HESTON, CHARLTON - OBITUARY
The actor as large as many of his roles will best be remembered as Judah Ben-Hur,
for which he won his only acting Oscar. But he achieved much more than that,
writes Geoff Gardner.
I can still remember the Oscar night when Charlton Heston was, allegedly,
running late and Clint Eastwood was piled onto the stage and into the opening
moments to mumble his way through some formalities until, in nick of time Heston
raced down the aisle and took over, his stentorian voice at full throttle,
giving us back the due gravitas the evening demands, enhancing Heston’s
reputation and getting an almighty roar. Heston had become like that, a symbol
rather than an actor.
Getting to that position happened largely thanks to the break he got from Cecil
B De Mille who put him in The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952 and in The Ten
Commandments in 1956. With one significant exception he spent the best part of
the next decade in big parts for big, often old, directors. There’s probably
little need to mention the titles but here are some anyway, their ambition
reflected in their titles alone - The Big Country, Ben Hur, The Buccaneer, El
Cid, 55 Days at Peking, The Greatest Story Ever Told (as John the Baptist, not
Jesus Christ), Major Dundee, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Khartoum and Planet of
the Apes. Quite a few of them were huge successes and the last mentioned was a
box office Goliath that spawned a lucrative, seemingly endless, franchise for
20th Century Fox.
"no mere piece of beefcake with a deep voice and
Heston was no mere piece of beefcake with a deep voice and stunning jawbone.
He had plenty of ambition and that was reflected later in life when, after being
President of the left-leaning Screen Actors Guild and Chairman of the American
Film Institute he became associated with, and the public face of, the National
Rifle Association, American’s influential pro-gun lobby group. Ironically this
led to his last appearance on film, when he was ambushed and ridiculed by
Michael Moore, and appeared somewhat confused, in Moore’s doco on American gun
culture Bowling for Columbine.
But he had his great moments and none was greater than his insistence that he
would only appear in Albert Zugsmith’s production Touch of Evil if Orson Welles
was signed on as director as well as actor. Out of such serendipity are
masterpieces made, even if it took forty or more years for the film to be
released in something like Welles’ cut.
Like many actors of his day he loved working. After appearing in two 16mm movies
for David Bradley he got to Hollywood in 1950 and hardly stopped getting onto
the set for another five decades. His ‘debut’ in William Dieterle’s Dark City
was followed by the first of three for De Mille and he seemed to make close to a
couple a year after that. Heston’s ruggedness, his athletic torso and chiseled
face made him a natural for parts with gravitas though there were moments when
he could display an unusual sense of tenderness. His memorable title role in
Peckinpah's Major Dundee required him to exhibit a giant inferiority complex
when it came to dealing with women and his fellow officers. In a way it was a
most interesting variation on the rigorous over-bearing, bull-headedness that
many of his major parts called for.
He directed a couple himself, playing Antony in Antony and Cleopatra (1972) and
playing twins in Mother Lode (1982). Traces of those films are hard to find. He
also appeared in several films directed by his son Fraser. His last film,
directed by Fraser, was The Last Man Club, made in 2001.
"a host of successful movies"
Heston’s conservative leanings, more pronounced as he grew older, probably
estranged him from much of modern Hollywood. But his long career is littered
with a host of successful movies and his appearances in many of the star turns
of the golden age of blockbusters in the late 50s and 60s will keep his memory
alive as long as there is cable TV and the DVD.
The unforgettable chariot race in Ben Hur (1959)
Published: April 10, 2008
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Born St Helen, Missouri, 4/10/1924
died 5/4/2008, Los Angeles.
... in Ben Hur
... in Planet of the Apes
... in Touch of Evil
... accepting Jean Hersholt Award (1978) at 50th Academy Awards with Bette Davis