When you've carried three worldwide-hit franchises by outgunning spaceships, outrunning giant boulders and outwitting international terrorists, you're entitled to kick back and have a little fun. Which explains what action hero extraordinaire Harrison Ford is doing in "Morning Glory," an ensemble comedy set behind the scenes of a floundering network morning show.

"Morning Glory," opening Wednesday, finds a comic angle on Ford's cantankerous maverick persona. He plays Mike Pomeroy, a high-profile TV anchor irate at his demotion to a news-lite program. In a phone interview last week, Ford conceded that there may be aspects of his personality in the Pomeroy character. Like the obstinate newsman he plays, Ford has his standards. And he fights for them.

He first appeared in the mid-1960s on "The Mod Squad" and "Ironside," but learned carpentry so that his choices wouldn't be dictated by financial concerns. Even early in his career he was dismissive of material he considered substandard. Ford repeated for me his blunt reaction to the awkward dialogue in George Lucas' "Star Wars" script. "I told him quite simply, 'George, you can type this [expletive] but you sure can't say it.'"

No mere naysayer, Ford can be a superb collaborator. He ad-libbed some of his most memorable (and hilarious) moments as Han Solo and Indiana Jones. During production of "The Empire Strikes Back," Ford objected to Han uncharacteristically echoing Princess Leia's declaration of love before he was frozen alive.

Director Irvin Kershner allowed Ford to improvise a take, in which he responded to Leia's "I love you" with "I know." Lucas reportedly was furious, but that was the take he ultimately used.

On "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Ford was stricken with food poisoning on the day he was slated to battle a swordsman in an elaborate fight scene. Ford had a better idea: Indy unholsters his gun and blows the bad guy away, creating one of the movie's most memorable moments.

Not Dan Rather

"Morning Glory," written by "The Devil Wears Prada's" Aline Brosh McKenna, had no need of script repairs. The story gave Ford a rich, multifaceted character slinging sharp dialogue. He glowers as his lighter-than-air co-host, played by Diane Keaton, banters her way through mundane cooking segments and inane celebrity gossip. He pulls rank on his chipper, inexperienced producer (Rachel McAdams) by rattling off his death-defying exploits in war zones, then drops the big one: "I had lunch with Dick Cheney." Pomeroy's egocentric tantrums simultaneously embarrass and endear him to us.

"He was an interesting guy. He'd had a full life, and he meets somebody who is going to challenge him and maybe wake his tired old ass up a little bit," said the 68-year-old actor. One character in the film misidentifies him as a former CBS superstar.

"I don't know Dan Rather and I don't know what he's like so I didn't try to channel Dan Rather," Ford said. "Rather, I tried to meet the obligations of the script and create a character that feels correct."

Ford isn't one to delve into psychoanalysis when creating a character. He describes his approach as nothing more than make-believe taken seriously. Even when it's funny.

"I just do it in the way I think is funny and then I listen to what the director says. I had a great director in Roger Michell ['Notting Hill']. He's a great wit himself, more of a host than a director. It was fun, pure fun."

In a career as long as his, one doesn't love all one's co-stars, but Ford said he has never been embroiled in an open feud like his "Morning Glory" character. Not even with Shia LaBeouf, who publicly dissed 2008's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," saying, "we dropped the ball on a legacy."

"There have been people I didn't so much love but it's of no value to lock horns with them," Ford said. "Mostly I try not to irritate the S.O.B., or make clear how I really feel about things. It's a finite period of time, everybody's depending on you to get along and get the job done, so it's not the place to be making waves."

A licensed pilot

"Morning Glory" requires Ford to explore the hidden anxieties of a public person. The actor himself is famously protective of his privacy. Ask him about his love of flying -- he earned his private pilot certificate in 1996 at 54 -- and he'll tell you that he enjoys the freedom, the responsibility of doing things for himself, and the convenience of commuting to his film locations by helicopter. While it's a heck of an entrance, "I try to be discreet about it," he said drolly.

What he doesn't mention are the "angel flights" he pilots. Ford was the honorary chairman of Cessna's 2010 Special Olympics Airlift, transporting athletes to Lincoln, Neb., for the games in July. He has shared his passion for flying as chairman of the Experimental Aircraft Association's Young Eagles program, and has given hundreds of kids their first ride in a general-aviation plane.

Though he doesn't carry a soapbox, Ford is strongly committed to fighting hunger and environmental concerns. In typically self-deprecating fashion, he starred in a public-service announcement for conservation.org that dramatized the effects of deforestation by having his chest hair waxed. "Every bit of rain forest that gets ripped out over there hurts over here," he says as a technician applies a cloth spread with hot wax and tears off a bald swath. (See video here.)

'Like old shoes'

Ford is the third-highest-grossing actor in film history, after Tom Hanks and Eddie Murphy. His explanation for his enduring popularity? "I'm like old shoes. I was never enough in fashion that I had to be replaced by something new."

His career has not been an unbroken hit parade, however. He flopped as an unconvincing Russian submarine commander in "K-19: The Widowmaker," and a real-estate-obsessed cop in the police comedy "Hollywood Homicide." More recently, his supporting role in "Crossing Over" failed to launch that immigration drama. "Extreme Measures," a medical drama he developed over a period of six years as star and producer, opened and closed quickly last winter. "I thought they were worthy stories to be told and different kinds of film than people have an expectation of seeing me in."

Ford's next role is a return to large-scale action with a twist. He plays an Arizona landowner who joins forces with Apaches to fight extraterrestrials in "Cowboys & Aliens." Also in his posse are Daniel Craig, Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine and Adam Beach.

After that there's talk of a fifth Indiana Jones film and possibly a "Cowboys & Aliens" sequel. "We'll have to see how this one is received," he said. "But I have very high hopes."

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186