Chiseled good looks and a voice to match made this movie icon of 60’s Biblical epics and 70’s Sci-Fi a star of the highest echelon, and an easy target for taunting impersonators. But try as they might, no one could chow down the scenery in bigger or bolder bites than Charlton Heston. Check out TCM’s Friday programming and see why there can only ever be one actor who could part the Red Sea and fight those damn dirty apes. Turner Classic Movies will pay tribute to legendary actor Charlton Heston on Friday April 11th with a 15-hour marathon featuring Heston’s not-to-be missed Oscar-winning performance in Ben-Hur, and Robert Osborne’s in-depth Conversation with Heston from the intimate interview series, Private Screenings.
Charlton Heston is a name that provokes immediate imagery: Moses parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, Judah in the triumphant chariot race of Ben-Hur, Commander Taylor resisting his captors in Planet of the Apes, and the visual is always accompanied by the resonance of a purposeful vocal cadence. Heston’s acting style was conjoined with that voice and that is perhaps why his portrayals were always so distinctively archetypal, delivered with the full force and bravado that began with his first big screen role in The Greatest Show on Earth. It was a bold choice that distinguished him as much as it pigeonholed him, and although Heston’s performances never wavered with the times or the fashionable acting styles that came and went throughout his career, he continued to work, building a body of work that would span decades and give us the previously mentioned iconic heroes we remember today.
One of my personal favorites was a film in which Heston poked fun of the very persona for which he was so well known, “The Private War of Major Benson”. In this military comedy, Heston is an officer recently out of favor who is forced to take over and shape up an ROTC school of adorable and rascally moppets. “Taps”, this is not. Think more along the lines of Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Kindergarten Cop”, a good solid family film with lots of heart. Heston does an admirable job of transitioning from a swaggering, tough-as-nails veteran into a father figure capable of understanding and relating to his young charges. Similarly, Heston can be seen in another out of character role in “The Pigeon that Took Rome”. As well as these movies come off, its surprising that Heston didn’t do more comedies.
Undoubtedly, it is Heston’s standard role as a Man’s Man that will live on in the hearts and memories of most moviegoers – Vargas in Touch of Evil, Andrew Jackson in The Buccaneer, the title character in El Cid, Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy, John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told and on and on. Even when playing his age in later work (such as Long John Silver in the 1990 version of Treasure Island and Schwarzenegger’s boss in True Lies), Heston was a bad-ass, evoking an exciting and indiscriminant past by wearing an eye patch in both films.
Off screen Heston was less the rogue, but ever the noble activist and leader intent on doing what he believed to be right for the greater good. The acclaimed actor was noted for his public service, serving multiple terms as president of the Screen Actor’s Guild and the NRA, rallying against the Hollywood communist witch-hunts in the 50’s, and even participating in civil rights protests in the 1960’s. His public participation in political issues was notably complicated (he was once a Democrat who signed petitions for gun control after JFK’s assassination, only to later become a Republican and an advocate for gun owner rights) and often controversial, as witnessed by his famous/infamous quote in defense of the 2nd Amendment, “You can take my rifle… when you pry it from my cold, dead hands”. This fervent commitment to what he believed to be the rights of all Americans cemented his image as a proud patriot who honored and cherished his country.
It was this deep-rooted patriotism that bonded Heston with much of his adoring public with whom he enjoyed a mutual admiration. Although a mega-superstar, the fame never came between the fans and Heston, who was well known for an unwavering generosity of heart. TCM host Robert Osborne noted that, “Charlton Heston was a towering man both in person and onscreen. He was also one of the nicest, most courteous gentlemen I ever met. He will forever stand tall among those rare few we know as genuine Movie Stars.”
I myself had the privilege of witnessing firsthand Heston’s renowned courteousy. About ten years ago I was present when The American Cinematheque held a retrospective for the films of Director Richard Fleischer at the Hollywood Egyptian Theatre. Among the films screened was the sci-fi classic, Soylent Green. Most of the stars from the film, including Heston, appeared in person for a question and answer panel after the screening. Still in vibrant health at the time, Heston could not have been more witty, smart, quick and entertaining. He immediately connected with the audience and readily shared the spotlight with his co-stars, including audience member Dick Van Patten (better known as the patriarch in television’s Eight is Enough). Van Patten had a small but pivotal role in a scene with Edward G. Robinson in what would be Robinson’s final screen role. As Van Patten posed his question, Heston realized who the actor was and insisted he join the panel. Hesitant to intrude (for Van Patten himself is a well-known sweetheart of a guy), Heston persisted in playfully cajoling him, and even led the audience in a round of applause until Van Patten, red with laughter, took his place onstage among the cast.
Heston was in his element, and everyone could see that he was enjoying the moment as much as his audience. It was a truly an indelible gesture due entirely to the kind-heartedness of a gallant man, a gentleman of Hollywood’s grander and more glamorous days. Truly, Heston was bigger than life, bigger than the silver screen. In person or on celluloid, Heston’s presence filled a room with a palpable sense of each of his memorable screen personas rolled up into one. Perhaps becoming an icon was inevitable, because that’s a hell of a lot of personality for one mere man to handle.
Along with the screenings planned on Turner Classic Movies, I highly recommend checking out Heston’s imdb.com listing. It happens to be one of the more extensive entries, including a brief, but concise biography, a complete listing of all of his screen work, and many personal quotes by the actor himself that will give you some insight into this complex and multifaceted man who was admired by generations. And don’t forget TCM’s April 11th, fifteen-hour marathon of Charlton Heston films. The following is a complete schedule of the tribute, and I urge you to set your recording devices now! Whatever you do, you must see Ben-Hur. If you can’t make it to the couch, then do yourself a favor and Netflix it. Besides having one of the greatest action sequences in movie history, it is essential Charlton Heston, and a fine, quality film experience worth investing every second of your time. Pity if you miss it.
2:30 p.m. Private Screenings: Charlton Heston
3:30 p.m. The Buccaneer (1958) with Yul Brynner and Claire Bloom.
5:30 p.m. The Hawaiians (1970) with Geraldine Chaplin and John Philip Law.
8 p.m. Private Screenings: Charlton Heston
9 p.m. Ben-Hur (1959) with Jack Hawkins and Stephen Boyd.
1 a.m. Khartoum (1966) with Lawrence Olivier and Richard Johnson.
3:30 a.m. Major Dundee (1965) co-starring Richard Harris, Jim Hutton and James Coburn.