My encounter with Charlton Heston

Alaskacharltonheston_lI met Charlton Heston only once, in 1996, but that brief interview cemented for me an admiring fondness for an actor whose politics I disagreed with, whose acting style I often found hammy and quaint, and yet who gave me and millions of other moviegoers enormous pleasure watching his performances over the years. At the time, Heston was promoting the film Alaska (pictured), directed by his son Fraser, a minor film that gave him a rare villainous role, which he bit into with his usual gusto. (Years later, I’m still tickled by his typically clenched-jaw reading of such lines as, "Magnificent creature, the polar bear. Nature’s most perfect carnivore.") Heston was proud of his son’s work and modest about his own, feeling that, at age 71, he was still just a working actor hoping to get it right one of these days. He talked about his recently completed role as the Player King in Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Hamlet (and told a hilarious, unprintable story about one of his fellow cast members in that film, a tale made even funnier since I was essentially listening to the voice of God using the f-word). I asked why, at this stage of his career, with no more worlds to conquer, he’d take a walk-on role in a Shakespeare movie. He replied, again with that famously tightened jaw, "No actor with the brains God gave a goose would turn down the chance to waltz with the old gentleman from Avon." Yes, Heston really spoke that way. It was awesome.

All right, maybe he was putting me on a little; he certainly had the capacity to laugh at himself, as was evident from his self-parodic cameo in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake, or his role as a crazy, trigger-happy coot in Town and Country. Even talking about politics, about which he was famously passionate, he was capable of being tongue-in-cheek. I asked him if he was going to stump for the Republicans in the 1996 election, and he said he might, but that right-leaning actors were generally leery of campaigning because they feared losing work in liberal Hollywood, just as outspoken leftists had during the Hollywood blacklist of the ’50s. I told him that sounded disingenuous, especially since he was there at the time and would have remembered seeing film folk not just lose their jobs but sometimes even go to jail or flee the country; surely he didn’t think conservatives in Hollywood faced similar peril in 1996, did he? Well, he replied, it still felt that way to him, and he asserted, "There are more conservatives in the closet in Hollywood than there are homosexuals." "You’ve used that line before, haven’t you," I said. "Yes, it’s a good line, isn’t it?" Now, I don’t think Heston had anything against gays or anyone else; back in the ’60s, he’d been an active Hollywood supporter of the civil rights movement and had joined Martin Luther King’s march on Washington in 1963. Rather, whether Heston was campaigning for the National Rifle Association or selling a character to moviegoers, he was a showman first, an entertainer, and he knew how to please a crowd and play to an audience.

addCredit(“Charlton Heston: Everett Collection”)

He was old-fashioned in that sense, calling upon a repertoire oforatorical skills that seemed practically Victorian even back in the’50s, when his contemporaries (like Marlon Brando or Paul Newman) wereadvancing the Method and changing the techniques of screen actingforever. Heston, however, was built for lofty speeches full ofrighteous anger — which made him perfect, as it turns out, both forold-school Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur and for cutting-edge dystopian science-fiction sagas like Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, and Soylent Green.No matter where he was set, Heston seemed a man out of time, and towatch him (or speak with him) was to be entertained by a visitor froman ancient past, an age of vanished heroes. That was the uniquepleasure he brought to audiences, and it’s a sensibility that, alongwith him, has now passed forever from the screen.

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  • Snarf

    I always dug his introduction to the Disney flick “Hercules” especially the line “Well, you GO girl.” (When told by one of the three muses they can tell the story much better than he)

  • Eric Friedmann

    Absolutely amazing! If the subject isn’t “American Idol” or some other pop-culture garbage like that, no one has anything to say about one of the greatest actors and movie stars of all time!
    Well, let me just say, that regardless of Charlton Heston’s personal views on gun control, he was an extraordinary versatile actor who could take on roles of all sorts; from biblical to science fiction to disaster films. How many actors can say they played Moses, Judah Ben-Hur, Rodrigo “El Cid”, starred in the first Planet of the Apes film and was directed by Orson Welles?
    Not many.

  • Anjeliki

    Ever since I heard of his death, I keep replaying in my mind a scene from SNL, which Heston hosted many years ago, when they spoofed Soylent Green. Funny stuff.

  • Martha

    I have many fond memories of watching “The Ten Commandments” every Easter, so was sad to hear of Heston’s death this weekend. If Heston is right about “closeted” conservatives in Hollywood, it’s too bad – you’d hope that people would get cast in movies based on their merits as actors, not on their politics. But it’s not too surprising, though – much of Hollywood seems to give off a smug, self-righteous vibe that’s almost as intransigent as hardcore right-wingers. RIP, Mr. Heston. You were awesome (in the literal meaning of the word).

  • Kay

    Charlton Heston was a wonderful actor, very much one-of-a-kind in the best possible way. I was sorry to hear of his death, not only for his family’s sake but also because every time an old-school Hollywood legend like him passes away, a little bit more of that “grand era” slips away. I love your tribute to him, Gary. Thanks for sharing your memories of him…. he obviously had a great deal of self-respect yet also the ability to not take himself too seriously. Most unusual for an actor! I’ll miss him.

  • Eric Friedmann

    I’ve always found it curious as to why ABC-TV would broadcast THE TEN COMMANDMENTS on Easter weekend when the story is clearly reflective of the Hebrews’ exodus from their bondage in Egypt, which is what defines the Passover holiday. Should the film coincide with Passover rather than Easter?

  • Anonymous

    often easter and passover do coincide. the last supper in the bible was jesus eating the passover meal with his disciples and pontius pilate reminds the crowd in the bible that he will release one prisoner to them as was tradition at passover and the crowd chose barrabas over jesus. the two holidays are definitely linked

  • wildecat

    Great tribute, Gary.

  • Eric Friedmann

    To date, the classic chilling Statue of Liberty ending to the PLANET OF THE APES and it’s fade-out remains my favorite film ending of all time!

  • Tuzo

    Gary, nice post and good to see something up on the site other than a very short AP blurb (and of course best roles list); “No matter where he was set, Heston seemed a man out of time, and to watch him (or speak with him) was to be entertained by a visitor from an ancient past, an age of vanished heroes. That was the unique pleasure he brought to audiences, and it’s a sensibility that, along with him, has now passed forever from the screen.” I think that sums up Heston’s appeal as well as I have ever seen. If that sensibility has truly passed us by, then I think we are all the worse for it.

  • Tuzo

    You’re F-word story sounds like the real life version of Phil Hartman’s SNL skit where he impersonates Heston reading from Madonna’s Sex book. Also hilarious but somehow the real version must have been even more so!

  • Jakeem

    Heston excelled at playing miracle workers who parted the Red Sea, painted the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, and won the Battle of New Orleans against tremendous odds.
    And let’s not forget the biggest miracle of all. In the movie “Number One,” Heston played Ron “Cat” Catlan whose career achievements included guiding the New Orleans Saints to an NFL championship!

  • vw

    vanished heroes indeed. if everyone could act with such integrity and humility as him, no matter their personal beliefs we’d all be the better for it. it’s what makes us the intelligent human beings we’re supposed to be. he will be missed greatly.

  • Douglas

    The worst thing about the long-overdue death of someone like Heston is that the joyous event is tempered by having to spend a week hearing people say nice things about the evil old bastard. First off, lots of blather like above, that he was a good actor, when he was a lousy actor, a spectacularly successful terrible ham. He missed his boat, because he was only good as villains. His Richelieu was the closest he ever came to a good performance. His politics were deplorable, worse than his acting. Yes he marched for civil rights, but that was vitiated in the long run by his involvement with the NRA. He was a total gun nut, helping to arm our children as well as helping evil Republicans jerks ruin the country. His “Closet conservatives” line is a good line only to Republicans. It is a LIE. There are NOT more closet conservatives than closet homosexuals in Hollywood; he just wants you to believe that lie, among many others. The loss of an actor that bad, elevates the curve
    Good riddance.

  • Eric Friedmann

    Douglas, I’ll probably have the same bitter contempt when someone insignificant like Brittney Spears finally kicks the bucket (and I expect that to happen before she turns 30). Until that day comes, take a breath, for crying out loud!

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