Heston, Charlton

Heston, Charlton
Oct. 4, 1924-Apr. 5, 2008
American actor


Over the course of his career, Charlton Heston has played leading roles in more than sixty motion pictures, but it is as the towering hero of such Biblical spectacles as The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur that he is perhaps best known. After perfecting his talents on Broadway and in television during its "golden age," Heston moved to Hollywood in 1950, where, over the next thirty-five years, he portrayed, by his own account, "cardinals and cowboys, kings and quarterbacks, presidents and painters, cops and con men, astronauts and geniuses" in such films as The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Planet of the Apes, Will Penny, and Number One. He was awarded an Oscar as best actor of the year, for Ben-Hur, and a number of foreign awards, including the "Bambi," Germany's highest acting honor, Italy's David de Donatello award, and Belgium's "Uilenspiegel," which he has won three times. In 1978 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted him its prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Of English and Scottish descent, Charlton Heston, the son of Russell Whitford and Lilla (Charlton) Carter, was born in Evanston, Illinois on October 4, 1924. (Some sources give his day of birth as October 6 and his year of birth as either 1922 or 1923.) He spent most of his childhood in St. Helen, Michigan, a backwoods village where his father operated a lumber mill. A solitary child with "almost no playmates," he amused himself by acting out the stories he read. "I think being brought up in a remote place with no other amusement inclined me to books," the actor told Dotson Rader in an interview for the syndicated Sunday supplement Parade (March 9, 1986). "More than most kids, I suppose, I played games-imaginary, pretend games-living in a made-up world."

Heston's sense of isolation increased when, after his parents' divorce in the mid-1930s, his mother married Chester Heston, a superintendent in a heating-appliance plant in Wilmette, Illinois, and moved with her son to that well-to-do north Chicago suburb. Shy and socially unsophisticated, the boy found it hard to adjust to life at New Trier Township High School, an affluent school with a progressive curriculum and an abundance of extracurricular activities. Feeling, in his word, "inadequate," Heston took refuge in the school's theatre program. "What acting offered me was the chance to be many other people," he explained to Rader. "In those days, I wasn't satisfied with being me."

After graduating from high school in 1941, Heston enrolled at Northwestern University in nearby Evanston on a drama scholarship. While there, he played leading roles in a number of campus theatrical productions and appeared regularly on several radio programs originating from Chicago. "I knew then that this was what I wanted, and I've never wanted anything else" he told Jeff Rovin in a conversation for Rovin's book The Films of Charlton Heston (1977). After completing two years at Northwestern, Heston left college to enlist in the United States Army Air Force. He spent most of his three-year tour of duty stationed in the Aleutians, where he was a radio-gunner on B-52s.

Discharged from military service early in 1947, Heston moved with his wife, the actress Lydia Clarke, whom he had married on March 17, 1944, to New York City. Unable to find acting jobs there, the couple signed on as codirectors and leading players with the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina. At the end of the 1947 summer season, after having directed and appeared in productions of The State of the Union, The Glass Menagerie, and other stock repertory plays, the Hestons returned to New York. Shortly after that, Charlton Heston was assigned the role of Proculeius, Caesar's lieutenant, in Katharine Cornell's staging of Antony and Cleopatra, which opened on Broadway in November 1947 for a seven-month run. His later Broadway appearances included the roles of Glenn Campbell in Joseph Hayes's short-lived Leaf and Bough, in 1949, and John Clitherow in Design For a Stained Glass Window, a costume drama set in Elizabethan England that lasted for just eight performances in 1950.

Heston found steadier employment in the mushrooming television industry. Among the many apprentice stage actors to achieve success in the new medium, he told Jerry Tallmer, who interviewed him for the New York Post (August 13, 1974), "it was all set up for us. Successful film people didn't do television; they were contractually prevented from it. There was not enough money in it for successful stage people. I got $68 for my first Studio One-two weeks' work." During the first sixteen months of Studio One, CBS's highly acclaimed dramatic anthology series, Heston played the leading male roles in productions of The Taming of the Shrew, Wuthering Heights, Of Human Bondage, Macbeth, Jane Eyre, and Julius Caesar, among other plays. The actor also appeared regularly on the anthology series Philco Playhouse, Omnibus, Robert Montgomery Presents, and Curtain Call.

Impressed by Heston's performance as Mr. Rochester in the Studio One production of Jane Eyre, Hal B. Wallis, the motion picture producer, signed the actor to a long-term film contract in 1950. Heston made his screen debut later in the same year in Wallis' lurid melodrama Dark City. According to Bosley Crowther, who reviewed the movie for the New York Times (October 19, 1950), Heston was surprisingly convincing in the undemanding and rather one-dimensional role of a crooked gambler on the run, displaying "a quiet but assertive magnetism, a youthful dignity and a plainly potential sense of timing that is the good actor's sine qua non."

Over the next few years, Heston played a variety of roles, ranging from Jennifer Jones's aristocratic lover in the sex melodrama Ruby Gentry (1952) to a brusque circus boss in Cecil B. De Mille's Academy Award-winning The Greatest Show On Earth (1952) to an idealistic young doctor in Bad For Each Other (1954). He was especially effective as Andrew Jackson in The President's Lady (1953), a film version of Irving Stone's best seller about Jackson and his wife, Rachel. After seeing it, a reviewer for Variety (March 11, 1953) predicted that Heston's "forthright, steely-eyed portrayal" would "surely…establish him in the topflight ranks of stardom; he has a superb manner of underplaying through voice and a minimum of gestures."

More often than not, however, Heston was cast in low-budget "program-fillers" made for Paramount by William C. Thomas and William H. Pine, including the westerns The Savage (1952), Arrowhead (1953), Pony Express (1953), and The Far Horizons (1955); and the action-adventures The Naked Jungle (1954) and The Secret of the Incas (1954). As David Shipman astutely observed in his The Great Movie Stars (1972), Heston "might have gone the way of all second-rate action stars" if De Mille had not chosen him to play Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956). Struck by the uncanny resemblance in physique and face between the actor and Michelangelo's sculpture Moses in the Temple, De Mille entrusted him with the central role in the multimillion-dollar Biblical epic. "But it wasn't merely an external resemblance," the director explained later. "Charlton Heston brought to the role a rapidly maturing skill as an actor and an earnest understanding of the human and spiritual quality of Moses." That deep "understanding" of Moses' humanness proved crucial to Heston's characterization, for as Herbert Kupferberg, among other critics, noted in the New York Herald Tribune (November 9, 1956), Heston was, above all, "a believable Moses, more a man of compassion than of wrath, more a person than a prophet."

After fulfilling the terms of his Paramount contract with the adult western Three Violent People (1956), Heston jumped at the chance to work under the direction of Orson Welles in the florid thriller Touch of Evil (1958). Cast as a conscientious Mexican narcotics investigator who matches wits with the corrupt sheriff (played by Welles himself) of a grungy border town, Heston turned in his "least mechanical performance" to that date, in Shipman's estimation. At first a box-office disappointment, Touch of Evil has since become something of a cult classic. Heston's screen credits for the late 1950s also include the roles of a scheming ranch foreman in William Wyler's western The Big Country (1958), General Andrew Jackson in The Buccaneer (1958), a reenactment of the War of 1812, and the cynical skipper of a salvage tug in The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959).

Although not the producers' first choice-they had approached Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, and Burt Lancaster-Heston took on the title role in William Wyler's Biblical spectacular Ben-Hur as if it had been tailored especially for him. In the view of most critics, the actor's interpretation of the proud Judean prince whose spiritual development culminates in his conversion to Christianity was the best of his career. "To perform in such vastness requires rare strength…," Richard L. Coe wrote in his review for the Washington Post (March 16, 1960), and Heston brought to the role "the steadying quality of complete belief. Without his giant frame and muscles, the chariot race and galley slave sequences would be unbelievable. To these he adds his fine, deep voice for lines that have grave ease and for the emotional scenes he summons to his eyes an emotion that even a non-believer will grasp. Heston's work is as vital to the film's strength as Director Wyler's sweeping command." Ben-Hur won eleven Oscars-more than any other motion picture in the history of the Academy Awards-out of twelve nominations, including those for best picture, best actor, and best director. Moreover, it became one of the top-grossing films of all time and saved its studio, MGM, from bankruptcy.

The awards for Ben-Hur notwithstanding, some cinema historians, among them David Thomson, maintain that Heston was "far better used" in two later film spectacles-El Cid (1961) and Fifty-Five Days at Peking (1963)-that he made for the producer Samuel Bronston. According to Thomson, writing in his book A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1976), El Cid, the saga of the legendary medieval warrior who drove the Moors from parts of Spain, was "the finest expression" of Heston's "Arthurian dignity," while Fifty-Five Days At Peking, an account of the Boxer Rebellion in turn-of-the-century China, in which the actor played an American marine, leading the defense of the international diplomatic quarter of the city, "drew on the sense of human inadequacy beneath all Heston's muscle."

Other larger-than-life characters interpreted by Heston in the 1960s were John the Baptist in George Stevens' ponderous and overblown The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Sir Carol Reed's adaptation of Irving Stone's best-selling novel about the Renaissance titan, and General Charles ("Chinese") Gordon in Khartoum (1966), about the confrontation between the British general and the fanatical Moslem religious leader, the Mahdi, during a ten-month siege of the Khartoum garrison that ended in Gordon's death. Khartoum fared poorly at the box office, but the critics had nothing but praise for Heston, who managed to hold his own against Sir Laurence Olivier, in the role of the Mahdi. "For many a year now [Heston] has been just about the only heroic actor we have had, the only one capable of even attempting the really big parts," Richard Roud remarked in his review for the Guardian (June 10, 1966). "Now, with his maturity, he is able to add to his natural physical prestige a fine grasp of character and the ability to make us believe not only in his portrayal of Gordon but in Gordon himself."

From the beginning of his career, Heston has prepared for each role by immersing himself in his character. "I find the character from the specifics about him-the way he looks, the clothes he wears…," the actor explained to Donald Chase in an interview for the Saturday Evening Post (November 1983). "I resonate enormously on these external things….If you get tied up with your own psyche…, you may learn something about yourself, but I'm not convinced you're going to find significant creative truth about some other character." Biographical roles, he went on, require even more preparation. Before shooting began on The Agony and the Ecstasy, for example, Heston read Michelangelo's letters, studied biographical and critical works, and visited museums and art galleries.

In between playing the heroic figures that made his reputation, Heston turned out an assortment of variously successful commercial vehicles, among them Diamond Head (1962), a soap opera set on a Hawaiian pineapple plantation; Franklin Schaffner's medieval melodrama The War Lord (1965); Major Dundee (1965), about the Pyrrhic victory of a punitive expedition led by a demoted Union cavalry officer against a band of renegade Indians; the science-fiction fantasy Planet of the Apes, which was one of the biggest box-office hits of 1968; and The Hawaiians (1970), a multigenerational family chronicle derived from James Michener's best seller Hawaii.

Oddly enough, Heston earned the best notices for his low-keyed performances in two films that were largely ignored by the moviegoing public. Released at the same time as Planet of the Apes and eclipsed by it, the offbeat western Will Penny (1968) starred Heston as a middle-aged, world-weary range bum who is unable to come to grips with his changing circumstances. Rex Reed, writing in the New York Times (February 2, 1969), considered Heston's sensitive, multifaceted inter-pretation to be his best work in years. Reed was esepecially touched by Heston's ability "to seem as simple and spontaneous" as the character he portrayed. Heston was equally impressive when he suited up with the New Orleans Saints to take the part of an aging professional quarterback in Number One (1969), a characterization that Howard Thompson of the New York Times (September 18, 1969), among others, rated "a brooding, scorching, and beautifully disciplined tour de force."

In the early 1970s Heston took time out from his usual screen fare to play Mark Antony in Stuart Burge's star-studded version of Julius Caesar, with John Gielgud in the title role, and in his own production of Antony and Cleopatra (1972). Making a film version of Antony and Cleopatra-the "most cinematic" of Shakespeare's plays, in Heston's view-had been a pet project of the actor's for some years. To realize his dream, he waived his salary, agreeing to work for a percentage of the profits alone, and when his top two choices for director, Orson Welles and Sir Laurence Olivier, proved to be unavailable, he also shouldered the task of directing the production. Although it was never released in the United States, Antony and Cleopatra did reasonably well at the box office in Great Britain and Japan, and Heston, in his directorial debut, came in for a good share of the credit. The reviewer for Variety (March 8, 1972) reserved special praise for Heston's "excellent distillation" of the text, which managed to be "most stylish without being self-consciously reverential."

Back on Hollywood's sound stages, Heston starred as one of the few survivors of a biochemical plague in The Omega Man (1971), as an airline pilot in Skyjacked (1972), as a hard-boiled police detective in the science-fiction thriller Soylent Green (1973), as Cardinal Richelieu in the costume adventures The Three Musketeers (1974) and The Four Musketeers (1975), and as the commander of a nuclear submarine in Gray Lady Down (1978). His most popular features during the mid-1970s, however, were "disaster" movies of one kind or another, distinguished mainly by their spectacular special effects: Airport 1975 (1974), Earthquake (1974), Midway (1976), and Two-Minute Warning (1976). All these films were released by Universal Pictures, and as Pauline Kael observed in the New Yorker (December 2, 1974), "When Universal uses [Heston] in its action-disaster pictures, which are all really the same movie, sold by the yard, he underacts grimly and he turns into a stereotype of himself…. No one is expected to believe in the acts he performs, he's a wind-up hero machine."

In recent interviews, Heston has conceded that his choice of roles has been at least partly dictated by financial considerations. "I have occasionally accepted a part in a film that I recognized had some enormous commercial potential and a limited creative opportunity for me as an actor," he said, as quoted in U.S. News & World Report (March 26, 1979). "Earthquake would be a good example. But I realized what I would earn from the film would give me considerable freedom to control my options as a performer." Heston's heroic, superhuman image may have also cost him some roles. According to Carl Gottlieb, the coauthor of the screenplay for the blockbuster Jaws, Heston was eager to play the part of Brody, the beleaguered local chief of police, which eventually went to Roy Scheider, but Steven Spielberg, the director, vetoed the idea, arguing that the audience would expect "Moses" to win. Heston's most recent films include the horror-fantasy The Awakening (1980) and The Mountain Men (1980), an adventure about frontier fur trappers that was written by Fraser Clarke Heston, the actor's son.

Although he is known primarily as a motion picture actor, Heston has made it a point to return to the stage periodically "to renew [his] passport." He has not appeared on Broadway since he starred in a short-lived production, directed by Sir Laurence Olivier, of Benn W. Levy's The Tumbler in 1960, but he is a frequent headliner at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, where he has played, among other roles, Macbeth, John Procter in The Crucible, James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night, Sherlock Holmes in Crucifer of Blood, and perhaps most notably, Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt's historical drama A Man For All Seasons-a part he has taken several times. "The only way to learn to play those man-killer parts is to start when you're twenty and keep coming back till you get too old for them," Heston wrote in his The Actor's Life: Journals, 1956-76 (E. P. Dutton, 1978). The actor's most recent effort as Sir Thomas More was judged by Lawrence Christon, the Los Angeles Times's drama critic, to be "the best performance he has ever given on the Ahmanson stage." Heston "will never be an Olivier," Christon went on in his review of February 17, 1979, "but of all the characters we've seen him play downtown, he is most physically and temperamentally suited to More…, [and] the clear, honest man More must have been is given a clear, honest performance here." In 1985 Heston directed and starred in a production of Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial at the Queen's Theatre in London. While his interpretation of the paranoid hero, Lieutenant Commander Queeg, failed, for most reviewers, to erase the memory of Humphrey Bogart in the film version, it was, in the words of the Guardian's Michael Billington, "a perfectly decent, honorable perform-ance."

With the exception of a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of Elizabeth the Queen, opposite Dame Judith Anderson, in 1968, Heston shunned television from the mid-1950s until 1983, when he accepted a leading part in the CBS miniseries Chiefs, which explored social change in a fictional southern town over the course of forty years by examining the lives of three successive police chiefs. Since November 1985, he has played the continuing role of the oil-rich tycoon Jason Colby in ABC's prime-time soap opera The Colbys, a spinoff of the hit series Dynasty.

Heston's activities in behalf of his fellow artists and of the arts in general have been many. A member of the board of the Screen Actors Guild from 1960 to 1975, he was elected in 1965 to the first of three two-year terms as that organization's president. He has also served as chairman of the board of trustees of the American Film Institute, a nonprofit organization established in 1967 by the National Endowment for the Arts to preserve the country's film heritage and train its new filmmakers. From 1966 through 1972, he sat on the National Council of the Arts, and in 1981, he was chosen by President Ronald Reagan to cochair the White House Task Force on the Arts and Humanities, which was charged with looking into new ways to fund arts organizations.

Long active in politics, Heston has supported and campaigned for candidates of both major political parties, and he has been involved with liberal as well as conservative causes, ranging from the civil rights movement to opposition to a proposed nuclear freeze. Although he has always championed the individual actor's right to take a public stand on important political issues, he fiercely opposed what he saw as an attempt by Edward Asner, during his tenure as president of the Screen Actors Guild, to "politicize" the union. Over the years, Heston has been urged to run for elective office by Democratic and Republican leaders alike, most recently by California Republicans, who pressed him to challenge the Democratic incumbent, Alan Cranston, for the United States Senate in 1986. Heston declined. "If I ran and won-and I think I would-I'd never be able to act again," he explained to Dotson Rader in the interview for Parade. "And that's impossible for me to accept. It means too much to me….I'd rather play a Senator than be one."

Charlton Heston has graying sandy hair, "disturbingly innocent" blue eyes, and a craggy-featured face that, as he once put it, "belongs to another century." To maintain his weight at around 200 pounds, the six-foot-two-inch actor adheres to a rigorous daily workout routine that includes jogging, swimming, and tennis. He watches his diet, too, although he has an admitted weakness for peanut butter and single-malt Scotch. In his spare time, he enjoys playing backgammon, reading (especially biographies) and sketching. Some of his pen and ink sketches have been exhibited in art galleries in New York, London, and Glasgow. Heston and his wife, Lydia, who occasionally appears opposite her husband in his stage productions, share a sprawling "medieval modern" house, to use the actor's description, in the Coldwater Canyon section of Beverly Hills, California. In addition to their son, Fraser, a screenwriter and motion picture producer, the Hestons have a daughter, Holly Ann.

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