Charlton remembered as Hollywood pillar of conservatism

by Carrie Rickey

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

7 April 2008


Charlton Heston, a larger-than-life man who portrayed larger-than-life men such as Moses and Michelangelo, died at his home in Los Angeles late Saturday night at the age of 83, his wife of 64 years by his side.

While no cause of death was given, in 2002 the Hollywood legend announced that he had been diagnosed with symptoms consistent with Alzheimer’s disease.

On screen, Heston parted the Red Sea in “The Ten Commandments, drove the Moors from Spain in” El Cid, painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling in “The Agony and the Ecstasy, baptized Jesus in “The Greatest Story Ever Told, and gave Him a drink of water in “Ben-Hur.

And on the seventh day, Heston did not rest.

A longtime champion of civil rights, of government support of the arts and of gun ownership, the perennial activist - and Oscar winner, for “Ben-Hur - may well have been the only pro-NEA, pro-NRA voice in Hollywood.

Where his contemporary, Gregory Peck, likewise a monument of a man who played monumental men, was Hollywood’s pillar of liberalism, Heston was the pillar of conservatism, a figure who stood up and spoke out for his beliefs.

The classically trained actor came to Hollywood in 1950, just as movie acting was being transformed by the naturalism of Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando.

From his earliest performances in films such as “The President’s Lady (1953), the first of his two portrayals of Andrew Jackson, Heston was a throwback, the hero braving an onslaught of antiheros. If Brando represented the scratch-where-it-itches-school, Heston carried the standard for the fists-to-the-mat school.

With his Olympian build, laser-blue eyes and an oracular baritone that made the simplest greeting sound like a proclamation, the 6-foot, 3-inch actor was every inch and decibel the hero. He had the majesty of a sequoia - and could laugh heartily when critics said he was just as wooden as one. Few men and even fewer actors understood their strengths and their limitations as well as he did.

John Charles Carter was born in 1924 in Evanston, Ill. Before long, his parents moved to St. Helen, Mich. - big-tree country, he lovingly recalled in his 1995 memoir,” In the Arena: “I liked chopping wood, as did Abraham Lincoln, Kaiser Wilhelm and Ronald Reagan, though I adduce no trickle-down virtue from this.”

He was “devastated” by his parents’ divorce in 1933, but grew close to his mother’s second husband, Chet Heston. He took his stepfather’s surname “to hide what still seemed to me the unspeakable secret of my parents’ divorce.” His mother, Lilla, called him Charlton, her maiden name, also a contraction of Charles and Heston.

In his memoir, he described himself as “a nerd before the word had ever been invented - shy, short, pimply and ill-dressed.” As with so many actors before and since, theater gave him a place to try on other personalities, which in turn gave him confidence. His work with the Winnetka Community Theatre in Illinois, where the Hestons relocated, earned Charlton a scholarship to Northwestern University, where he broke his nose playing football. A lucky break, as it turned out, because it gave him the profile of an eagle.

He told The Inquirer in 1995 that when he entered the university in 1941 he was “struck by two bombshells.” First was classmate Lydia Clarke’s assault on his heart, followed by the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor.

In 1943, he enlisted in the Army and proposed marriage to Lydia - weekly. He argued that if they married and he got killed, she would be the beneficiary of $10,000 in life insurance.

Unpersuaded by his pragmatism, she married him for love in 1944. In 1995, he calculated that the $12 he paid for the wedding ring worked out “to less than 25 cents per annum” of their years together. In interviews, Heston called his wife his “lodestone;” in his memoir, she emerges as his lodestar.

After the war, the newlyweds spent a few months with a theater in Asheville, N.C., before seeking their fortunes in New York. Lydia enjoyed greater success. “She was just a better actor than I was,” he said.

By and by, Heston joined Katharine Cornell’s company, appearing on Broadway as Caesar’s lieutenant in “Antony and Cleopatra and winning television parts and a role as a gambler in the Hollywood movie “Dark City.

Likening himself to the movie character Forrest Gump, Heston told The Inquirer his greatest talent may have been being in the right place at the right time.

One morning, the male ingenue on the Paramount lot gave a hearty wave to Cecil B. DeMille, who took notice and cast Heston as the rough-hewn circus manager in “The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and then as Moses in “The Ten Commandments (1956).

The cavalcade of historical roles followed. Something distant and chiseled about Heston made directors think he was ideal to play chiseled figures of distant eras.

One of the actor’s rare contemporary roles was as Detective Vargas, a Mexican drug-buster, in Orson Welles’ sly” Touch of Evil (1958), which Heston’s participation enabled the director to finance.

Few other performers could challenge Heston’s authority as Moses, Michelangelo and yes, God (in “Almost an Angel). Here was a hero with muscles and brains, even if when his Judah Ben-Hur was orating, it looked as if he’d rather be driving a chariot - and vice-versa.

It may be heretical to say that for all his beloved performances in official epics, Heston was looser and more engaged in beloved B-movies such as “Planet of the Apes (1967), “The Omega Man (1971) and “Soylent Green (1973). In these films, it seemed as if he shed the weight of a marble mantle to play men of flesh and blood.

That said, it may also be hypocritical to mourn the fact that at the precise moment Heston ceased playing heroes, Hollywood replaced El Cid and Ben-Hur with antiheroes such as The Graduate and Butch Cassidy.

Heston struggled with this contradiction. While in “Planet, he enjoyed yelling, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn, dirty ape!” he also thought the trend toward anti-heroism was “bad for society.” Which is one reason he turned down the Burt Reynolds role in “Deliverance.

The liberal actor who marched in 1963 with Martin Luther King in Washington in 1969 turned down Democratic pols who drafted him to run for the U.S. Senate. “I’d rather play a senator than be one,” he said in an apparent dig at actor-turned-pol Ronald Reagan, whom he would later support.

“The Democratic Party slid to the left right out from under me,” the self-described “Kennedy-Stevenson Democrat” said in 1995, explaining his apparent swing to the right in the 1970s. In 1998, the actor who as a child had enjoyed hunting in the Michigan forests was elected president of the National Rifle Association.

The last film appearance of Heston’s 52-year career was in Michael Moore’s anti-gun documentary “Bowling for Columbine (2002). Stooped by arthritis and age, rather than be demonized or diminished by the anti-gun documentarian, Heston literally and figuratively stuck to his guns and walked away.

Back in 1995, Heston - who inevitably invited everyone to “Call me Chuck” - said, “I learned long ago that you should never take yourself as seriously as other people do.”

Wherever he is, Chuck almost surely is chuckling over the headline Sunday on a Los Angeles Times blog: “Charlton Heston dies! Hollywood’s GOP population plummets by 25%!

Heston is survived by his wife; his son, Fraser; his daughter, Holly Heston Rochell; and three grandchildren. Memorial services will be private.

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