In his own words, Harrison Ford started out as the class wimp. As luck would have it, he found an interest that didn’t require too much machismo – acting in student plays while attending Ripon College in Wisconsin in the early ‘60s. By age 21, he had a seven-year contract as a studio player in LA, but it wasn’t exactly for the big bucks – just $150 per week.
Ford landed a few small roles, including a memorable part in 1973’s American Graffiti, but his bank roll came mostly from carpentry. At age 35, Ford was fitting a door for Francis Ford Coppola when a studio exec asked him to take a break and read lines with actresses who were testing for a new film. The film was Star Wars and Ford’s lines turned out to be the part of Han Solo – quite a break.
Ford was also the originator of a classic line in the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back. Just as Han is about to be frozen in carbonite, Princess Leia shouts out “I love you!” Han is supposed to reply “I love you, too!” but Ford didn’t think a cool cat like Han would say that. His reply? “I know,” stated seconds before being enveloped in the goo. Wimp no more!
Meryl Streep’s first role was . . . Meryl Streep. Born Mary Louise Streep on June 22, 1949, in Summit, New Jersey, Streep began to study opera singing as an adolescent. By age 15, tired of her frumpy image, she gave herself a makeover worthy of the movies. She got rid of her eyeglasses, bleached her dark hair blond, and transformed herself into the quintessential popular cheerleader and homecoming queen at her high school.
Streep counts the blonde homecoming queen as her first characterization, but her official start in acting came through drama classes at Vassar College. While many believe Streep’s chameleon-like acting to be the result of intensive technical study of her craft, her professors claim that her work was hair-raising on its own. Streep says that when her friends wondered how she learned to do it, she wasn’t really sure how to explain – the Sophie’s Choice star and 2-time Oscar winner simply knew that she loved it, and the rest just happened.
Ever wonder how Humphrey Bogart got his signature lisp? Bogie was on the traditional prep school path, complete with a stint at the prestigious Phillips Academy boarding school on his way to medical studies at Yale when Phillips kicked him out. He soon joined the US Navy, where he was wounded during the shelling of the Leviathan. His partial facial paralysis resulted in the lisp.
Though never considered a standout, Bogart performed regularly on stage through the 1920s and had a few small contract film roles in the early ‘30s. But his big break came through the insistence of Leslie Howard. Howard and Bogart starred together in the Broadway version of The Petrified Forest, but Bogart wasn’t considered right for Hollywood’s 1936 version. Howard insisted – even threatening to quit if the casting changed – and Bogart kept the part. The movie led to a long-term contract and Bogart eventually rose to stardom in ‘40s classics like High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. Years later, Bogart and screen star Laruen Bacall named their first child Leslie, in Howard’s honor.
Please don’t get upset, but the swaggerer known as “John Wayne” was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907. So, just how did a guy named Marion get to be The Duke?
Like Bogart, Wayne intended to have a professional career. He was accepted at the University of Southern California on a football scholarship and enrolled as a pre-law student. The scholarship didn’t last, though, and after two years, Wayne dropped out and got a job as a prop man at the Fox studio. The director John Ford befriended him and cast him a series of small roles in the late ‘20s – often under the name Duke Morrison (why people call him by his regal nickname). After a string of supporting parts, Ford cast Wayne as the lead in the epic Western Stagecoach, and never looked back. The Duke appeared in close to 250 films including 1939’s Stagecoach, and 1956’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and he still holds the record for most lead roles.
Katharine Hepburn was an actress whose time had come. Her mother was the co-founder of Planned Parenthood and a feminist who passed her values on to her daughter, while her father, a doctor, advocated against the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Their unconventional influence encouraged Hepburn to fashion her own path.
As a college student at Bryn Mawr in the late ‘20s, Hepburn started dressing in baggy shirts, sweaters, and even trousers, which became her standard uniform. She also appeared in theatrical productions and later moved to New York to tackle Broadway. Though she was fired after her first night in the production of The Big Pond, she pressed on, eventually landing the role of an American princess in 1932’s The Warrior’s Husband, which led to Hollywood screen tests. Hepburn reinvented herself several times throughout her career – surviving the label “box office poison” after her early successes faded by returning to Broadway in The Philadelphia Story. The play was a hit, and she brought the project to Hollywood and landed her third Academy Award. Her next film, 1942’s Woman of the Year, marked the first of her legendary pairings with Spencer Tracy.
Marlon Brando forged a new brand of acting when he first appeared in Hollywood in the ‘50s, smudging the lines between experience and drama. The son of a traveling insecticide salesman and a local actress, Brando couldn’t count many pleasant childhood memories. While his father was frequently absent, his mother was an alcoholic who Brando had to bail out of jail, once even finding her naked in a bar.
Brando used those images, and others, in his acting, drawing on his own emotions and experiences to bring characters to life. Rather than playing parts, he seemed to embody them. In a now-legendary interaction at the New School for Social Research, instructor Stella Adler asked the class to pretend they were chickens in a henhouse who had just learned of an impending atomic bomb. In a room full of Chicken Little’s, Brando was the only one who remained still. When questioned, he explained that he was a chicken – and chickens didn’t know anything about bombs.
Brando credited director Elia Kazan with helping him overcome his fear of memorizing lines and also with his use of props. (In almost every film, from 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire to 1972’s The Godfather, Brando relates to the objects around him as well as the other characters.) Though Brando is considered the original Method actor, Kazan claimed that was a partial truth. The Actor’s Studio, founded by Kazan, Lee Strasberg, and Stella Adler’s husband, Harold Clurman, taught The Method, a naturalistic form of acting, but Kazan believed that Brando’s method was unique – and the result of his own genius.