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Solid. Steady. Competent. Glenn Ford embodied these qualities as an actor and as a man. He once stated that he was never acting; he was just playing himself, and the statement did not seem disingenuous. In a career that spanned over 50 years, he worked constantly in movies and TV but never received an Academy Award or Emmy Award nomination. He was one of Hollywood's biggest box-office stars during the 1950s, but still enjoyed working on the plumbing, air conditioning, and electrical wiring at his luxurious mansion in Beverly Hills. No matter the role, he projected a quiet strength, unforced affability, and masculine charm that anchored his fellow actors, whether it was the ravishing Rita Hayworth in "Gilda" (1946) or the roguish Marlon Brando in "The Teahouse of the August Moon" (1956). After mesmerizing audiences in numerous noir flicks and the controversial "Blackboard Jungle" (1955), he went on to lend class and gravitas to the role of Pa Kent in "Superman the Movie" (1978). When he died at the age of 90 - one of the last Golden Age male stars still alive into the next millennium - he left behind a legacy of consistently dignified performances. The ever dependable, manly Ford was always right...
Solid. Steady. Competent. Glenn Ford embodied these qualities as an actor and as a man. He once stated that he was never acting; he was just playing himself, and the statement did not seem disingenuous. In a career that spanned over 50 years, he worked constantly in movies and TV but never received an Academy Award or Emmy Award nomination. He was one of Hollywood's biggest box-office stars during the 1950s, but still enjoyed working on the plumbing, air conditioning, and electrical wiring at his luxurious mansion in Beverly Hills. No matter the role, he projected a quiet strength, unforced affability, and masculine charm that anchored his fellow actors, whether it was the ravishing Rita Hayworth in "Gilda" (1946) or the roguish Marlon Brando in "The Teahouse of the August Moon" (1956). After mesmerizing audiences in numerous noir flicks and the controversial "Blackboard Jungle" (1955), he went on to lend class and gravitas to the role of Pa Kent in "Superman the Movie" (1978). When he died at the age of 90 - one of the last Golden Age male stars still alive into the next millennium - he left behind a legacy of consistently dignified performances. The ever dependable, manly Ford was always right on the money.
Glenn Ford was born Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford on May 1, 1916, in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, to a prominent family. His father was a successful railroad executive and his great uncle was Sir John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada. The family moved to Santa Monica, CA when Ford was seven, where he was educated at local schools. After graduating high school, he expressed a strong desire to become an actor. His parents encouraged him as long as he learned a trade to support himself during the lean times. Ford agreed, studying carpentry, electrical wiring, and air conditioning in his spare time while working with small theater groups. Unpretentious above the craft of acting even then, he would help out by building sets if he did not have a prominent part.
Ford knew that the theater life in Los Angeles was not going to provide him with a steady paycheck so, like thousands of other aspiring actors, he tried to wrangle a screen test from one of the major film studios. He tried out for Twentieth Century Fox and eventually landed his first role in the drama "Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence" (1939). Ford's debut attracted some good reviews and - even better - a long-term contract from Columbia Pictures. Harry Cohn, the famously crass chief of Columbia, convinced Ford that the movie-going public (as well Cohn himself) would have a tough time pronouncing the name "Gwyllyn," so Ford changed his first name to "Glenn."
At Columbia, Ford met another young, male contract player from a well-to-do Southern California family named William Holden. Cohn hoped to pit the two actors against each other for parts, hoping the competition would keep them easy to control. Rather than resent each other, Ford and Holden became life-long friends whose successful careers roughly paralleled each other, though Holden eventually became the bigger box office draw. Ford began to work steadily in the early 1940s in a succession of B movies - which Columbia was known for churning out. With titles like "Convicted Woman" (1940) and "Babies for Sale" (1940) nobody was going to confuse these flicks with RKO's "Citizen Kane" (1941) or MGM's "Philadelphia Story" (1940), but they were the type of studio product that allowed Ford to learn his craft as he moved along up the ladder.
As he gained more experienced, Cohn took notice and the parts got better. He played one of the leads opposite pal Holden in the western "Texas" (1941) and nabbed another starring role in Columbia's first Technicolor western "The Desperad s" (1943). He starred in the wartime drama "Destroyer" (1943), playing a Navy man fighting the Japanese, but by this time, reality had overtaken fantasy. Ford put his acting career on hold and joined the Marine Corps Reserve, working as a photographic specialist in San Diego. Now working to defeat the Japanese for real, he worked in military public relations in a variety of capacities before receiving an honorable discharge at the end of 1944, returning home to wife, famed tap dancer-actress Eleanor Powell, whom he had married in 1943. The famous couple would go on to have a son, actor Peter Ford, and divorce in 1959. Throughout the years, Ford would go on to marry three other women after Powell, including Kathryn Hays, Cynthia Hayward and Jeanne Baus.
Back in post-war Hollywood, Ford's film career took off. First up was the film by which all other Ford films would be measured - "Gilda." Designed as a vehicle for the studio's flame-haired sexpot Rita Hayworth, the noir classic moved her to a whole new level of stardom, but in her satin and diamond-clad wake, Ford picked up heat as well, playing her crafty and often cruel lover who would just as soon smack her as kiss her. The couple's onscreen chemistry was palpable - leading Cohn to think his two cash cows were getting together off-screen, so the studio head resorted to bugging Hayworth's trailer. In fact, Ford and Hayworth became close friends - possibly lovers, as Ford admitted later on in years - and began an on-screen collaboration that included several solid films, including "The Loves of Carmen" (1948) and "Affair in Trinidad" (1952). Ford's laconic, grounded machismo allowed a goddess like Hayworth to shine without the film losing its moorings in reality.
With "Gilda" making him an instant A-lister, Ford put this new box office power to excellent use, starring opposite the formidable Bette Davis (playing twins!) in one of her most popular "women's" pictures, "A Stolen Life" (1946). But Ford did not limit himself to taming wild women on screen. Through the balance of the late 1940s and into the early 1950s, he continued to grapple with the Wild West in movies like "The Man from Colorado" (1948) and "Lust for Gold" (1949), as well as wild men in prison dramas like "Convicted" (1950) and "The Secret of Convict Lake" (1951).
With his uncanny ability to project calm in the center of the storm, Ford found himself the star of two of the seminal films of the 1950s. "The Big Heat" (1953), a classic film noir directed by the great Fritz Lang, showcased Ford as Detective Dave Bannion, a tough cop who takes on a big city crime syndicate. Vengeful, violent, and ambiguously moral, Ford's character convincingly stands up to a terrifying Lee Marvin playing a mob thug. It was a tribute to Ford's everyman empathy that the audience never turned against him despite his onscreen brutality - toward men and even women. In "Blackboard Jungle" (1955) Ford played another authority figure, but this time in a different setting. In the role of an idealistic inner city teacher who inherits a class of unruly, violent students, Ford did some of his finest work. Refusing to give in to the easy cynicism displayed by his fellow teachers, he takes on Vic Morrow's violent gang leader, no less a sociopath than the one Lee Marvin played in "The Big Heat." He ultimately wins the hearts and minds of his pupils, most notably the class leader played by Sidney Poitier. Poitier, a great admirer of Ford's work, would later pay tribute to him by playing a similar teacher role in "To Sir, With Love" (1967).
"Blackboard Jungle" was a huge hit and received four Academy Award nominations. Alas, none of those nominations went to the underappreciated Ford. It was an egregious slight - with cinephiles finding it hard to imagine the movie working near as well as it did without the decency and strength of Ford's performance at its core. But the actor, in his typical gracious fashion, did not complain and just went on acting in a variety of films, grateful for the work. "The Teahouse of the August Moon" was a nice change of pace, showing Ford's knack for comedy. Playing an American military officer sent to Okinawa to import democracy to the locals after World War II, Ford g s head-to-head with Marlon Brando's broad portrayal of a Japanese interpreter. "Teahouse" was Brando's movie, to be sure, but Ford gave a more realistic and equally comedic performance.
The late 1950s saw Ford return to his Western roots. "The Fastest Gun Alive" (1956) displayed to good advantage Ford's remarkable ability to quick draw a pistol. He was, in fact, considered more skilled than even John Wayne at handling a firearm. He played an outlaw in "3:10 to Yuma," a classic Western that was re-made in 2007 with Russell Crowe reprising Ford's Ben Wade role. He mentored a young Jack Lemmon in the macho ways of the Western hero in the obviously named "Cowboy" (1958) and helped satirize the genre in the quirky "The Sheepman" (1958). Ford's on-screen and off-screen personas also coalesced in the late 1950s. Not only did he play a succession of military roles in films like "Don't Go Near the Water" (1957), "Imitation General" (1958), "Torpedo Run" (1958), and "It Started with a Kiss" (1959), he also joined the military as well. In 1958, Ford signed up with the US Naval Reserve and was commissioned as a lieutenant commander. As a public affairs officer, he promoted the Navy through radio and TV broadcasts, personal appearances, and documentary films. Although born in Canada, he established himself as one of the most patriotic actors in Hollywood.
Unlike friend and fellow actor Ronald Reagan, however, Ford was not about to give up his day job for politics. He continued working into the 1960s, moving between comedies, dramas and family films. "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961) reunited Ford with Bette Davis, his co-star from "A Stolen Life." The movie was sentimental and old-fashioned but found an audience despite the looming social upheavals of the 1960s. "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1963) allowed Ford to play a playboy, a role his innate nobility undermined to a degree. "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" (1963) found Ford in a more familiar and comfortable role as a widower whose precocious son (a young Ron Howard) wants him back in the dating pool. The charming comedy gave rise to a popular sitcom that ran on ABC from 1969 through 1972.
Ford had been a product of the old Hollywood studio system, and once the film industry gave in to the tectonic shifts of the 1960s, his career began to wane. "The Money Trap" (1965) was a talent trap, wasting the efforts of old pros like Ford, Joseph Cotton, and an aging Rita Hayworth. Ford tried to resurrect the Western with "Day of the Evil Gun" (1968), but it lacked the post-modern cynicism that would make "The Wild Bunch" (1969) and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969) so compelling. Turning to TV, he starred in the series "Cade's County" (CBS, 1971-72). Yet another Western, but the long-running "Bonanza" (NBC, 1959-1973) had indicated that television audiences were slower to give up their cowboy her s than their movie counterparts. Alas, "Cade's County" only lasted two seasons despite favorable reviews.
As the 1970s brought on a revolution in Hollywood filmmaking with special effect-driven blockbusters by young directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Ford's career - like the cattle he had herded in so many Westerns - largely went out to pasture. "Midway" (1976) gave him a chance to play a Naval officer again. "Superman: The Movie" (1978) gave him a chance to shine in the role of Jonathan Kent, Superman's adoptive Earth father. It was a small part, but Ford infused it with his usual dignity and grace. More indicative of the types of roles now being offered him was that of Detective Jake Durham in "The Visitor" (1979). The story of a young girl with telekinetic powers becoming a pawn in a battle between God and Satan, Ford could not save the movie. Whether he could save the girl was hard to say, since almost no one saw the film; it mercifully got a very limited release in theaters and on video.
As Ford got older and his health began to decline, his career wound down during the 1980s. He worked primarily in TV movies, lending his talents to a few unremarkable projects, with the best being "My Town" (ABC, 1986). A series of strokes left him partially incapacitated and he retired from acting in the early 1990s. The mediocrity of his later projects, however, did not tarnish his reputation or his dignity. Glenn Ford died on Aug. 30, 2006, from natural causes, but his strong body of work ensured his place among the finest film actors of the twentieth century.
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