Ford is best known for his film roles as cowboys and as an ordinary man in unusual circumstances. His acting career began on stage, and his first large movie part was in 1939 film Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence.
In 1942, Ford's film career was interrupted when he volunteered for duty in World War II with the U.S. Marine Corps. His interest in the military continued as, during both the Korean War and the Vietnam War, Ford took the time to make goodwill visits to the American troops.
Ford retired from acting in 1991 following heart and circulatory problems. As of 2006, he was living in quiet retirement in Beverly Hills with his son's family. Peter Ford is currently working with Christopher Nickens on a biography of his father. There are also efforts under way to have Ford named to the Order of Canada in his homeland.