Aubrey Malone traces the career of a Hollywood superstar forever associated with big-production epics
Charlton Heston was born in 1923 so this year is his centenary. Once likened to a human version of Mount Rushmore, he was widely regarded as someone who did most of his acting with his jaw. But he still managed to win an Oscar. And to turn in a raft of widely acclaimed performances in a number of genres over various decades. He played a Pope, three presidents, Michelangelo and various biblical figures. His sculpted features were ideal for character of such gravitas.
“Producers,” he said, “seem to think I have a medieval face.” He should have been grateful. It was his meal-ticket. “If you need a ceiling painted or the Red Sea parted,’” he said, “You think of me.”
In another sense he was unlucky, being born at a time when films were about to become more existential and less blockbuster-oriented. The heroic roles he mainlined would soon become supplanted by more nuanced anti-heroic ones.
“I find it harder to be creative in an epic,” he claimed, “than in a low budget picture. It’s too easy to get swamped in a turgid sea of angry slaves brandishing spears.” I know what he meant. Hugh Leonard once quipped, “If Lon Chaney is the Man of a Thousand Faces” – he had that soubriquet – “Charlton Heston is Chaney minus 999 of them.”
He first came to prominence in Cecil Be. De Mille’s The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952. He went on to play Moses in Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments four years later. “If you can’t make a career out of two De Milles,” he famously said, “you only have yourself to blame.”
He proved he could be effective in a supporting role in William Wyler’s The Big Country, playing Gregory Peck’s nemesis and love rival (for Carroll Baker) in that epic western. Then came Ben-Hur (1959), another Wyler film and the one for which he won his Oscar. He played the galleon slave who, after gaining his freedom, goes on to defeat his treacherous friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) in a climactic chariot race. “I didn’t deserve all the praise I got,” said Heston in a rare moment of humour, “the race was rigged.”
Gore Vidal, the film’s screenwriter, wanted to create a gay relationship between Messala and Ben-Hur. He knew Heston, who had homophobic tendencies, wouldn’t go for this but Wyler did. He told Boyd camp up the role but not to make this obvious to Heston. The ploy worked, making Boyd almost as impressive as Heston in the film. It won a brace of Oscars apart from Heston’s one and became the benchmark for gladiatorial epics for decades to come.
El Cid, made two years later, was one of the few Heston epics that failed. Maybe that was because De Mille wasn’t behind the camera. It could also have been because – Heston’s view – his co-star Sophia Loren was too diva-like to be credible.
He followed El Cid with a comedy, The Pigeon that Took Rome. Heston was as ill-suited to this genre as he was to playing romantic leads. (It had to be that jaw).
He did his best as John the Baptist in George Stevens’ Biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told in 1966 but by now his reputation for playing certain types of characters was starting to pigeonhole him negatively for reviewers of his work. The critic Glenn Hopp reflected, “When we first see Heston we wonder if he’s going to baptize people in the river Jordan or lead them across it.”
It was filmed in Denver. Said Heston of baptizing the Lord, ‘If the Jordan was as cold as the Colorado river, Christianity would never have got off the ground.’
Stevens embarrassed himself with this Sunday School Bible lesson. It was choc-a-block with A-list actors who looked manifestly miscast. Chief among them John Wayne as a Roman soldier who looked like he’d have preferred to be twirling a six-gun with John Ford in Monument Valley.
Heston afterwards appeared in an actioner, Major Dundee. He fell out with his co-star Richard Harris when he was making this, becoming increasingly irked by Harris’ lax attitude to time. Eventually he started marking Harris’ arrival on set with a stopwatch. Harris did what Harris usually did when he was upset by someone – he made fun of them. One day he arrived in to work with a half dozen alarm clock hanging around his neck, suspended by ropes. He went on to say Heston was “so square he could step out of a cubic moon.” Heston, for his part, described Harris as typifying Irish eccentricity.
By now it was time to play another “big” character. That was Michelangelo in Sir Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstacy, a mistimed period piece. He looked uncomfortable in the role, perhaps because he didn’t look like the historical Michelangelo. “He was a small, gnarled man,” said Philip Dunne, the film’s screenwriter, “whereas Chuck is a tall Greek God.”
Rex Harrison played the Pope. They didn’t click. Heston, he said, “very politely made me feel that it was extremely lucky for me to be supporting him.” By the end of the film the pair of them were like squabbling children rather than two historical icons. Harrison said of Heston’s acting ability, “He was good at portraying arrogance in the same way a dwarf is good at being short.”
As time went on and these type of epics gave way to more “sensitive” films, Heston didn’t give himself enough chances to be subtle in his choice of roles. When he did this, as for instance in Tom Gries’ western Will Penny (1968) he made a good fist of it. I’ve always seen this fine film as his Shane. It’s a small western but suited the autumn into which his career was now heading.
Planet of the Apes (1969) was unashamedly commercial but it gave him another chance to show off his hairy chest among a host of primates. The film made a bomb and spawned sequels. Heston wasn’t saying no. How could he? In many ways he was an anachronism now.
In his later years he became more noted for his support for the National Rifle Association than for his acting. A strong proponent of the right to bear arms, he went head-to-head with those who’d become increasingly incensed by the senseless mass killings to which America would become even more prone in later decades, becoming increasingly gruff as the years went on.
I had some personal experience of this. When he was promoting his autobiography in Easons a few decades ago I attended the signing with my copy. I’d read it and found a misprint in it. I imagined he would be glad to be informed of it but I was mistaken. He didn’t take kindly to it at all, glaring at me as he bared his teeth and snarled, “It’s been corrected in the new edition.” I’d dared to take on Moses.
I was reminded of an anecdote Edward G. Robinson liked to tell about him. It concerned a day he went to a barber. The barber asked him how he would like his hair cut. Heston replied, “In complete silence.”