Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon
By Marc Eliot
Dey Street Books
$29.99, 576 pages
By Susan Wloszczyna
Over-the-hill silent-era siren Norma Desmond protested “I am BIG – it’s the pictures that got small” in the 1950 showbiz noir "Sunset Boulevard." But Hollywood would spend much of the following post-war decade producing massive panoramic spectacles as a defensive measure against dipping ticket sales and the steady invasion of TV sets into suburban homes.
The one star who was more than ready for his close-up in these Biblical and historical epics was Charlton Heston. If this stately, granite-jawed and unabashedly straitlaced actor hadn’t been around to lend his stentorian tones to Moses, Ben-Hur and El Cid, the film industry probably would have had to invent him. Forget those mumbling devotees of Method acting. Studios needed an earnest, larger-than-life hero with an air of authority to steer these unwieldy vehicles, and they got one in this chiseled 6-foot-2 -1/2 , 180-pound mound of sinewy masculinity.
Heston, who died at age 84 in 2008, made a different kind of lasting impression in his later years when he became mired in political controversy as the most high-profile defender of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Few will forget when, just a year after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, this five-term president of the National Rifle Association held a replica of a Colonial musket over his head – much as his Moses lifted his staff in 1956’s "The Ten Commandments" -- while speaking at the group’s annual convention and thundered, “I’ll give up my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands!”
It was perhaps one of his most convincing performances -- and most unnerving for those who were still in shock over the loss of 13 victims resulting from a shooting incident that would tragically foreshadow many other such mass killings to come. My memory of that speech was one reason why I opened noted celebrity biographer Marc Eliot’s latest book, "Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon," with some trepidation. Heston’s sometimes stiff persona on screen meant that rarely was he believable as a romantic lead. His humorless demeanor as he aged too often left me unmoved.
But Eliot actually performs a not-so-minor miracle that is practically the literary version of the parting of the Red Sea as he capitalizes on his access to private diaries, papers and letters to allow readers to get inside his subject’s head and humanize him somewhat. As a result, the more I learned about Heston, the more I came to like and admire him as a man and a performer for a goodly portion of this hefty tome.
Of course, many pages are dedicated to the actor’s on-set experiences in more than 100 films over 60 years. That includes Heston being guided by Norma Desmond’s favorite auteur, Cecil B. DeMille, in his breakthrough role as a circus manager in the 1952 best-picture Oscar winner "The Greatest Show on Earth" and as the bearded bearer of the stone tablets in 1956’s Easter-time TV perennial "The Ten Commandments." Another highlight covered is the grueling training he underwent to do most of his own stunts for the 9-minute chariot-race sequence in 1959’s Ben-Hur." His efforts would lead to his lone acting Oscar – one of a still-record 11 trophies claimed by the sprawling blockbuster.
As much as I enjoyed learning about such backstage drama, I was equally drawn by the personal insights that help explain how this liberal Democrat, who was one of the organizers behind Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963, would end up being a GOP buddy of Ronald Reagan and a supporter of Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War. According to Eliot, much of Heston’s world view was formed at age 10 by the trauma he suffered when his parents divorced. He would be rudely uprooted from a woodsy rural area of Michigan, where his sawmill operator dad Russell would teach him to fish in the nearby lake and take the family dog on hunting expeditions while teaching him how to shoot a gun. He had no choice but to eventually accompany his mother and her new husband to Chicago, where he gravitated towards drama in high school. It was in a theater class at Northwestern where he would meet Lydia, the first woman he ever dated who was destined to be his wife for 64 years.
Therefore, It isn’t surprising that Heston would become a steadfast husband and father of two, one who cherished his off-hours with his children and spouse in a stunning mid-century Coldwater Canyon home. It was a home built on a ridge whose construction was overseen by his father and was dubbed “the house that Ben-Hur built.” He often brought along Lydia and son Fraser (and, later, adopted daughter Holly) on location for long shoots. In fact, the newborn made his film debut as baby Moses floating in the basket in "The Ten Commandments."
But other revelations are less expected. The "Citizen Kane" fan pushed to have Orson Welles, his co-star in 1958’s "Touch of Evil," to also direct the crime drama and took a pay cut to make it happen -- even though it resulted in Welles reshaping his own part into the lead. When filming on 1963’s "55 Days at Peking" was halted after director Nicolas Ray had a coronary, Heston learned that the producer did not have enough money to pay extras. The actor ponied up his own cash to reimburse them. When the studio balked at shooting additional scenes needed to complete the 1965 Peckinpah film "Major Dundee," he sacrificed a chunk of his own salary to cover the expense. The World War II vet decided to pay a visit to American troops in Vietnam because he felt it was his duty. He collected hundreds of names and phone numbers in order to personally contact family members back home, a service he provided more than once.
He gave back to the industry responsible for his career as the six-term president of the Screen Actors Guild, serving longer than any other president. And he is credited with rescuing the American Film Institute from going under when President Reagan threatened to cut arts funding in 1980.
If that doesn’t convince you that, for much of his life, Heston was one of the good guys, consider this: Without his participation in the 1968 success of 20th Century Fox’s "Planet of the Apes," which helped revive sci-fi as a respected genre, the studio probably wouldn’t have taken a chance on a similar movie known as "Star Wars."
Hard-partying Irishman Richard Harris, who never quite saw eye to eye with Heston when they co-starred in "Major Dundee," once said, “Heston’s the only man who could drop out of a cubic womb – he’s so square.” Perhaps. But this was one Hollywood square who filled an invaluable place in the cinematic universe.
Susan Wloszczyna is a former film writer for USA Today and is a contributing critic to the Roger Ebert website.