Review: Heston bio returns star of ‘Ben-Hur’ to epic stature


“Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon” (Dey Street), by Marc Eliot

Talk about your movie miracles: As a struggling stage actor Charlton Heston was down to posing nude for art classes to pay his rent in New York. Thirteen years later, he was posing with an Academy Award for “Ben-Hur” (1959), in which he played a man twice saved by Christ.

Heston had felt God’s grace in real life, too. A casual wave to director Cecil B. DeMille led to his third movie, the Oscar-winning circus drama “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952). His signature role of Moses in DeMille’s 1956 blockbuster “The Ten Commandments” came after Marlon Brando and Rock Hudson had turned it down.

Those epics and a slew of others in the 1960s would have secured Heston’s place as a movie star for the ages. Then came “Planet of the Apes” (1968), the cultish science-fiction thrillers “The Omega Man” (1971) and “Soylent Green” (1973), and disaster films like “Earthquake” (1974). He was a star all over again with a new generation.

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Marc Eliot’s insightful biography provides an admiring yet even-handed reassessment long overdue for one of Hollywood’s most popular stars. Those chiseled features were perfect for the melodramatic spectacles enjoyed by audiences who wanted a break from more realistic storytelling and acting. Good thing — Heston was never quite comfortable playing a modern man or a romantic scene, yet no one did larger than life better.

His first role was a young boy named Charlton Heston. In 1923 he had been born John Charles Carter in Evanston, Illinois. An idyllic childhood spent hunting and fishing in the St. Helen woods of Michigan ended abruptly at age 10 when his city-bred mother left his blue-collar father for life in Chicago with another man. A new name came with the move, but young Chuck Heston always thought of himself as a hick kid.

Acting in high school plays was a good fit for the deep-voiced, 6-foot-3 teenager. He met Lydia Clarke while they studied drama at Northwestern University, marrying her before he went off to serve as a radio gunner on B-25 combat missions during World War II. Reunited in 1946, they headed for New York. Heston made a stronger impression in live television dramas than the stage and by 1950 had attracted the attention of moviemakers.

“As his career progressed,” Eliot writes, “his canny choice of screen roles illuminated what had become his essential cinematic persona: the heroic, self-sacrificial, eternal loner, alone in the crowd of the world.”

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Heston wasn’t one of Hollywood’s colorful characters. The Irish hell raiser Richard Harris dismissed his co-star in “Major Dundee” (1965) as “the only man who could drop out of a cubic womb — he’s so square.” True, in the sense that Heston showed up for work prepared, on time and sober, and was a devoted husband and father.

His politics were not always predictable. In 1961 Heston was among those protesting Oklahoma City’s segregated restaurants. Two years later studio executives and colleagues failed to talk him out of joining the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington. He was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild six times and opposed cutting federal funding for the arts. After the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy, he publicly backed the Gun Control Act of 1968.

Much like his friend Ronald Reagan, Heston drifted from liberalism toward a conservative if politically independent viewpoint. For many fans his late-in-life presidency of the National Rifle Association was a tone-deaf performance given the toll of gun-related deaths. But Heston viewed the right to own firearms in terms of liberty. As he had when demonstrating for civil rights, he didn’t worry about what other people thought.

Heston, who died in 2008, is best remembered as Moses but may have been most like the title character of the 1967 Western “Will Penny,” a saddle tramp described as quiet, principled and practical. He often cited it as his favorite among all his films. It was a fitting choice for a man who longed for the woods of his youth, preferred playing heroes over villains, and stepped up to be counted when he believed freedom was at stake.

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Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press).