BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
The line was, “Martha Clark Kent, are you listening to what I’m saying?” It was scripted for Glenn Ford, playing a Kansas farmer named Jonathan Kent in the 1978 movie Superman. A spaceship containing the baby Superman had just crash-landed in the Kent wheat field and the farmer’s wife – played by Phyllis Thaxter – was suggesting they keep the apparently orphaned boy as their own. After a brief exchange about the pros and cons of doing this, the farmer put his foot down.
Ford kept forgetting the words. By the time director Richard Donner got to what felt like the 10th or 11th take, those of us watching the scene from behind the cameras were mouthing the line along with the 61-year-old actor, silently cueing him: “Martha Clark Kent, are you listening to what I’m saying?”
Afterwards, Ford praised the director for his patience. A good director, he told me, is one who gives an actor “the luxury of imperfection.” Things rarely unfolded as planned when a movie was being shot. If the match failed to light the first time, you didn’t stop the scene, you lit another one. If the car failed to start, you didn’t say, “Cut!” “Cars don’t always start the first time anyhow.”
Nor, apparently, did they always stop. There had been a moment of panic on the Superman set the previous week when the old pickup truck that Ford was driving in the movie lost its brakes while coming down a hill. Quick-thinking Ford grabbed the handbrake and stopped the truck by slamming it into a camera dolly. “You can always stop a horse,” said the square-jawed actor, “but there’s not much you can do when a car doesn’t have brakes.” Nobody was injured in the incident.
I asked him what he thought of his cameo role in Superman, playing a man who reluctantly agrees to raise the super-baby as his own after his wife convinces him the boy has no parents – “not around here, anyway.” “It’s a very simple part, not that big,” said Ford. “It has a lot of me in it. He’s a private person who minds his business, with morals as basic as the soil he tills.”
He wasn’t bothered by the fact he had only about a dozen lines in the movie. There was too much talking in motion pictures anyhow. While many actors tended to complain about the shortage of big speeches in their scripts, Ford liked to keep the words to a minimum. “Often, I don’t say much more than ‘yep’ or ‘nope.’ Most screen acting you do with the eyes anyhow.”
His favourite roles over the course of his 40-year career had been those where he spent much of the movie in the saddle. Horses had always played a major role in Ford’s life, both off screen and on. When his Anglo-Quebec parents moved the family from Canada to California in the 1920s, eight-year-old Glenn spent more time with horses than with people. Four years as Will Rogers’s stable boy laid the groundwork for his future career as an actor, starring in B-movie westerns where Ford invariably played the shy cowboy with a conscience. “Will Rogers took a liking to me and taught me how to ride,” he said. “Seems to me, being on a horse is where I was always meant to be.” That caused Ford to have mixed feelings when he started playing cowboys in the movies. “I thought it was obscene to be paid for going out into beautiful countryside and riding a horse. When I wasn’t acting, that’s what I did anyhow to relax.”
I was surprised to note he still had a lot of Canadian inflexions in his speech even though Ford had lived in the States for more than 50 years. “I used to have a lot of trouble with directors about that,” he said. “They didn’t like my ‘outs’ and ‘abouts,’ and wanted me to say ‘aht’ and ‘abaht the house.’ But eventually they had to give up and let me do it my way. Besides, who’s to say I didn’t come down from Canada in this movie to show them in Kansas how to grow wheat?”
He had worked in television in the early 1970s, playing a sheriff in a western series called Cade’s County that was cancelled after one season. He then played a preacher in a Depression-era family drama called The Family Holvak, which was also cancelled after one season. “That was ironic, really,” said Ford. “They cancelled the first series because it was too violent, and the second one because it was too peaceful.”
I asked him which he preferred, movies or television. Ford found little difference between the two, except that the pace was faster in television. “Things are always slow in the movie business, particularly when you’re working with special effects or – in the case of this movie – you’re waiting for the weather conditions to be right. If they try to rush me, I always tell them I have only one speed – slower.” His short scene with the baby Superman, which took all day to film, ran for just one minute in the movie.
Superman did well at the box office. Shot for $25 million, it grossed $134 million and led to three sequels. Ford didn’t appear in any of the sequels, but there was a scene in a 2006 movie, Superman Returns, where a framed photograph of Ford as Pa Kent was displayed in Clark Kent’s old home in tribute to the Canadian-born actor.
Ford died in 2006 at age 90 after suffering a series of strokes. At his busiest, in the 1960s, he had sometimes shot as many as four movies at once. Asked why he rarely took a vacation, Ford replied: “I like to work.”
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2014
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