Behind the gate of his sprawling home in Beverly Hills, Charlton Heston sat down with ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY in 1999 and shared a story about the audacity of youth. His youth. Polished smooth by countless retellings over the years, the Hollywood legend’s tale recalled the making of 1956’s The Ten Commandments, the movie that made him a star for the next half century. Back then, Heston was barely 30 and nobody’s idea of a marquee attraction. Still, he didn’t lack confidence. One day on the set, as Cecil B. DeMille was grappling with how to summon the voice of God in his film, Heston boldly suggested that he deliver the lines. DeMille looked the cocky young man up and down, before replying, ”Well, you know, Chuck, you’ve got a pretty good part as it is.”
Charlton Heston never thought small. And looking back, it’s fitting that he would first find stardom playing Moses. With his thundering bass, tan bodybuilder’s physique, and heroic profile, Heston was a stone tablet of a man. The Oscar winner refused to back down from fights with directors, studio brass, and even some fans when, late in his life, he became a fiery and unapologetic advocate of conservative political causes.
In a career that spanned 60 years and nearly 100 films, Heston forged an outsize persona by portraying outsize characters: Michelangelo, Ben-Hur, Buffalo Bill, Thomas Jefferson, Henry VIII, John the Baptist, and Marc Antony (three times), not to mention an ape-battling astronaut and the last man on earth. ”I like playing great men,” he told EW. ”They’re more interesting than the rest of us.”
When Heston died on April 5 in Beverly Hills at age 84, Hollywood lost one of the last stars of a vanishing generation and one of its great men. Maybe not great as in flawless, but certainly great as in larger-than-life. He was the kind of celluloid colossus that perhaps only one actor could have pulled off on the silver screen…Charlton Heston. While the cause of Heston’s death wasn’t disclosed, it was no secret that he’d been suffering from Alzheimer’s since 2002, when he defiantly pledged, ”I’m neither giving up nor giving in.” His fans had come to expect nothing less.
Heston was born John Charles Carter on Oct. 4, 1923, in Evanston, Ill., but took the surname of his stepdad, Chet Heston, at age 10. In 1941, he attended Northwestern University on scholarship and fell in love with a fellow drama student, Lydia Clarke. The campus sweethearts married in 1944, soon after Heston enlisted in the Army Air Corps. They remained together until his death, a rarity in Hollywood. When he returned from WWII, the aspiring actor moved to New York City — and encountered yawning indifference. It wasn’t until 1947 that he got his first break, playing one of Caesar’s aides on Broadway in Antony and Cleopatra. Heston found easier entry in live television, where he was spotted by Hollywood producer Hal B. Wallis. Wallis gave Heston a contract, a plane ticket west, and a part in 1950’s unremarkable Dark City.
On the Paramount lot, Heston caught the eye of DeMille, a hard-charging ringmaster of the old school who majored in grand budgets and minored in bombast. DeMille cast Heston as an ambitious circus manager in 1952’s big-top spectacular The Greatest Show on Earth, which somehow beat out both High Noon and The Quiet Man for a Best Picture Oscar. A few years later, when DeMille was seeking his Moses for The Ten Commandments, he didn’t look far.
Despite a white beard that appeared to be made of cotton candy, Heston was a miracle in the part. Filmed in part in Egypt, DeMille’s film cost a then-incomprehensible $13 million and featured some 14,000 extras. But when Heston was interviewed by EW more than 40 years later, he admitted, ”I was a little green in the film. I could do it better now.” Regardless, 98 million people saw the biblical epic and a star was born.
To be a leading man in the ’50s wasn’t all glamour. In that era, rising stars would sign away their futures to one studio in exclusive contracts — contracts they would often regret later. But Heston remained independent, giving him the latitude to seek out maverick directors who would challenge him. After Commandments, Heston lobbied for Orson Welles to direct 1958’s Touch of Evil. Originally hatched as a cheap, south-of-the-border B movie, in Welles’ hands Evil blossomed into Hollywood’s last glorious film noir. Playing a honeymooning Mexican narcotics agent, Heston perfectly meshed his ramrod stiffness with his straight-arrow character. The thriller, which has become a touchstone for film students thanks to Welles’ unbroken opening shot, is now rightly considered a classic.
When the struggling MGM decided to remake 1925’s Ben-Hur, both Rock Hudson and Burt Lancaster were considered for the title role of a Jewish prince who challenges the Romans, but Heston landed the part. Shot in Italy and wildly over budget at $15 million, William Wyler’s sword-and-sandal epic was such a chaotic, stressful production that it literally killed its producer, Sam Zimbalist. But it wound up saving MGM, earning $74 million and receiving 11 Oscars, including Heston’s first and only Best Actor statuette. The next decade belonged to Heston. As Hollywood cranked out epic after epic, some memorable (El Cid), others as disposable as their balsa-wood sets (Khartoum), Heston became the go-to star for any film with a bloated budget and an elephantine running time. Itching to work with an iconoclast like Welles again, Heston recruited Sam Peckinpah to direct the savage 1965 Western Major Dundee, which, like his experience with Welles, ended in a standoff between the studio and a defiant director. Heston and Peckinpah had clashed like wild dogs on the set, but when Columbia threatened to fire Peckinpah, Heston loyally threatened to walk.
As the curtain fell on the ’60s, Heston’s brand of rah-rah event movie was beginning to feel wheezy and square next to groundbreaking New Hollywood films like Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde. Sensing the shift, Heston astutely starred in a string of genre pictures that may not have been favorites with critics, but hit the commercial bull’s-eye: 1968’s Planet of the Apes, 1971’s The Omega Man, 1973’s Soylent Green, followed by disaster flicks like Airport 1975 and Earthquake.
By the dawn of the ’80s, with his old Hollywood pal and conservative fellow traveler Ronald Reagan in the White House, Heston stepped up his own political activism. Heston had been a vocal champion of civil rights in the ’60s — he marched on Washington, D.C., with Martin Luther King Jr. in August 1963. But like Reagan, Heston drifted rightward. In 1998, with his movie career virtually over, Heston accepted the high-profile post of president of the National Rifle Association. And during one brimstone-laced speech in 2000, he stood on stage with a musket and dared opponents to pry the gun ”from my cold, dead hands!”
While Heston’s politics made enemies in some of Hollywood’s more liberal precincts, director Oliver Stone says one reason he cast him in 1999’s Any Given Sunday was that he’d heard the actor said ”the Oliver Stones of the world” wouldn’t hire him. ”I wanted to show him he was still loved for all he gave to the movies,” says Stone. ”I remember his strength while in substantial pain from arthritis, during long shooting hours. He was a gentleman on the 14th hour, as he was on the first.” Heston garnered even greater sympathy when Michael Moore seemed to ambush him in the 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine. Looking frail and befuddled by Moore’s barbed questions, Heston diplomatically got up from his seat and left the room, leaving Moore with egg on his face. Heston may not have always been popular off screen. But on screen, where he spent six decades making something difficult look very, very easy — where he always tried to summon the voice of God — he was never less than epic.· With additional reporting by Chris Willman and Adam Markovitz