is also his cabbage joke. During a David Letterman appearance in the early part of the last decade, Ford launched into a long, formless joke about a man who wants to buy half a cabbage. He rambles on for about a minute and a half, with Letterman looking – as Ford did with Blaine – as if he doesn’t know whether to be amused or concerned, until he eventually stumbles into something that might be construed in some parts of the world as a punchline. The audience titters politely, the band strikes up in triumph and Ford springs to his feet in outrage and starts chewing out the bandleader because he hadn’t finished telling the joke yet. The actual punchline is dismal, but that’s beside the point. Ford has asserted himself as a cranky old man, and that’s all that matters.

Part of this crumpled persona is his ability to remain two or three beats behind everyone else, like he’s slowly catching up on a joke that everyone else finished laughing at long ago. My favourite example of this is when, with his Blade Runner co-star Ryan Gosling, he was interviewed by This Morning’s Alison Hammond. At first, Ford remains aloof and taciturn while Hammond jokes around with Gosling. But then his ears pick up, he grins and – to everyone’s delight – he just starts goofing off.

The minibar is raided. At one point Gosling goes off to help the crew. By the end of the interview, Ford is doubled up laughing. It just goes to show that a well-worn persona is one thing, but not even Harrison Ford is impervious to Alison Hammond. Happy birthday Harrison.