WASHINGTON (CNN) – We asked our alert readers to name the presidential offspring who played a small but pivotal role in the 1989 film "When Harry Met Sally." No, it was not Tad Lincoln. Nor was it Grover Cleveland's son Francis in two non-consecutive scenes.
The answer, as many of you guessed, is none other than Steven Ford, the third son of Gerald and Betty Ford. Steven Ford, who incidentally celebrates his 50th birthday today, played "Joe," Meg Ryan's pre-Billy Crystal love interest. He was the tall blonde fellow kissing Sally in the airport early in the film, and his character ultimately was responsible for Harry and Sally's first romantic encounter.
"I didn't have the sense at the time that this was going to be a classic that would last the years," Ford told CNN from his office in southern California. "Not all films are going to go down in history."
Since that airport scene, Ford has gone on to appear in over a dozen feature films including 1997's "Contact" with Jodie Foster and the 1998 blockbuster "Armageddon." But it was his roles in "When Harry Met Sally" and the 2001 film "Black Hawk Down," about a disastrous 1993 Army mission in Somalia, that he considers his proudest cinematic work.
"Both are important films today. One makes you laugh; the other makes you rethink world politics," he said. "I've really been blessed to have these roles in movies that will last forever."
Ford recalls asking his father what he and his mother thought of "Black Hawk Down," and the former president said, "I really, really enjoyed it, but your mom ... it was too intense for her so she had to leave after the first half-hour."
Steven Ford began his acting career in 1981, several years after his father had left the White House. He had a bit part in a Western where "they needed a guy who could fall off horses and do stunts." He then landed a seven-year gig on the daytime soap "The Young and the Restless" as Detective Andy Richards, whom he doesn't recall ever actually solving any cases.
Times were lean in those early years. Ford had a four-year contract where he could be fired for no reason every 13 weeks. Fearing sudden unemployment, this son of a former president saved money by living out of his car.
"I showered and changed in the studio, and after work, I would drive my Honda Civic to a residential neighborhood, put down the seat and sleep in a sleeping bag. My parents would ask, 'Where are you living in L.A.? Where can we call you?' and I would say, 'Uh, I don't have a phone number yet.'"
Ford has long since moved out of his car and still takes on a few acting jobs a year "just to keep the insurance up." He still gets residual checks from his various television and movie appearances over the past 25 years. Recently, he received a check for a guest spot he did on a 1981 episode of "Happy Days." The amount: 9 cents. After taxes, it was 6 cents.
"I stopped cashing them," he says. "I'm gonna start framing them and screw up some accountant somewhere trying to track down 6 cents."
Today, Ford spends most of his time giving corporate speeches, as well as motivational talks to student groups on a topic very important to his family: alcoholism. Despite his mother's well-publicized battles with addiction, Steven Ford also suffered from alcoholism for part of the 1980s and early 1990s.
"That shows you how sneaky a disease it is, because Betty Ford's son should know better," he says. "It's that tough. Even when you have all the information at hand, you can still make those bad choices that lead you down that road."
The younger Ford, now sober for 13 years, was once reluctant to talk about his past, but now uses humor to broach the delicate topic, with the hope that he can help others learn from his mistakes.
"I remember telling mom, 'I can't go to the Betty Ford Center. That's like going to the high school where your mom is the principal,'" he said. "But maybe I could have gotten the family rate."
He estimates that in the past few years, he's spoken to over 65,000 students about his experiences.
Ford describes himself as a "moderate Republican" and a "fiscal conservative." He says that he is "not happy with the way Congress has been spending." And although he considers himself "politically active," he has no desire to be a political figure himself, beyond playing one on TV. His political acting roles to date have been a U.S. Senate candidate on a TV show he can't quite remember anymore, and "Secret Service Agent #2" in the 1981 film "Escape from New York."
As for the health of his famous father, who was hospitalized for pneumonia earlier this year, Steven Ford says, "He's doing well. He still reads five newspapers a day. I'm going down there in a couple of weeks, and he wants to play a round of golf, which is always a good sign."
** Congratulations to our neighbor to the north Don Berkowitz of Maple, Ontario, Canada, who not only answered "Steven Ford," but also was randomly selected from among the correct answers by CNN's own senior political analyst Bill Schneider. You win a highly sought-after CNN refrigerator magnet. You'll be the envy of all of Maple, Ontario. **
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