Charlton Heston died on April 5, 2008. I drove by his house the next morning on my way to an appointment and saw the large American flag draped over the gate. It made me think back seven years, when I drove through that gate to spend a few hours with him.
I remember the call from my editor when MGM announced they were going to release a DVD of The Greatest Story Ever Told, the one where Max Von Sydow played Christ and Charlton Heston was John the Baptist, along with a 45-minute documentary about the making of that movie. Heston was 77 then, and more in the news for holding a rifle over his head proclaiming to his fellow National Rifle Association members that the only way he’d give up his right to be armed was if they pried his gun from his “cold dead hands.” The once liberal Democrat turned conservative Republican would become a target of Michael Moore in his 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine, and I jumped at the offer to interview him, but there was one caveat. My editor wasn’t interested in his politics. “How can you talk to Charlton Heston and not question his right-wing conservative views?” I protested.
“Everyone knows where he stands,” she responded. “Who cares? I’m thinking what Ridley Scott told us, that he thought Heston was a pioneer.”
Scott, who had directed Gladiator, had praised Heston’s bravery in doing films like Ben-Hur, Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and The Omega Man. “Heston was an inspiration,” he said. “It was like, be brave and go for it.”
Scott was right. As was Whoopi Goldberg, who had written about Heston for Roddy McDowell’s third Double Exposure picture book of stars: “’Why,’ some folks asked me, ‘would you of all people, want to write about Charlton Heston? He’s so…’
“And I’d stop them and say there are two Charlton Hestons that I know of, but only one I plan to write about. And it isn’t the political one. Will Penny, A Touch of Evil; The Omega Man, Soylent Green, and The Ten Commandments are five of my favorite films. I truly love watching him work because he’s always so present. He’s such a pro, an artist, and in many respects for me, an ideal.
“The other Charlton Heston kind of makes me wonder what else happened on the way up to get those commandments—hummmmmmmm! What a piece of work is man.”
What a piece, indeed. Heston was born John Charles Carter on October 4, 1923 in Evanston, Illinois. He was raised a lonely child in St. Helen, Michigan. His parents divorced when he was ten and he lost contact with his father for the rest of his childhood. He started acting in high school plays, and in 1941 enrolled at Northwestern on a scholarship from the drama club. While there he met Lydia Clarke, whom he married in 1944, after he enlisted in the Army Air Forces. When he returned from the Army he appeared in a few plays and then stumbled into the early days of television, when dramas were put on live. His work led him to be cast in a Hal Wallis film noir called Dark City. That brought him to Hollywood. Cecil B. DeMille saw him and thought he’d make a good circus manager in The Greatest Show on Earth, and Charlton Heston never looked back, appearing in over 100 movies. He parted the Red Sea as Moses in the Ten Commandments, he drove a chariot around the Coliseum in Rome in Ben-Hur, he captured a city in El Cid, ran from talking apes in Planet of the Apes, baptized Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told. He played Gordon of Khartoum with Laurence Olivier; a Mexican cop in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil; Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Macbeth, Marc Antony, Michelangelo, Cardinal Richelieu, cowboys, Indians, you name it, Heston probably played it. He won numerous U.S. and international awards, including an Oscar for Ben-Hur. He twice hosted Saturday Night Live, appeared in Wayne’s World 2 and as himself in a episode of Friends.
As Carina Chocano wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “It’s not just that Heston played the epic hero throughout most of his career, it’s that he embodied postwar America, a younger, more vital, less morally compromised America…Heston’s signature heroes were downtrodden and oppressed, the strength of their convictions an equal match for the brute strength of his body…His muscular body and hard, determined jaw were made to endure injustice, to absorb and transform it into virtuous action…Heston represented an era of grandeur and innocence, before the movies were called ‘events’ but actually were experiences to be remembered for a lifetime.”
Socially active throughout his life, he marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the side of civil rights and supported John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson before switching his allegiance to become a supporter of Ronald Reagan, and both George Bushes. He served as president of the Screen Actors Guild; he was chairman of the American Film Institute, and head of President Reagan’s Task Force on the Arts and Humanities. In 2003 he was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.
When I drove through his gate at the top of Mulholland and Coldwater Canyon I wondered how feisty he might be. But when I saw him walking slowly but with dignity through his hallway he seemed like a nice ageing man who had portrayed so many larger-than-life figures that the burden had somehow diminished him. I didn’t know then that he would soon be diagnosed with the first stages of Alzheimer’s, but I didn’t regret the decision to concentrate on his movie career. Because that is what he will be remembered for.
I began by asking him how much luck played a part in the beginning of his career.
“Luck is an enormous factor—in any kind of career,” Heston said. “When I came home from the war with my wife we went straight to New York to try and get work, beginning as nude models at $1.50 an hour, which wasn’t bad. They were doing a casting call at a production company—they decided that anyone who served in combat overseas they would give a free audition to. So there were about forty guys standing under the Booth Theater overhang on a cold day. I went in and did Mercutio’s death speech, which is a good speech and I’d known it from before. The producer said, ‘Come up to CBS tomorrow.’ So I did. The chance that young actors had after the war, because of live television, must have been what it was like when sound came in. It gave me an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Having almost no experience, just a small part in two plays, in the space of fourteen months I did Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, Jane Eyre, Of Human Bondage, Wuthering Heights—now the actor doesn’t draw breath that isn’t going to be good in one of those parts.”
“And that led to the movies and your meeting DeMille,” I noted. “How did that happen?”
“I finished my first movie for Hal Wallis and was driving off the Paramount lot in a convertible. DeMille was standing on the porch of his building. As I was told later, he asked his secretary, ‘Who was that?’ She said, ‘Charlton Heston, he’s a Broadway actor, just made a picture with Hal Wallis, you ran it two weeks ago, you didn’t like it.’ He said, ‘I like the way he looked just now. Better have him in to talk about being the manager in The Greatest Show on Earth.’ Bingo! There you are. I was very lucky. My second picture won the Academy Award, and I had the leading role. They call it serendipity: The unexpected good consequences of an entirely random choice.”
“You also got lucky that you came into the movies at a time when you didn’t have to become an indentured servant to the system.”
“Yes,” Heston agreed, “I was fortunate again. I made my first movie just as the studio system, the Golden Age of Hollywood, was ending. You weren’t going to be under contract anymore. Fox , MGM and Warners had wanted to put me under contract, but I thought it wasn’t a good idea. The generation just ahead of me—Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas and that lot—were under contract, because they had been out here two or three years before me. To have an independent contract was an enormous advantage—you could pick your scripts, rather than have them just toss a script at you and you’d have to do it.”
Of the actors he admired, he considered Spencer Tracy “the best American film actor;” Marlon Brando “the most naturally gifted actor in American film…who wasted his talent;” and Laurence Olivier, whom he worked with in Khartoum, “the best actor of our time.”
“The Brits are the best actors, but Americans tend to be better film actors,” he said. Among the actors who followed him, he liked Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Tom Hanks, and Jodie Foster, but was disappointed that outside of Pacino, few actors worked in live theater. “I cannot understand why almost all American film actors will not do stage. If you won’t do plays, you’re not a player.”
When I asked him about Marilyn Monroe, he said “after Garbo, there’s probably never been a woman the camera loved more than Marilyn. The camera either loves you or it doesn’t. The camera loved Monroe just as it did Gary Cooper.”
Heston turned down an opportunity to act with Monroe in Let’s Make Love because he didn’t like how she treated Clark Gable in The Misfits. “She had been so difficult on that set. Here’s Clark Gable, still one of the icons of the movies, and he always showed up on time and was ready to work, and he would sit all day in the chair reading, waiting for her. Come five o’clock he’d say, ‘See you tomorrow.’ He never made a fuss. But that was just terrible. She was a troubled, insecure woman.”
He did work with Ava Gardner, another difficult actress, in 55 Days at Peking.
“She was the last of the great female stars,” he said. Ava was stunning, a knockout beauty. We met at [ director] Nick Ray’s house. After a couple of glasses of wine she started bashing everything in the movie: the script and everybody in it. I walked out the door and tossed my wine glass in the pool. I knew we were going to be in for it. When her part was done, the producer gave a party. Ava left before me and when I went outside, there was Ava standing in the middle of the Avenue Generalissimo. She had a red satin cloak and she was doing matador passes at the taxis with her cloak. Quite impressive.”
The worst experience Heston had with a director was on the set of the Civil War movie Major Dundee, when he got so angry with Sam Peckinpah that he physically threatened him.
“We were down in Mexico and it was getting towards the end of the day. We were close to wrapping, but Sam said, ‘Chuck, mount up the troop, go up to the top of the ridge and come on down, this will be a great shot.’ I asked him if he wanted me to come down in a trot or a canter. He said, ‘Trot for Christ’s sake, just get up there!’ So I went up and we trotted down the hill perfectly and I said, ‘How was that?’ And he said, ‘F***ing awful! It wasn’t fast enough.’ I said, ‘You told me to trot.’ He said, ‘The hell I did, you son of a bitch, I said canter.’ I don’t get mad often, but I pulled my horse around, pulled my saber out and I charged him. I don’t know if I would have really cut him, but I wanted to. I had what they call my actor rage. Sam jumped on the seat of the forty-foot boom and yelled, ‘Take it up, take it up, take it up!’ And I rode right under the camera as he rose above me. Neither of us ever mentioned this incident again.”
Another unique director was Orson Welles, whom Heston worked with in Touch of Evil. It was actually Heston who got Welles to direct it. “Orson was the most talented man I ever met,” Heston acknowledged. “When one of the honchos at Universal called to ask me what I thought about this script, saying that Orson Welles was going to play the heavy but they didn’t have a director yet, I said, ‘Why don’t you let him direct?’ You’d think I’d suggested my mom to direct the picture.”
What puzzled Heston was after the picture was shot and being edited, Welles left to act in a film with Paul Newman. “I cannot imagine he could be that dumb. Universal had been delighted with him—he had finished shooting on time, they loved what he shot. But then when he walked off, they didn’t figure that. It was just foolhardy to walk out in the middle of cutting.”
Heston recalled a time when Welles was in a restaurant when a very nervous young man came up to him. “‘Mr. Welles…Citizen Kane is a great, great film…just one thing I always wondered. At the end, when Kane is dying and he drops the ball with the snow in it and he says, “Rosebud.” But there’s nobody else in the room, so how do we know he said that?’ Orson took him by the shoulder and brought him close and said, ‘You must never breathe a word of what you just told me to another living soul.’”