Han Solo In Ripon: Harrison Ford's Wisconsin Roots

Audio | December 14, 2015
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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away from Hollywood, future movie star Harrison Ford was coming of age in Wisconsin. He went to college here, discovered his love of performing, and got his first professional acting job. He also met and married his first wife.

Perhaps most significantly, Ford developed his roguish reputation in the Badger State. That act came in handy for his breakthrough performance as Han Solo in 1977’s Star Wars.

Harry Ford entered Ripon College in 1960 as a C student from the Chicago suburbs. He had no particular goals in college, so he drifted for four years. He signed up for ROTC but left after refusing to cut his hair. He hustled money playing pool and lost interest in his philosophy major. By second semester of his senior year he’d become thoroughly disrespectable, sleeping through class and flunking out.

Then a miracle occurred in central Wisconsin. Ford decided to take a theater class during his last quarter despite a bad case of stage fright. He donned a fake mustache and starred in The Skin of Our Teeth in Ripon’s Red Barn Theater.

By the end of the term, Harrison scarcely cared that he wouldn’t graduate due to bad grades. He had found his calling--or so he thought.

That summer, he decided to test the waters with his first professional acting job in Williams Bay. The Wisconsin village had its own summer stock repertory company, the Belfry Players, which performed in a converted Mormon church. Ford signed on as a resident actor—a low-paying gig that also required him to help out with carpentry.

At the start of the summer season, Ford drove to Mequon to wed his college girlfriend, Mary Marquardt. Rather than go on a honeymoon, they headed back to Williams Bay so he could perform that night in Take Her She’s Mine. Mary got a job working in the Belfry Players’ box office, and the two lived together in a dormitory adjoining the theater.

Sporting a 1964 Beatle haircut, Ford appeared in six plays. He occasionally flubbed lines and made a fool of himself. Still, he felt himself maturing as an actor. At the end of the summer he and Mary packed up their old Volkswagen so Ford could try his luck in Hollywood.

It took a while, but he did indeed get lucky there. He scored huge hits with Star Wars and the Indiana Jones series. Eventually, he became the highest-grossing movie star of all time.

In 1985, Ford was offered a more humble recognition: an honorary degree from Ripon, the college he’d flunked out of two decades earlier. He declined the offer, passing up the chance to finally become respectable in the state of Wisconsin.

I guess you’d expect nothing less of Han Solo.

Tags: Star Wars / Han Solo / college / acting / theater / Harrison Ford / Ripon College / Indiana Jones / actor
Dean Robbins

Dean Robbins is a journalist and author based in Madison. He has won state and national awards for arts, features and news stories, and has contributed to magazines and newspapers around the country.