Sunday, April 6, 2008

Charlton Heston Rides Off into the Sunset

Legendary movie star Charlton Heston, played roles ranging from Moses to El Cid, died last night at the age of 84. In 2002 he announced that he had symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease.

Charlton Heston was born John Charles Carter in Evanston, Illinois. While a very young child, Heston's family lived in St. Helen, Michigan, When he was only ten his parents divorced. Not long after his mother married Chester Heston. His mother and stepfather then moved to Wilmette, Illinois. He was active in the drama programme at New Trier High School and acted in plays at the Winnetka Community Theatre, Heston majored in drama at Northwestern University. It was while attending Northwestern that he made his film debut, in a film adaptation of Peer Gynt in 1941, directed and written by David Bradley. Bradley would later direct Heston as Marc Antony in his 1950 adaptation of Julius Caesar.

During World War II Heston served in the Army Air Forces as a radio operator on a B-29 with the rank of sergeant. Following the war he took to acting once more. He and his wife, the former Lydia Clarke, founded he Thomas Wolfe Memorial Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina in 1947 (the theatre was named for the city's famous son). In 1947 he also made his Broadway debut, as Proculeius in a revival of Antony and Cleopatra. In 1949 he returned to Broadway for Glenn Campbell in the play Leaf and Bough. In 1950 he appeared on Broadway in the drama Design for a Stained Glass Window. It was the same year that he made his debut on television, in an episode of The Clock.

It was also in 1950 that Charlton Heston appeared in David Bradley's non-professional film adaptation of Julius Caesar. The film brought Heston to the attention of Hollywood. He was soon cast in his first Hollywood film, the noir Dark City, released in 1950. For the next few years Heston appeard frequently on television, making appearances on Lux Video Theatre, Suspense, and several on Studio One. It was in 1952 that he had his breakthrough role, as circus manager Brad Braden in Cecil DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth.

For the next several years Charlton Heston appeared both on television (in episodes of The Philco Television Playhouse, Your Show of Shows, and Playhouse 90), all the while starring in major motion pictures (such as Pony Express, Arrowhead, and The Private War of Major Benson). It was in 1956 that Heston appeared in the role with which he would become most identified, playing Moses in Cecil DeMille's The Ten Commandments. Arguably this was the beginning of Heston's richest period in his career, as he not only played a number of historical figures, but also starred in a number of classic films. He starred in Orson Welles' classic noir Touch of Evil. He played General Andrew Jackson in The Buccaneer. Heston had the title role in Ben Hur. He played Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, the title role, in the classic El Cid. And he played Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy.

As the historical epics went out of vogue, Heston's career changed as well. With the release of the mega-hit Planet of the Apes in 1968, Heston increasingly appeared in various genre films. He played Robert Neville in The Omega Man, the second adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. He starred in the dystopic sci-fi movie Soylent Green. He also had the role of Cardinal Richlieu in The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, as well as Henry the VIII in Crossed Swords. Heston also appeared in new versions of Julius Caesar (once more as Antony) and Antony and Cleopatra (again as Antony), as well as the films Call of the Wild, Midway, and Two Minute Warning.

The latter part of Heston's career was spent playing supporting roles in feature films, as well as appearing in television movies. He was a regular on the TV series The Colbys. He also appeared in the telefilms A Man for All Seasons (as Sir Thomas More), Treasure Island (as Long John Silver), and The Crucifer of Blood (as Sherlock Holmes). He appeared in such films as In the Mouth of Madness, Alaska, Tombstone, True Lies, and in an uncredited cameo in the re-envisioning of Planet of the Apes. His last appearance on screen was in Egidio Eronico's My Father, Rua Alguem 5555 in 2003.

In addition to his extensive film career, Charlton Heston was also a president of the Screen Actors Guild for six terms. He was also a chairman of the American Film Institute. While justifiably famous as an actor, Heston would also be well known for his sometimes controversial political views. Early in his career campaigning for such candidates as Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, his political views grew more conservative has he grew older. He would campaign for Ronald Reagan and both Bushs. He also became the outspoken president of the National Rifle Association from 1998 to 2003.

While I disagreed with many, perhaps most of Charlton Heston's political views in his later years, he has always remained one of my favourite actors. Square jawed, tall, and muscular, with a commanding voice, he was well suited to playing many of the larger than life roles he did. I dare say that when most people picture Moses in their mind, it is Charlton Heston that they see. And although Heston won only one Oscar (for his role as Ben Hur in the movie of the same name), I have little doubt as to his talent. His performance as narcotics detective Mike Vargas in Touch of Evil is one of the best things in a movie that is nearly perfect as it is. And while usually playing heroic roles, Heston was utterly convincing as tormented artist Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy.

Indeed, Charlton Heston starred in some of my favourite movies of all time. Planet of the Apes and El Cid both remain in my list of the greatest movies of all time. And, quite frankly, I am not sure that any other actor could have played Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, the legendary El Cid, quite so convincingly. While I may have disagreed with Heston's politics, I have no doubt that he was one of the greatest leading men of all time.



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Jim Marquis said...

Though I disagreed with Heston's politics, I have to admit he was one hell of an actor. I especially have a soft spot for Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man and Soylent Green.

Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

I'd add "A Touch of Evil" to the list, even if it was a stretch to believe him as a Mexican-American. Michael Moore's notorious interview with him almost made me a Republican. It did make me conclude that Moore is opportunistic and shameless in his self-righteousness. I could not agree with Heston's politics on the whole, but everything I've heard about him as a person suggest that he was polite and personable.

Bobby D. said...

Soylent Green is the only Heston film I have on DVD-- he and Robinson -what a team.