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Image: Harrison Ford
Universal Pictures
Harrison Ford stars in "Cowboys & Aliens."
By
TODAY contributor
updated 8/1/2011 11:27:38 AM ET 2011-08-01T15:27:38

The first time Harrison Ford really burst onto moviegoers’ radar was as the Stetson-wearing Bob Falfa in the 1973 film “American Graffiti.” From that, he got a carpentry gig remodeling director George Lucas’ office, and as a result of that association snagged small roles in the Francis Ford Coppola films “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now.”

Smash-cut to present day. On July 29, Ford will share the marquee with Daniel Craig in the action-adventure film “Cowboys & Aliens.” A lot of celluloid has gone by since Ford cruised the streets of Modesto in that cherry ’55 Chevy. He established himself as a Hollywood superstar in the “Star Wars” series and the “Indiana Jones” franchise, along with “Blade Runner,” “Witness,” “Patriot Games,” “The Fugitive” and many others.

Video: Watch the 'Cowboys and Aliens' trailer (on this page)

Say “Harrison Ford” to a film buff and you will likely get a wave of warm nostalgia in return. But since he's just turned 69, it’s only natural to wonder if the actor still has the magic.

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“Statistically I would say no, that he no longer has that kind of power as a movie star,” said Grae Drake, film critic for movies.com. “If you look at his movies from the past 10 or 11 years, there’s nothing that you could say was highly acclaimed, or nothing that was a huge breakout hit at the box office, with the exception of the last ‘Indiana Jones’ film, which had a lot of built-in nostalgia money in it.”

But Drake said that even though the Harrison Ford of 2011 isn’t as bankable as he might have been in previous decades, his presence in any film adds value.

Video: 'Cowboys and Aliens' inside look (on this page)

“He’s like a comfortable blanket that we all like to put on,” Drake explained. “But he, like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, realize that monetarily they’re not pulling in the kind of attention they used to.

“I like to believe he’s slowed down because that seems to be appropriate for an actor of his age. He’s long proven himself. He’s been working for over 40 years. And he can do anything — action, comedy, thrillers, drama. He’s everyman.”

It’s that last point that probably drives the Harrison Ford ethos to this day. Over the years, in one handsome leading-man role after another, Ford has embodied the qualities of a protagonist that build trust and carry over from project to project.

Story: Who do you want on your side: Han Solo, or Indiana Jones?

Jay Mechling, a professor emeritus of American studies at the University of California-Davis, explained that what Ford isn’t is “a hero who is a loner with special skills of violence,” someone like the heroes of “Shane,” “Dirty Harry” or “Rambo.”

“The other sort of hero is that everyman, thrust into a situation involuntarily, sometimes by accident,” Mechling said. “(Director Alfred) Hitchcock loved using Jimmy Stewart in that role. Harrison Ford has had a string of roles where the hero is thrust into that situation where he must act to save someone.”

Slideshow: Harrison Ford's many roles (on this page)

Everyman actors need specific qualities, Mechling said. “I think it’s the way they act with their faces and voices, their body language and speech patterns,” he said. “Stewart had it in his droopy, sad look and his stuttering delivery. He was tall, but could portray resignation in his shrinking body. He could convey bewilderment.

“The everyman is at the mercy of people and forces he barely knows and barely understands. He chooses not to be a victim in the face of this bewilderment and threat.”

One of the most underrated examples of this is Ford’s performance as Dr. Richard Walker in the 1988 Roman Polanski thriller, “Frantic.” In it, Ford arrives with his wife for a conference in Paris, and she disappears. Suddenly, he is presented with an emotional trauma mixed with mystery, and as the everyman, must figure out what happened and get his wife back.

Story: Would Harrison Ford play Indiana Jones again?

There are other examples in the Ford canon as well, including “Presumed Innocent” in 1990, “The Fugitive” in ’93 and “Firewall” in 2006.

Roger Ebert, longtime critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, has been on the beat for all of Ford’s career. He said some actors are just natural at this everyman thing, and Ford happens to be one of them.

“He is such a reliable action hero,” noted Ebert, “because it never seems to be an effort.”

Video: Cast of 'Cowboys' discuss their characters (on this page)

Richard Loncraine, who directed Ford in the 2006 thriller “Firewall,” said it almost doesn’t matter what film the actor’s in. Ford brings a level of authenticity to his work that applies to any material.

"I haven't seen ‘Cowboys and Aliens,’ ” he said, “but if there is one quality that Harrison can bring to this film, apart from being a superb actor, it’s that he could make anything seem believable, even cowboys and aliens.

“When we worked together on ‘Firewall’ he was as staunch an ally as any director could wish for. ('Cowboys' director) Jon Favreau was lucky to have him on board."

While Ford is at that stage of his career where his body of work speaks for itself, there is still a nagging suggestion that he might need a hit in order to burnish his reputation.

“My instinct says that there is nothing at stake for him because he is already a superstar,” Drake said. “It’s hard to say whether this is going to bring him back somehow.” Drake added that the focus on “Cowboys & Aliens” as a big summer release will be more on whether audiences buy the concept, not on one particular actor.

“I wonder if, at this time in his career, it just looks like a lot of fun,” Drake added. “Harrison Ford deserves to have fun at this age. He’s delighted us for decades.”

Michael Ventre is a regular contributor to Today.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVentre44.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Vote: Pick one: Han Solo, or Indiana Jones?

Video: Watch the 'Cowboys and Aliens' trailer

Photos: Harrison Ford

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  1. Chairman of the board

    Harrison Ford cradles the Board of the Governors Award he was presented with at the 26th annual American Society of Cinematographers' Outstanding Achievement Awards, held in Hollywood, Calif. on Feb. 12, 2012. (Angela Weiss / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Golden couple

    Ford and wife Calista Flockhart attend the 69th Golden Globe awards in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Jan. 15, 2012. (Frazer Harrison / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Frequent flyer

    Ford, who is a pilot as well as an actor, attends the Senate General Aviation Caucus meeting in Washington on Oct. 18, 2011. (Paul Morigi / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 'Cowboys & Aliens'

    Ford is still playing a hero, even decades after his start in film. He stars with James Bond star Daniel Craig in 2011's "Cowboys & Aliens." (Universal Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Can't wait!

    Ford accepts the most anticipated movie award for "Cowboy & Aliens" at the Spike TV Guys Choice Awards on Saturday, June 4, 2011, in Culver City, Calif. Looking on are Jon Favreau and Jeremy Renner. Favreau directs the film. (Matt Sayles / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. What's the story, 'Morning Glory'?

    Ford and Rachel McAdams attend the UK premiere of their 2010 film, "Morning Glory," held at The Empire Leicester Square on Jan. 11, 2011, in London. He plays a veteran journalist and she an aspiring producer in the world of morning television. (Dave Hogan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Wake-up call

    Diane Keaton also stars with Ford in "Morning Glory." (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Red-carpet couple

    Ford and wife Calista Flockhart arrive at the premiere of "Extraordinary Measures" at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010. (Danny Moloshok / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'Extraordinary Measures'

    In 2010's "Extraordinary Measures," Brendan Fraser, right, plays John Crowley, a biotechnology executive, whose two youngest children were afflicted with Pompe disease. He raises money for research scientist Robert Stonehill (Ford), forming a company to develop a drug to save his children's lives. (CBS Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 'Crossing Over'

    Ford plays an immigration officer in 2009's "Crossing Over," which explores the allure of the American dream, and the reality that immigrants find --- and create -- in 21st century Los Angeles. (The Weinstein Company) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Advocate

    Ford speaks during the second Governors' Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009. (Reed Saxon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Indy returns!

    Ford reprised his role as Indiana Jones in 2008's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Shia LaBeouf played Mutt, Jones' son with "Raiders of the Lost Ark" paramour Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Big kid

    Ford gets slimed during the 21st Annual Kids' Choice Awards in Los Angeles, in 2008. (Matt Sayles / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Pitching in

    Flockhart and Ford join Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa Nov. 2007, to dish up Thanksgiving dinner to hundreds of men, women and children who live in Los Angeles' Skid Row. (Reed Saxon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Meet the press

    Ford answers question as he arrives at the Rome Film Festival in October 2006. Ford was at the festival to honor Jim Berkus, co-founder and president of the United Talent Agency. (Vincenzo Pinto / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Drama king

    Ford promotes his film "Firewall" at the Coliseum Cinema in Barcelona on March 2006. The film tells the story of a bank-security executive (Ford) who must rob his own bank in order to ensure the safety of his kidnapped wife and children. (Lluis Gene / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Globe trotters

    "Firewall" co-stars Virginia Madsen and Ford share a laugh backstage before presenting at the 63rd Annual Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 16, 2006. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Jedi mind trick

    Flockhart and Ford pose with storm troopers at the 33rd American Film Institute Life Achievement Awards after-party on June 9, 2005 in Hollywood, Calif. Ford starred as Han Solo in "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back," and "Return of the Jedi." (Vince Bucci / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. True star

    Ford attends a ceremony honoring him with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on May 30, 2003 in Hollywood, Calif. (Vince Bucci / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Ready for action

    Ford films a scene on the set of "Hollywood Homicide," on Sept. 17, 2002 in Beverly Hills, Calif. He co-starred with Josh Hartnett in this film about two moonlighting L.A. cops. (Frazer Harrison / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Real hero

    On July 10, 2001, Ford used his helicopter in a search-and-rescue mission in Jackson, Wy. Ford located 13-year-old Boy Scout Cody Clawson, who had wandered off the trail. Clawson's mom told People magazine, "Cody said the kids asked if he got an autograph and he said, 'No, but I got a hug and a handshake, and that's better.'" (Getty Images / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Pensive pair

    Ford starred opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in the 2000 film, "What Lies Beneath." The pair played a husband and wife who are haunted by a specter from Ford's past. (Dreamworks) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Three amigos

    Ford receives the American Film Institute's lifetime achievement award from director George Lucas while director Steven Spielberg looks on in Beverly Hills, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 17, 2000. Lucas cast Ford in "American Graffiti" and "Star Wars," and Spielberg directed him in the "Indiana Jones" movies. (Michael Caulfield / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Former couple

    Ford and his former wife Melissa Mathison attend the premiere of "Six Days and Seven Nights" on June 8, 1998. The two divorced in 2004 after more than two decades of marriage. (Brenda Chase / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. All wet

    Harrison Ford and Anne Heche starred together in "Six Days Seven Nights" as feuding pair who crash on a deserted South Seas island. The film was a notorious flop. (Touchstone Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Power player

    Ford is greeted by President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a 2005 White House state dinner honoring Blair and wife Cherie. (Joyce Naltchayan / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Tasty trio

    Ruben Blades, Ford and Brad Pitt starred in 1997's "The Devil's Own." Ford played a police officer who realizes his houseguest (Pitt) is an IRA agent. (Getty Images / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Turbulent flight

    Harrison Ford starred as the president of the United States in 1997's "Air Force One." The presidential plane is hijacked by bad guy Gary Oldman. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Harvard follies

    Ford beams as Nick Gordon and Jason Watkins plant a kiss on him during the Hasty Pudding Theatrics Man of the Year Award Presentation at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., on Feb 20, 1996. (Stuart Cahill / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. 'Working' for a living

    Ford teamed up with Melanie Griffith in this 1988 film about a Staten Island-raised secretary who gets her corporate big break when she impersonates her injured boss -- and stealing her boyfriend (Ford) in the process. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. 'Mosquito Coast'

    In this 1986 film, Allie Fox (Ford) and his wife take their family to Central America to build a paradise that is never found. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Top cop

    Ford starred as Rick Deckard in Ridley Scott's 1982 film "Blade Runner." In the sci-fi thriller, Deckard must track down and kill four replicants (human clones). (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. The birth of Indy

    Ford struck cinematic gold starting as swashbuckling archeologist Indiana Jones in 1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark." The film sparked three sequels. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. 'The Frisco Kid'

    This 1979 comedy, directed by Robert Aldrich, tells the story of a Polish rabbi (played by Gene Wilder) who is traveling to San Francisco, and Ford as a bank robber who befriends him. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Let the Wookiee win

    Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Ford) outwit Darth Vader and destroy the Death Star in 1977's "Star Wars." She loves him. He knows. (Twentieth Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Reporting for duty

    Ford had a featured role in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 classic, "Apocalypse Now." (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Early break

    Director George Lucas took notice of Ford early, casting him in his 1973 film "American Graffitti" opposite other rising stars such as Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard. (Universal Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. American Society Of Cinematographers' 26th Annual Outstanding Achievement Awards
    Angela Weiss / Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (37) Harrison Ford
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