Gods don’t get more flawed than Charlton Heston. He was a Hollywood he-man that actually found time for invention and experimentation, a gun-toting political conservative who had, at one time, made a life changing career choice championing speculative films that dealt with decidedly liberal issues. By the time Michael Moore mocked him in his Oscar winning diatribe Bowling for Columbine, the public was well aware of his blemishes. Age and a rumored case of Alzheimers solidified such a state. But for most he will forever be remembered as the bringer of the Ten Commandments, a direct pipeline to the Almighty forged out of celluloid and some amazing Midwestern looks.
Heston, who died of undisclosed causes on 5 April at age 84, was born John Charles Carter in Evanston, Illinois. After an early move to Michigan, childhood became a literal boy’s adventure tale. Outdoorsy and idealized, the only flaw featured was the failure of his parents’ marriage when he was ten. His mother quickly remarried, and the new family relocated to Wilmette outside Chicago. While attending New Trier High School, Carter caught the acting bug, which resulted in a drama scholarship to Northwestern University. From there, he married his college sweetheart, a communications student named Lydia Marie Clarke. That union would last 64 years. After service in the US Air Force, he headed to New York, the natural place for any budding performer to try and cut their thespian teeth.
Working for a time as a model, Carter and his wife struggled. They had a son Frazier, and adopted a daughter, Holly. Taking his mother’s maiden name and his stepfather’s surname, he became Charlton Heston, and it wasn’t long before he was gaining supporting parts onstage and additional work in the fledging medium of television. Like most struggling actors in the late ‘40s/ early ‘50s, he appeared regularly on anthology dramas such as Studio One. As luck would have it, his work in a production of Wuthering Heights earned the interest of Hollywood producer Hal Wallis. While Dark City marked his professional debut, it was his turn as circus manager Brad Braden in the much maligned 1952 Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show On Earth that made him a known name.
Modern critics have unjustly marginalized this relic from the studio system’s struggles, pointing to its lack of artistic merit and its melodramatic leanings. But it marked an important part of Heston’s career, since it would be the first time he worked with the legendary Cecil B. DeMille. Four years later, the famed filmmaker and producer of epics would remember the young man who held together his big top ballyhoo when taking on the Old Testament story of Moses. By then, Heston had appeared in films such as Ruby Gentry, The Naked Jungle, and several subpar Westerns. Yet it would be his turn as God’s instrument on Earth that began the mammoth Heston myth. It would be a role of a lifetime, and an image he could never really live down.
One has to admire what the actor accomplished in the otherwise corny religious spectacle. He is required to be both noble and naïve, driven by a power beyond his comprehension but still able to draw on an inner individual strength to guide his hand. The moments of sacred majesty are all the more real thanks to Heston’s achieved awe, and there is something seductive and sexy about his chemistry with co-star Yvonne DeCarlo. While the rest of the A-list (mis)cast saunter around like celebrity chickens with their cameo heads cut off, the man from Illinois keeps everything somber and sacrosanct. It’s one of the main reasons he could never shake the spiritual aura surrounding the part.
And yet, he continued to try. While still appearing regularly on television, he consistently chose interesting and engaging projects. He took the lead as a Mexican narcotics official in Orson Welles final masterpiece, Touch of Evil and costarred alongside Gregory Peck in William Wyler’s The Big Country. Yet it was his next film that would seal his fate as a film star as big as the stories he appeared in. Winning 11 Oscars, including one for his starring role, Ben Hur remains a brilliant old school Tinsel Town treat. Overblown and bloated with gaudy grandeur, it was clear what director Wyler was up to. With the man’s most recognizable superstar, he was out to out-DeMille DeMille. He literally succeeded.
But if Heston was already carrying a career cross thanks to Commandments, Hur sealed his filmic fate. It soon seemed that every larger than life project needed his uncommon good looks and cloud of confidence. It was evident in El Cid, Diamond Head, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and The Agony and the Ecstasy. Yet by 1965, something had happened to Heston’s inviolable veneer. Instead of being part of the considered cool of the peace and love generation, he was viewed as an earnest member of the Establishment. Nothing was further from the truth - at least, not then. He had marched with Dr. King in 1963, and worked for JFK. He opposed the war in Vietnam, and petitioned Congress to change handgun laws after the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Apparently, all things, including basic belief systems, must pass.
It would be the switch to science fiction, however, that literally reinvented Charlton Heston. As a potent allegory for race in America, his turn in Rod Serling’s adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes brought him back to box office prominence. As Colonel George Taylor, stranded astronaut in a universe where primates stood as the evolved species, his measured machismo kept the otherwise outlandish premise in check. He would go on to further explore the genre with The Omega Man, a reworking of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Radically different from the book, and seen today as an obvious attempt at showcasing Heston as a glorified humanity salvaging guiding light, the movie does suffer from some specious scripting. But there’s no denying that, before there was a Will Smith, the 47 year old made a fine last man on Earth.
In 1972, Heston got a chance to play one of his favorite Shakespearean roles. He directed himself as Marc Anthony in a forgotten version of Anthony and Cleopatra. It would be one of only three turns behind the camera for the enigmatic actor. The next year, the last of his speculative trilogy arrived with the fabulous future shock schlock known as Soylent Green. As a cop trying to cope with a hugely overpopulated planet, this combination of environmental tirade and hoary whodunit offered Heston at his most hammy. It was also the film that finally reduced his status to crusty and campy. For the next decade, he would appear in cheeky comedies (The Three Musketeers), star studded disaster duds (Airport ‘75, Earthquake), and the occasional return to form (Two-Minute Warning).
Something strange happened to Heston during the ‘80s, however. All the goodwill and support for social causes he carried from the 1960s seemed to wither and die under a caustic conservative ideology that saw him supporting Ronald Reagan, opposing Affirmative Action, and changing his political affiliation from Democrat to Republican. He quit the performance union Actor’s Equity over their stance on the Broadway bound Miss Saigon (the group demanded an Asian play the part originated by Caucasian Jonathan Pryce) and argued that CNN was undermining the first President Bush’s strategy in the first Gulf War. Yet it was his five year stint as President of the NRA that truly tested his continued credibility.
An avid collector, the gun advocate made the now infamous “cold dead hands” speech in 2000. It would soon become the main thrust of Moore’s controversial Columbine ambush. Vilified by the media, and the subject of some rather sour revisionist history, Heston was seen as an out of touch old coot who lived by a doctrine long dead in post-modern America. Even when, in 2002, he announced that he had the initial stage symptoms of Alzheimers, the criticism never let up. His 2003 resignation from the organization found him repeating his famous stance, and while finally off the public stage, the divided sympathies of the actor remained. Even up until his death many continued to undermine his work onscreen, countering that it represented the efforts of a philosophically suspect personality.
But Heston was more than his stances. He wasn’t just the sum total of his position on abortion (pro-life, naturally) or his battle with prostate cancer (which he conquered in 1998). Anyone witnessing the magnificence of Moses as he admonishes Pharaoh to “let his people go”, or snickered over the oft-quoted quip “take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape” understands the impact of Heston’s presence. He was indicative of the Eisenhower era male, yet someone seemed in step with the progressive. He was a man’s man metering out social sensibility with a set square jaw and a secret sensitive side. Sometimes histrionic, frequently hamstrung by a project’s proposed scope, he still managed to leave his undeniable imprint. He was a force, an undaunted despot, and a symbolic statue of every manufactured male.
He remains pure bravado and musk, eloquent and elusive, as powerful as he was passive. The glint in his steely eyes matched the magic his profile produced on celluloid, while his words frequently confounded even the most ardent of supporters. He was a true industry icon, one of the last remnants of a system that used to make stars, not actors. His last film appearance, listed on IMDb, is for the unknown Italian film My Father, Rua Alguem 5555. In it, he plays notorious Nazi concentration camp butcher, Dr. Josef Mengele. It’s endemic of the chances this actor always took. It is also illustrative of the legacy he leaves behind - precarious, challenging, and never quite predicable. Sort of describes an incomplete deity, doesn’t it. Heston will always be such an incomplete idol.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.