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Charlton Heston was larger than life

The actor played Moses, Ben Hur and the man who could conquer the apes.

Most mortals would be intimidated by meeting the actor who played Moses, Judah Ben-Hur and John the Baptist. But Charlton Heston was an extraordinarily genial and accessible gentleman who made you feel comfortable in his presence.

Michael Moore took advantage of this quality when he trapped Heston with a series of questions about gun control in the 2002 documentary, “Bowling for Columbine.” No matter what you thought of Heston’s right-wing politics or his enthusiastic promotion of the National Rifle Association, the ambush backfired; Moore ended up with more egg on his face than Heston.

It’s not a moment that Heston fans prefer to remember, yet the “Columbine” episode does say something about the graciousness of the man, who clearly didn’t have to invite Moore into his home. In interviews, Heston was almost always receptive, interested, willing to talk about his failures as well as his successes. Rarely did he let loose with a flash of ego, yet he was proud of his accomplishments.

Humble beginnings
Perhaps this even-handed quality was the inevitable result of his humble beginnings in the 1940s, when Heston was dealing with shoestring budgets, appearing in near-amateur productions, trying to make the best of desperate situations. By the time he became a Hollywood star in the 1950s, appearing in several of that era’s showiest blockbusters, he’d experienced such a wide range of showbiz hits and misses that he took nothing for granted.

He made his movie debut at the age of 16, playing the title role in a silent student production of “Peer Gynt” that was filmed on the shores of Lake Michigan, not far from the Chicago suburb where he was born on Oct. 4, 1924. “Charlton” was his mother’s maiden name. His father was a lumber-mill operator, Russell Whitford Carter, though when his parents divorced and his mother married Chester Heston, he was given his stepfather’s last name.

Taking drama classes at Winnetka’s New Trier High School, he decided he wanted to be an actor after seeing a school production of “Twelfth Night.” Shakespeare would remain his favorite writer. He appeared in two film versions of “Julius Caesar” (one of them directed by David Bradley, who had cast him in “Peer Gynt”), he directed himself in a little-seen 1973 movie of “Antony and Cleopatra,” and he turned up as the Player King in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version of “Hamlet.”

At Northwestern University, Heston met another actor, Lydia Clarke, who would marry him in 1944 and stay with him for six decades. After his stint in the Army Air Corps, they moved to New York, where he appeared on Broadway in “Antony and Cleopatra” and she played Lady Anne in “Richard III” off-Broadway.

Television readyHeston’s reading of Marc Antony’s speech from “Julius Caesar” so impressed Franklin Schaffner (who later directed him in “Planet of the Apes”) that he was cast in a series of late-1940s television productions based on the classics: “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights,” “The Wings of the Dove” and “Macbeth.” Because “Macbeth” became CBS’ first nationwide broadcast, it was noticed in Hollywood.

“I’m very lucky I was there when they were inventing television,” Heston wrote in his 1995 autobiography, “In the Arena.” “Of all the choices I made, as well as the things that just happened to me, this was the most valuable.”

Producer Hal Wallis, who made stars of Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, was impressed with Heston’s television performances and cast him as a disgruntled war veteran in the 1950 film noir, “Dark City.” The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther praised his “quiet and assertive magnetism (and) youthful dignity.”

The publicity tour for “Dark City” was grueling — 14 cities in 23 days — but the crash course in promotion helped establish his relationship with critics and reporters. “I learned something that is crucial to an actor — how to do interviews,” Heston wrote in another memoir. “No doubt that was reflected in the good press we got out of it.”

DeMille's three-ring circusWilliam Wyler, who would later direct Heston in “The Big Country” and “Ben-Hur,” considered him for the leading role in a film version of  the play, “Detective Story,” in which Lydia was appearing on Broadway. He was disappointed when the part went to Kirk Douglas, but just as Heston was leaving town, Cecil B. DeMille spotted him on the Paramount lot and cast him as a circus manager in “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

It was only Heston’s second Hollywood movie, but DeMille’s three-ring  extravaganza made a fortune, and it won the Oscar for best picture of 1952. It also led DeMille to cast Heston in his most popular role: as Moses in “The Ten Commandments” (1956). The top-grossing theatrical release of the 1950s, it eventually became an annual network-television event that still draws huge ratings every Easter season.

While DeMille was preparing his magnum opus, Heston appeared in nearly a dozen mid-1950s films that are much less fondly remembered. But they did help to connect him with historical roles — President Andrew Jackson in “The President’s Lady” (a role he would repeat in 1958’s “The Buccaneer”) and William Clark in the Lewis & Clark epic, “The Far Horizons” — and gave him a chance to play comedy (“The Private War of Major Benson”) and demonstrate his sex appeal in a steamy King Vidor drama (“Ruby Gentry”).

Larger than lifeDeMille, who noticed a resemblance between Heston’s profile and Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, claimed that “I was never in any doubt about who should play the part of Moses.” Some critics felt that Heston was miscast, too young and inexperienced for the role, yet it’s now difficult to see anyone else in the part.

Rock Hudson? Richard Burton? Gregory Peck? It’s easy to imagine each of them wrecking the film. Heston’s steady, sincere performance, on the other hand, emphasizes the magnetism and dignity that Crowther noticed. It meshes with DeMille’s own fervent belief in what he was doing and almost silences criticism of the film’s cornier elements.

What to do for an encore? Heston’s choice was a low-budget 1958 film noir, “Touch of Evil,” which he agreed to do only if Orson Welles, his co-star, would be allowed to direct it as well. Welles was considered a risk in Hollywood at the time, but Universal Pictures wanted Heston so much they would agree to almost anything. Unfortunately, the studio recut the film and marketed it so poorly that it never had a chance. Only years later was it regarded as one of Welles’ (and Heston’s) best pictures.

Also in 1958, Heston somewhat reluctantly accepted a supporting role in William Wyler’s all-star Western, “The Big Country,” mostly because he would finally get a chance to work with the man he regarded as Hollywood’s finest director of performances. Wyler rewarded him with the title role in “Ben-Hur” (1959), which would earn Heston the Academy Award for best actor.

If “The Ten Commandments” represented old Hollywood’s version of the Old Testament, “Ben-Hur” suggested a fresh take on the New Testament. The role of the fictional Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince betrayed by a Roman friend, paralleled the life of Jesus. Wyler hired Gore Vidal and Christopher Fry to rewrite the script and give it a human dimension. The result, which won an unprecedented 11 Oscars, was widely acclaimed as the first Biblical epic for adults.

Heston would never be nominated again, though he certainly got the pick of the great epic roles of the 1960s. In “El Cid,” he played what was surely the most heroic role of his career: Rodriguo Diaz de Bivar, a selfless, compassionate Castilian aristocrat-warrior who could have ruled Spain but remained loyal to his king.

“I had the idea of the Cid as a Job figure,” he said when the film was reissued in 1993. “He is exiled, his wife (played by Sophia Loren) becomes his enemy, yet he remains loyal to the king who banished him. He’s the man who endures.”

Conservative politics, slumping careerHeston became involved in the civil-rights struggle around this time, and he was elected president of the Screen Actors’ Guild. But he also became more conservative, following the lead of another SAG president, Ronald Reagan.

“People say to me ‘You had a political change of heart, didn’t you?’” he wrote in “In the Arena.” “No, I don’t think I did. I think the Democratic Party had a change of heart. To my mind, the Democrats I voted for and worked for couldn’t be nominated by their party today, including Jack Kennedy.”

The success of “El Cid,” which became one of the top-grossing movies of 1962, was followed by a series of low-grossing mediocrities, including a painfully unfunny comedy (“The Pigeon That Took Rome”), a trashy melodrama (“Diamond Head”) and a confused historical epic (“55 Days at Peking”).

Heston wasn’t at his best in any of these, and his worthy attempts to play Michelangelo in “The Agony and the Ecstasy” and John the Baptist in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” failed to connect with the public. He fought for Sam Peckinpah’s right to a final cut on “Major Dundee,” even giving up his $300,000 salary to reduce the escalatiing budget, but the film was butchered and released in an incomprehensible version. His reunion with director Franklin J. Schaffner on “The War Lord” went unnoticed.

Success in strange places
In 1966, he made something of a comeback, giving one of his most detailed and interesting performances as the doomed General Charles Gordon in the unusually intelligent historical epic, “Khartoum.” Indeed, his subtlety presented a marked contrast to Laurence Olivier’s heavily madeup villain, the fanatical Mahdi, who suggests an early, hammier version of Osama bin Laden. The movie was only moderately successful at the box office, but it now seems more timely and relevant than ever.

“Will Penny,” an eccentric 1968 Western written and directed by Tom Gries, gave Heston another chance to demonstrate his ability as a character actor. He played an aging, illiterate cowboy whose attempts to maintain a loner lifestyle are thwarted by Donald Pleasence and his homicidal gang. The movie proved to be even less popular than “Khartoum,” though it may have paved the way for the 1969 Western revival led by “The Wild Bunch” and “True Grit.”

Heston’s second film with Schaffner, “Planet of the Apes,” hit the jackpot in 1968. Even critics who had seldom warmed to Heston found positive things to say about his performance as an astronaut who finds himself stranded and enslaved on a planet run by apes. Pauline Kael, who called it “one of the most entertaining science-fiction fantasies ever to come out of Hollywood,” noted that it “wouldn’t be so forceful or so funny if it weren’t for the use of Charlton Heston in the role.”

“Apes” kicked off a series of apocalyptic sci-fi movies starring Heston, including “The Omega Man” (1971), which echoes the doomsday finale of “Planet of the Apes,” and “Soylent Green” (1973), a glum drama about overpopulation. Heston also appeared in the first of the “Apes” sequels, “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” and in an uncredited part in Tim Burton’s logic-defying 2001 remake of “Planet of the Apes.”

Like most stars, he also turned up in the disaster epics of the 1970s, including “Airport 75,” “Skyjacked,” “Earthquake” and “Two-Minute Warning.” He turned down “The Omen” but accepted another horror movie, “The Awakening,” that had considerably less impact. Playing the sinister Cardinal Richelieu in “The Three Musketeers” and “The Four Musketeers,” he found unexpected humor in the part.

Philosophical about his careerIn the 1980s, Heston went back to television, making a surprisingly loose and wry appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” and playing the leads in more television remakes of the classics: Sir Thomas More in “A Man For All Seasons” and Long John Silver in “Treasure Island.” In the 1990s, he became an all-purpose authority figure, literally playing God in Paul Hogan’s “Almost an Angel” — and the head of the CIA in James Cameron’s Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick, “True Lies.”

“I need a guy who can plausibly intimidate Arnold,” said Cameron when he told Heston why he wanted him in the picture.

Heston also worked with his writer-director son, Fraser Clarke Heston, on such scenic theatrical films as “Mother Lode,” “Alaska” and “The Mountain Men.” (Fraser made his movie debut as the baby Moses in “The Ten Commandments.”)

“Fraser was originally very bitter about the cuts that were made (on ‘Mountain Men’) and wanted to have nothing to do with the picture,” Heston once said. “But I pointed out to him that film is the only art form in which the artist can’t afford the raw materials he works with. Someone has to pay.”

He was just as philosophical about his own 1973 version of “Antony and Cleopatra,” for which he couldn’t find a distributor. He took the film with him to Boston and Chicago and overseas, and once said he was willing to show up with a print to show almost anywhere.

“It’s like the old joke about the guy calling up the theater to ask when the movie starts — and the theater manager asks, ‘When can you get here?’”