When Harrison Ford signed on to star in the Yellowstone spinoff series 1923, it was a bigger surprise than many people even realized. Sure, we'd long since passed the point where movie stars doing TV was notable or shocking. But Ford seemed to be the last remaining holdout. He made some very minor guest appearances on shows like Ironsides and The Mod Squad to start his career, but once Ford became a movie star with 1977's Star Wars, he never looked back to the small screen. Even after streamers with deep pockets started throwing money at stars, changing the TV landscape, Ford stayed away. Which is why it's so deeply strange that in the last two months we'll have gotten two separate TV shows starring Harrison Ford, the latest being the Apple TV+ comedy Shrinking.
The lone exception in Ford's longstanding aversion to television prior to 2022 was a single episode of the spinoff series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Long before the days of film franchises extending their brand to TV, when Disney+ was merely a glint in Mickey Mouse's eye, George Lucas produced a prequel to what was then his trilogy of Indiana Jones movies. The ABC series starred Sean Patrick Flannery as the college-aged Indy, a soldier and, later, spy in World War I who then returns to the States and attends college. But what he mostly does is traipse around the globe interacting with famous historical figures — from Teddy Roosevelt, to Pancho Villa, to Pablo Picasso.
Watching it from a 2023 perspective, the show is undeniably corny, and the production quality reflects the network TV budgets of the era, but there's also an admirable earnestness to this show, which was clearly meant to be watched by families with children who could learn a thing or two from one of their favorite silver screen adventurers. For the most part, Young Indy's adventures were framed as flashback stories being told by a 90-year-old Indy (George Hall). But for one episode, in ABC’s bid to goose the show's middling ratings, the story was framed by Harrison Ford himself as a grizzled fiftysomething, still adventuring and getting into scrapes. (Later this year, the eightysomething Ford will be adventuring and getting into scrapes in a fifth Indiana Jones film.)
The episode, "Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Blues, was a feature-length entry that might have been titled "The One Where Indy Learns About Jazz" or perhaps "The One Where Indy Meets Al Capone." It’s packed with guest stars like Nope's Keith David and The Sopranos' Frank Vincent. Jeffrey Wright plays jazz legend Sidney Bechet, who guides Indy through the music scene in Chicago and tries to impart some wisdom about jazz and the blues. Jane Krakowski co-stars as the club-singer second wife of Chicago gangster Jim Colosimo, who gets gunned down, probably by a young Al Capone (Nicholas Turturro). Lessons are learned about government corruption and musical authenticity in the segregation era, and Indy pals around with his college chums Eliott Ness (Frederick Weller) and Ernest Hemingway (Jay Underwood).
But if you're in it for the Harrison Ford of it all, you're only getting a few minutes at the very beginning and very end. Indy and his Native American compatriot Grey Cloud (Saginaw Grant) are in snowy Wyoming, trying to evade would-be thieves who are after a pipe that Grey Cloud's people consider to be a sacred relic. Holed up in a cabin that Indy's used as a hideout through the years, he finds a sacred relic of his own: his old soprano saxophone. That's right, Indiana Jones could blow back in the day. Or at least he fancied that he could. Cue the flashback!
After Indy's story of jazz and gangland murder in the Prohibition age is over, we return to the cabin to close the loop on this adventure. It looks like the bad guys have the jump on Indy and Grey Cloud… or so they thought! Turns out being a pretty mediocre saxophonist does have its advantages, as Indy blows a bum note so loudly that snow comes crashing off of the roof and incapacitates his foes.
As Ford’s only scripted TV appearance between the years 1976 and 1993, it's underwhelming to the point of being campy. He's even sporting an uncharacteristic and deeply unruly beard, because this episode was filmed while Ford was making The Fugitive. We don't know for sure that he filmed this scene on a lunch break while they were setting up for the train-crash shot in The Fugitive, for example, but we at least have to entertain the possibility.
And yet, the slapdash nature of these bookend scenes is undeniably charming. If you can allow your brain to separate the Indiana Jones of the films (cool, dashing, not dreadfully serious but also doesn't go around tootling on his saxophone in order to foil the bad guys) from the Young Indy of the TV show (Forrest Gump-ing his way through half a century of American history; annoying about jazz), this episode is honestly a pretty fun time. Ford should've done more, especially if he got to play a little sax in them all. Though perhaps it's better that it's just this one episode — an artifact that any cultural archaeologist would tell you is well worth digging up.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Harrison Ford, 1923, Shrinking, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles