LARGER THAN LIFE:
At left, the young movie star
CHARLTON HESTON, name above the title from the start. Above: The aged Heston, a rabid conservative and
active president of the
National Rifle Assn.
There were two Hestons,
both hard to ignore
By RON MILLER
This may amaze most of my liberal friends, but I really liked Charlton Heston, even though I don't think I could ever agree with him on a single, solitary topic on the agenda he had for America in the twilight years of his time in the national spotlight.
He was a staunch conservative and I'm a left-leaning liberal. He loved guns and I'd just as soon see them all melted down for slag. He was bellicose about making America tougher in foreign relations while I think America right now has a lot of healing to do. He campaigned eagerly for Ronald Reagan while I wouldn't have voted for Reagan for dog-catcher.
But in my professional contacts with Charlton Heston--which included a memorable interview with him at his home in 1983--I always found him to be extremely intelligent, impressively knowledgable, warm and thoughtful to a degree that few famous movie stars I've met could ever match.
Heston, who died April 5 at age 84, will be remembered by one generation as the big, bravura-styled actor who seemed especially suited to playing historical giants from the biblical prophet Moses and early Christian hero Judah Ben-Hur through Shakespeare's Marc Antony, Pres. Andrew Jackson and Michelangelo.
He'll be remembered by the generation that followed as a frightfully regal spokesman for various causes, mostly conservative, and as a larger than life actor who always seemed a ltitle too big for the steadily smaller screen roles he was getting. That generation needs to take a guided tour of his earlier work in order for Heston to receive the respect he should be paid as an exceptional screen actor.
Though the term "larger than life" often takes on a certain pejorative flavor when used today, Heston truly was "larger than life" in a good way from the start. He was a big--6 foot 2--and well-muscled man in his younger years and adopted an assertive, authoritative style. If he was in the room, you weren't going to ignore him. With him, size counted, all right, but it was never the whole story. Once he began to talk, you listened because of his articulate speech and his intelligence, even if his ideas may not have been exactly what you wanted to hear.
The very first thing I noticed in my one-on-one chat with Heston in 1983 was his remarkable command of even the most trivial detail of every picture he ever worked on. I was prepared for that because I'd been a member of the American Film Institute (AFI) since it began and had read transcripts of Heston's talks with students there. He knew filmmaking intimately and could talk about it in fascinating detail.
At left, the poster for
Heston's first studio
picture. Above: The
poster for the classic
"Touch of Evil" (1958)
For example, I was an admirer of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" long before it started to be revived at film festivals. It had been acclaimed by several critics when first released by Universal-International in 1958, but it was a commercial flop and few people saw it. Many who remembered it did so with a laugh, saying, "Oh, yeah--the film where Heston died his hair black, put on a moustache and played a Mexican!"
But when I said the magic words "Touch of Evil" to Heston, his eyes lit up and he launched into a fabulously rich discussion of all the marvelous things about that amazing film and what a grand experience it was to work with Orson Welles.
(Another thing I noticed while at Heston's home, perched on a Beverly Hills mountaintop overlooking Coldwater Canyon, was the telescope he had mounted on the railing of his outside deck area. While he went inside to answer a phone call, I wandered over to the telescope and peered through the lens. It was focused on the swimming pool of a neighbor down on the floor of the canyon. That could have just been where it pointed by accident, of course, but a year or so later I interviewed actress Angie Dickinson at her home and discovered that was her pool Heston's telescope had been pointed at. I couldn't resist telling sexy Angie about that and she laughed out loud, saying, "Why, that old reprobate!")
Heston was well aware that many respected critics didn't think he was much of an actor. They often demeaned his work in the spectacle films like "The Ten Commandments," "Ben-Hur," "The Agony and the Ecstasy" and "Earthquake." He didn't gripe about it. He didn't need to. Those films were immensely popular and continued to be years after they were first released. But he also knew his legacy was quite rich without them.
I agree. I told him how much I loved Paramount's "Dark City," the very first Hollywood studio film he made, because he got to play a cynical urban type in an authentic film noir, made by director William Dieterle, a German immigrant who came to Hollywood in the early 1930s, bringing with him the shadowy style of noir. Heston is very effective in that movie and clearly had "leading man" written all over him even then. Though Heston had done some TV before 1950 and had starred in David Bradley's 16mm feature versions of "Julius Caesar" and "Peer Gynt," he was, to moviegoers, a virtual unknown, yet received star billing in his first picture.
By 1952, the still green Heston was handed the leading role in Cecil B. DeMille's extravaganza "The Greatest Show on Earth," playing the manager of a troubled circus. Heston's very convincing performance holds the film together and wears very well today. The picture went on to win the Best Picture Academy Award and Heston became a major movie star almost overnight.
Charlton Heston, right, helps
injured aerialist Cornell Wilde
with the assistance of clown
James Stewart in "The
Greatest Show on Earth,"
Oscar-winning Best Picture
With that blockbuster hit really introducing him to most American moviegoers, Paramount chose to keep him in mostly in manly action parts like the westerns "The Savage" (1952), "Pony Express" (1953), "Arrowhead" (1953) and "The Far Horizons" (1955). He occasionally was teamed with a famous leading lady--Jennifer Jones in King Vidor's "Ruby Gentry" (1952), Susan Hayward in "The President's Lady" (1953) and Jane Wyman in "Lucy Gallant"--but none of those romantic pairings really clicked with moviegoers and today you don't really think of Heston getting romantic with anyone in particular.
Perhaps his most enduring role during that early Paramount period--after "The Greatest Show on Earth"--was as Leiningen in George Pal's adventure opus "The Naked Jungle" (1954), which had Heston battling hordes of army ants, eating everything in their path in the South American jungle.
Paramount didn't have anything truly spectacular for him until DeMille's next--and last--film, his 1956 remake of his silent film epic, "The Ten Commandments." Playing the prophet Moses in that enormous biblical epic set Heston up for half a century of Moses jokes. You can't imagine how many comedians made "parting the Red Sea" jokes about Heston during his lifetime. He chuckled about it. I think he was a realist on that topic because he made it clear to me it was a lot better to endure a few hundred Moses jokes a year than to be forgotten.
Above: The poster for DeMille's
"The Ten Commandments"
featuring Heston and Yul
Brynner. Right: Heston seems
happy there are no Moses
jokes engraved on that tablet.
(It was always a special treat for the Heston family to watch the regular telecasts of "The Ten Commandments," especially when the infant Moses is found in the bullrushes along the riverside That's because the baby Moses was played by Heston's own baby son, Frazer. That made "The Ten Commandments" practically a Heston family home movie.)
After that giant movie, Heston was such a towering screen name that he could afford to turn down roles that kept him in too familiar a groove. Heston thirsted for the sort of challenge he used to get in his stage and television work. That led him to play a Mexican narcotics officer in Welles' "Touch of Evil." Though it is shocking to see Heston back in black and white, his hair dyed, wearing a moustache, this is not a bad performance. In fact, he stands up nicely in all his dramatic scenes opposite veteran actor Welles, whose deliciously extravagant performance as a corrupt border cop makes Heston's acting look positively subtle.
Heston with dark hair
and moustache gives
the evil eye to Orson
Welles in Welles'
"Touch of Evil."
That same year--1958--Heston also happily agreed to take a subordinate role in William Wyler's grand scale western "The Big Country," playing the ranch foreman who covets the rancher's daughter (Carroll Baker) and does everything he can to make her intended husband, sea captain Gregory Peck, look like an inept tenderfoot out west. It was a great character part for Heston and he made the most of it, leading up to the great sequence in which Peck calls him out for a private fist-fight to settle their differences--in the middle of the night, away from all observers. Heston seldom got pounded by any other actor in a scene, but he gleefully took his lumps from Peck and came away with the clear knowledge he'd done a fine piece of acting in that film.
Wyler was so impressed with Heston that he welcomed him back in 1959, this time as the leading man in his next big production, the epic remake of MGM's "Ben-Hur." This is the best of all Heston's "big" costume parts and he got himself into the best condition of his life to play the strenuous role, even doing his own closeup sequences driving the horse team in the famous chariot race sequence. (He always said he didn't worry about getting hurt because Wyler wasn't about to let Ben-Hur get killed!)
Heston's reward for that all-comsuming performance was the Best Actor Oscar for 1959. Though Heston continued to make a spectacular costume film every couple of years--"El Cid" (1961), "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (as John the Baptist), "The Agony and the Ecstasy" (1965) and "Khartoum" (1966) come to mind--it wasn't until 1968 that he finally landed another role that would lift him to a new level of stardom. That was the science fiction opus "Planet of the Apes."
At left, Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, probably in the best condition of his life. At right,
Heston actually behind the reins of the chariot team in the most famous scene in the movie
that, in 1959, won him his only Best Actor Academy Award.
In that film, Heston played an astronaut of the future whose spacecraft crashes on the way back to Earth and he finds himself on a desolate planet where humans are treated like animals and apes are in charge. Caged like an animal, Heston is assumed to be like the other humans on the planet--ignorant and incapable of speech. They learn differently when the angry Heston finally explodes at one of his "keepers" and delivers one of the most famous lines in sci-fi history: "Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!"
Heston loved doing "Planet of the Apes" because it was an exciting adventure film with great dialogue (by TV's "Twilight Zone" creator, Rod Serling) and was loaded with absorbing philosophical ideas from the original novel by Pierre Boule. He happily appeared in one of the sequels, "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" (1970). Adopted by sci-fi fans, Heston went on to do other big budget films in that genre, including "The Omega Man" (1971), remade last year as "I Am Legend" with Will Smith, and "Soylent Green" (1973). In 2001, Heston even made a cameo appearance in Tim Burton's remake of "Planet of the Apes," which was one of the highlights of the film.
Charlton Heston has just about
reached the limit of his patience
with that ape and is about to tell
him what to do with his "stinking paws."
By the 1980s, Heston found it hard to get feature films that were built around a character he might play. He refused to do cheap films that might exploit his name, but did a number of smaller roles in quality films and turned increasingly to television for work. At the time of my 1983 interview with him, he was doing "Chiefs," a high quality CBS miniseries. The following year he did a few weeks as a guest star on ABC's prime time soap "Dynasty," then agreed to play the same character, Jason Colby, in a spinoff series called "The Colbys."
That year my wife and I went to an ABC party introducing "The Colbys" at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, meeting all the stars including Heston and co-star Barbara Stanwyck, making a rare appearance. Heston was at his charming best and left my wife with an overdose of stars in her eyes.
The last time I saw Heston was at a press conference introducing a new American Movie Classics documentary on "Planet of the Apes" and a reshowing of all the "Apes" movies on the cable channel. I was impressed that Heston again demonstrated total recall of the "Apes" experience.
For the next several years, Heston was occupied starring in TV remakes of famous films. giving him a chance to play some great parts he'd been too young for when the original films came out, among them "A Man For All Seasons" (1988) as Thomas More, "Treasure Island" (1990) as Long John Silver and "The Little Kidnappers" (1990) as Grandfather MacKenzie.
In that period he also co-starred with our most famous columnist, actress Ann Jillian, in NBC's "Original Sin" (1989).
In the 1990s, Heston's shift from full-time actor to full-time activist began. He aligned himself with many conservative causes, which may have surprised many who remembered how active he was in the civil rights movement much earlier in his career. He closely associated himself with Ronald Reagan's brand of conservatism and, like Reagan, had served as president of his union, The Screen Actors Guild. In 1998, he was elected president of the National Rifle Assn. and became its most quoted spokesperson in history. He stepped down in 2003 and that same year was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
HESTON THE ACTIVIST
Heston, right, demonstrates
for civil rights at the Lincoln Memorial with actors
Sidney Poitier, right, and
Charlton Heston, as president of the Screen Actors Guild, leads pickets during a strike.
Charlton Heston with Pres. Ronald Reagan.
Somebody must have just told a Moses joke.
At left, an aged Heston receives the
Medal of Freedom in 2003. Above:
Heston rallies the troops as
president of the National Rifle Assn.
His retirement from public life was due to his acknowledgement that he was suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. He had made almost no public appearances in the last few years. He died at his Beverly Hills home, surrounded by his family, including Lydia, his wife of 64 years. The Hestons had two children--daughter Anne and son Frazer, who wrote the screenplay for one of his father's films, "The Mountain Men," in 1980.
If you want to see Charlton Heston at his very best, but doing something offbeat for his usual screen image, I'd suggest you find these films:
* "The Private War of Major Benson" (1955), a delightful romantic comedy with Heston as a hard-nosed Army officer assigned to run a boys' military school. He's quite charming playing second fiddle to child star Tim Hovey while romancing Julia Adams.
* "Touch of Evil" (1958) with Heston as a Mexican drug cop trying to protect wife Janet Leigh from the thugs while watching Orson Welles eat scenery as a corrupt border officer.
Heston as a humble cowboy
in one of his greatest,
but least known films,
"Will Penny" (1988)
* "Khartoum" (1966) with Heston as Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon, holding his own against the world's greatest living actor, Lord Laurence Olivier, as the Mahdi in a grand middle-eastern adventure saga.
* "Will Penny" (1968). This is Heston's most overlooked masterpiece, containing what may be his finest screen performance. He plays a simple range cowboy who has to take on much greater responsibility than he's ever had. Somehow Heston was able to subdue his usual aura of authority and literally become this humble man. Written and directed by the late Tom Gries. This is a beautiful film.
©2008 by Ron Miller. This column first posted April 7, 2008. The photos are from a variety of internet sources. We express our appreciation to the copyright owners for the one-time only use of these images.
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