LOS ANGELES (USA TODAY) -- Harrison Ford was trying on his getup for 42 - fat suit, wig, and false eyebrows that look like caterpillars squaring off - when director Brian Helgeland remarked that he could see no sign of the star.
"Good," Ford quipped. "I'm tired of that guy."
There's not much of "that guy'' to be found in 42, the drama about Jackie Robinson's shattering of pro baseball's color barrier. Ford plays Branch Rickey, the pioneering Brooklyn Dodgers executive who signed Robinson (who wore number 42 when he made his major-league debut in 1947).
Ford marks a couple of milestones of his own with the film, which opens Friday. For the first time in the 70-year-old's 50-plus-films career, the topic is sports. He wears prosthetics to make him look older and larger. And for the first time since he can remember, he's not the anchor. The most iconic action star of the past 50 years has decided it's time to take a back seat.
"At this point, I'm not thinking I can play the leading man in many of the popular films we see today,'' Ford says over coffee at the Los Angeles Sports Museum, a shrine to the heroes of yesteryear, including Robinson.
REVIEW: 42 is solid, but no hall of famer
"But I'm quite happy," he says. "When I started my career, I thought I would be a character actor. I never thought I had a chance at leading man roles. I thought that was for good-looking guys with talent."
Ford still fits the bill just fine. At 6-foot-1 and hovering around 200 pounds, he remains an imposing figure.
"You should have seen when he came to a high school baseball field just to visit with me," says Chadwick Boseman, who plays Robinson and is making just his second feature film appearance. "When he walked into the dugout, the whole place went crazy. The cast, the crew, people in the stands. It was like royalty had just arrived."
But Ford says the attention doesn't mean as much as it did when he began his career in 1966 with an uncredited role as a bellhop in the James Coburn crime drama Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round.
"I used to think how great it would be to make a living as an actor, to not have to do something else," he says. "But I never thought I'd get to do the breadth of movies I got to do. I was thinking, 'maybe I'll get some parts in television shows.' ''
Instead, Ford would become one of the biggest box office draws in Hollywood history. His films have grossed nearly $6 billion worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.
And along the way, Ford created some of the industry's most iconic action heroes in Han Solo from the Star Wars franchise and Indiana Jones. Those series grossed more than $2.8 billion in the U.S. alone.
Ford says that while the success of Star Wars caught him off guard in 1977, he was equally surprised by how the industry saw him after the first three films.
"I knew there was a difference in how the business saw leading men and character actors, though I never really thought there was a difference," he says. "Still, I don't think people knew what to make of me (after Star Wars). It wasn't until Witness that people started considering me a leading man.''
While that 1985 Peter Weir drama was a minor box office success - it did $69 million domestically - Ford says the Amish crime story was the film that truly opened doors.
"I had never been given that much range before," he says of the role of detective John Book, which earned him his sole best actor Academy Award nomination.
"Even if you know what you're doing, no one is going to listen," he says of directors and producers early in his career. "Instead you get, 'Just shut up and say the lines.' That's something I've heard more than one time."
No one says that now. Ford says that while his standing in the industry has changed, his attitude toward film has not. He remains one of the most hands-on actors in the business, known for giving input on everything from script changes to camera angles.
"Harrison was never in his trailer," says Helgeland, who penned the screenplay (and has directed 1999's Payback and 2001's A Knight's Tale, among other films). "He was always on set, talking with the other actors or the crew. And that wasn't some days. When Harrison came in to work for the day, you'd never find him sitting around relaxing and drinking coffee. He's there to work."
Talking about work is another matter. Ford, a father of five who has been married to Calista Flockhart since 2010, calls a day speaking with media "no worse than a day of waterboarding." Along with Tommy Lee Jones, he has a reputation as a tough interview who does not suffer fools or Internet rumors gladly.
Asked to address the buzz surrounding whether he'll reprise his role in Disney's Star Wars: Episode VII, due in 2015, Ford leans back in his chair, waits a second and gives a terse response:
"I got nothing to say about that.''
Ford explains his reticence, cultivated over the years by producers promising more than they could deliver and reporters who were interested in his private life more than his professional life.
"If someone says 'Trust me,' and it's not a sushi chef in a sushi bar, I'm immediately suspicious. I'm not a faith-based actor."
Still, Ford was so impressed with Helgeland's script that he sought the role. And even with his resume, Ford wasn't sure he'd get the part.
"Clearly, they weren't going to be signing me as Jackie Robinson," Ford says. "But I got the impression that Brian wanted a character actor at first, not me."
Helgeland sheepishly agrees.
"He's a legend," he says. "But that doesn't always work in a movie. Sometimes not knowing the actors makes it more realistic. I didn't want people to look and say 'There's Harrison Ford playing Branch Rickey.' I just wanted people to think 'That is Branch Rickey.' "
So did Ford, who compiled biographies, news footage and even a clip of Rickey's guest appearance on What's My Line to portray the Bible-thumping baseball exec who didn't attend Sunday games and rarely traveled with the team so he would be home for dinner.
As Ford did his research, he says he discovered that Rickey was more than a sports figure, which made the part alluring.
"I was never a huge sports fan," Ford says. "I don't really follow teams, and didn't know much about the history of baseball before this."
But Rickey "was a man who was passionate about social justice. He cared a lot about ethics and morality."
Another draw: the film's unflinching look at race relations in the late 1940s.
"Modern audiences need to be reminded of the reality of the world they were living in," Ford says. "It's an accurate description of what was happening 60 years ago in this country. It wasn't just the state of baseball. It was the state of the United States. Lincoln looked at the nation's standards and ideals of this country. So did Django Unchained. It's important to look at our nation's standards and ideals, including if we fall short of it."
Ford accepts that he'll have to work harder to find similar scripts. "I'm not sure what Hollywood is looking for," he says. "I just work here."
Still, he adds, "I know there aren't a lot of parts for 70-year-old guys. But I'm not worried about it. I'm getting roles that are just as interesting, if not more so. And people know where I am if they want to find me."