April 6th, 2008

carole lombard 07
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Remembering Charlton Heston

There aren't very many actors who star in a film that transcends the culture and becomes a perennial. Clark Gable did it with "Gone With The Wind"; Judy Garland did it with "The Wizard Of Oz" (which, like "GWTW," was directed by Victor Fleming).

Charlton Heston, who died Saturday at age 84, was blessed in that he appeared in two such movies -- "The Ten Commandments," released in 1956, and "Ben-Hur," issued three years later. Both were remakes of silent epics made in the 1920s, and both are classic examples of blockbuster Hollywood filmmaking. Half a century from now, both will probably be regularly revived and remembered. (Above is Heston as Ben-Hur, a role for which he won an Oscar.)

I never met Charlton Heston, but my parents did. In the late 1940s, my father was attending college in New York City under the G.I. Bill, and one of his classmates was a writer who had served in the military with Heston during World War II (they were stationed in the Aleutians). Heston's film career was still in the future; he was working on the stage and in the embryonic days of live television. Anyway, my friend invited my parents to a wedding, and the reception was held at Heston's apartment in the West Forties. My parents became friends with he and his wife, and we received Christmas cards from the Hestons for several decades.

By the mid-fifties, the family had moved upstate to Syracuse, and Heston, by now a screen star of some note, was doing summer stock with his wife, in the play "Detective Story." He arranged for my parents to get tickets, and they met him after the show. (Heston continued to do theatre into the 1990s.)

Heston starred as Moses in "The Ten Commandments," Cecil B. De Mille's last film. (He also appeared in De Mille's "The Greatest Show On Earth" in 1952, still a controversial choice as best picture in a year that included "Singin' In The Rain" and "High Noon.") Before the film came out, Heston gave an illuminating interview to the Los Angeles Times, and perhaps what makes it so good was that it was conducted by Dan L. Thrapp, the Times' religion editor -- not an entertainment writer. It's worth a read; find it at http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/thedailymirror/files/1956_1028_heston.jpg. (Note Heston says he doubted he would play any biblical roles post-Moses. As "Ben-Hur" is a quasi-religious film, he arguably changed his mind.)

Heston's two best-known films were epics, but he appeared in many other genres. If you're a film noir fan, "Touch Of Evil" (1958) is great fun -- and more than anyone else, it was Heston who persuaded the studio to let Orson Welles direct the film as well as act in it.

And later, Heston made a successful transition to science fiction with the likes of "Soylent Green" and the 1968 hit "Planet Of The Apes":

Offscreen, Heston now is probably best remembered for his tenure as head of the National Rifle Association, but anyone who wrote him off as a garden variety right-winger was sadly mistaken. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s as a strong supporter of civil rights, and was also president of the Screen Actors Guild. In 1980, he helped picket Paramount Pictures during a SAG strike:

In 2002, Heston announced he was suffering from Alzheimer's, and a year later he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom:

Regardless of your ideology, Charlton Heston should be saluted for his skill as an actor, the professionalism he exhibited and the dignity he always showed. He will be missed.

As fate would have it, Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. had scheduled two Heston programs Monday morning. At 9 a.m. (ET) is a 1998 "Private Screenings" in which Heston discusses his career with Robert Osborne. Following at 10 is the 1959 film "The Wreck Of The Mary Deare" (made after "Ben-Hur" was filmed but issued before its release), in which Heston is second-billed below Gary Cooper in one of his final roles.
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