Back in the early 1980s, at the time when he and Ed Asner were very publicly clashing over matters concerning the Screen Actors Guild (and, yes, their diametrically opposed political leanings), Charlton Heston visited Houston to promote a new movie – Mother Lode (1982), I think – so, naturally, I agreed to interview him. But here’s the thing: Even though this wasn’t our first professional encounter, and even though he was the epitome of graciousness, I nonetheless felt slightly intimidated while in his formidable presence. So it was more than a little awkward for me to politely phrase a question about… about… well, about certain incendiary language Asner recently had used…
“You mean when he called me a cocksucker? Heston helpfully asked, subtly increasing the wattage of his Cinemascope smile.
“Well, uh, as a matter of fact, yes, Mr. Heston," I managed to stammer in reply. “Though I know I sure as hell won’t be able to quote you saying that…”
To this day, I can’t tell you which one of us laughed harder or longer.
Charlton Heston made a career out of being bigger than life, playing Biblical figures (Moses in The Ten Commandments, John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told), historical luminaries (Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy, Andrew Jackson in The President’s Lady and The Buccaneer) and legendary heroes (Ben-Hur, El Cid).
You could argue that he was every bit as impressive, if not more so, while playing flawed, vulnerable and altogether more life-sized characters. (Heston counted his role as an aging cowboy in Will Penny among his favorites.) And while he played more than his share of action-adventure leads (Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man) and disaster-movie messiahs (Airport 1975, Earthquake), he also was splendidly effective in character parts – most notably, Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester’s Musketeer movies – that didn’t require undue derring-do.
Still, when I interviewed him in 1993, on the occasion of the reissue of El Cid in a restored version presented by Martin Scorsese, Heston admitted that, yes, he would always be most famous for his full-bodied performances in large-scale movies. At that time – before Gladiator, before 300 – he felt this placed him among the ranks of a dying breed.
''I've spent half my life in funny clothes,'' Heston said. ''And in other nationalities, other centuries. But there are actors who have never done any of these kinds of things. And if you're not used to wearing a cloak, to knowing where to put your cloak on your arm to get on a horse without getting the cloak tangled between your legs, you don't look at home in it.
''I am very right for [El Cid] and for parts like this. But I suppose since they can't afford to make these films anymore, there are no ways for other actors to learn to do them. So if they try to do something like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, where they'll spend quite a lot of money, and do the period wardrobe, but they'll choose Kevin Costner, for what seems like sound financial reasons. And what did indeed turn out to be sound financial reasons.
“But, no, Kevin Costner is not right for Robin Hood.''
More important, Heston added, ''Kevin Costner couldn't play El Cid, either.''
It must be noted, of course, that during the final decades of his life, Heston effectively overshadowed his acting career with his off-camera activities as spokesman for the National Rifle Association and other conservative causes. (The headline for the New York Times obit: "Charlton Heston, Epic Film Star and N.R.A. Leader, Dies at 83.") Indeed, many people – most people? – were so accustomed to thinking of him as a right-wing grey eminence that it was all too easy to forget that, as a younger man, Heston was active in the civil rights movement – he marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King (along with Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier) during the 1963 march on Washington, D.C. – and campaigned for such decidedly non-conservative Presidential candidates as Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy.
I don’t pretend to have gleaned great insights into his psyche after a handful of conversations over a decade or so. But Heston was, I suspect, a much more complex fellow – politically, philosophically, whatever – than either his sneering critics or fawning admirers could ever fully appreciate. And I know he was a better actor than many of my bleeding-heart liberal brethren will ever admit.
Sidney Poitier (left) and
Harry Belafonte during the
1963 march on Washington, D.C.