In Memoriam: In 1999, the actor reflected on his long career, describing the legendary chariot race of ''Ben-Hur'' and explaining why he thought he was just ''okay'' in ''The Ten Commandments''
Charlton Heston
Credit: Eric Robert/Sygma/Corbis

Maybe it was inevitable that when news radio programs noted the death of actor Charlton Heston, they played the sound bite from the 2000 NRA convention where he promised that the powers that be would only take away his firearms ”from my cold, dead hands!” But it still made me cringe to hear it, knowing that too many young people will remember him primarily as ”that gun guy” — in language possibly less flattering than that — rather than for his once-famous conviviality and class.

I got to experience Heston’s charm one afternoon in 1999. At the time, caught up in the midst of millennial fever, we at EW were working on a cover story on ”The 100 Greatest Moments in Movies, 1950-2000.” I needed quotes from Heston about key scenes in two of his signature epics, 1956’s The Ten Commandments and 1959’s Ben-Hur, and put in a call to his agent. Heston himself called me back, and rather than chat on the phone, he suggested I come up to his house, just off Coldwater Canyon Drive in Beverly Hills, for a visit. I didn’t hesitate to take advantage of that offer of hospitality. (Neither did Michael Moore, but that’s another story.)

Although the conversation was supposed to be about those two films, we veered well off course in covering his career, and his few excusable lapses in memory didn’t portend the news that came just three years after our chat, when he announced to the world that he was suffering neurological symptoms consistent with Alzheimer’s disease. At the time, we were only able to excerpt the briefest of quotes from our interview — now, in honor of his half-century-plus career, we’re presenting some lengthier excerpts for the first time. When it comes to imagining what they could only pry away only from his cold, dead hands, for me, it’ll always be those damned chariot reins.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did it feel when you realized that, whenever several successive generations read the Old Testament, they’re picturing you?
[Laughs] Kind of spooky. But I can’t say I’m upset about it.

The part of Moses had to be played the right way because you’re doing period things with a lot of gravity, and if it feels even a little bit off, it’s going to come off as ridiculous.
Well, I spent most of my life, most of my career, in non-20th-century parts. I’ve played about every century you could think of… I’ve played, what, three presidents, two saints, a couple of geniuses. I like playing great men. They’re more interesting than the rest of us.

Is it a special challenge for an actor, when you have to spread your arms wide and pretend to be presiding over a great biblical miracle, as you did in The Ten Commandments? Or is it just another day on the set?
Well, by that time you’ve worked it out in your head as best you can. And if you want to talk about Cecil B. DeMille, or William Wyler on Ben-Hur, those were marvelous directors. You’re in good hands. No, I have to say I have never lacked confidence. I always thought I could do it. I was mistaken in that a couple of times. [Chuckles] I think Yul Brynner’s performance in The Ten Commandments is the best performance in the film. I was a little green for it. I could do it better now, but I’m too old for it. It’s okay — it’s a good performance. But Yul was just wonderful.

Do you think DeMille himself had any nervousness about things like the parting of the Red Sea, thinking, Hey, if we don’t get these effects right, it’s going to look ridiculous and people won’t buy it?
DeMille was pretty sure of himself. As soon as you saw it in a model, you saw that it could work. And it did. The same thing with the burning bush. Which is not much of an effect, but it’s quite nice. It’s where you hear the voice of God — which in the end was my voice.

I won that one while we were still in Egypt. We shot on the top of Mount Sinai, the real Mount Sinai, and at the foot of the mountain. We were staying at the monastery of St. Catherine’s, which is at the base of the mountain, and it’s a walled monastery, because of course in ancient times it was constantly at risk. I was sitting at dinner one night with Mr. DeMille and the chief abbot of the monastery. And DeMille was talking about his delight in being able to shoot on the ground where these things had happened, as was I. And they were discussing who might do the voice of God. With a temerity that was a rather daring thing for a young actor to do, I saw an opportunity, and I said, ”You know, Mr. DeMille, it seems to me that any man hears the voice of God from inside himself. And I would like to be the voice of God.” And he said, ”Well, you know, Chuck, you’ve got a pretty good part as it is.”

The abbot said, ”That’s an interesting idea, though.” And I think that tipped the scales for me. And so [DeMille] said okay. In the movie, you only hear the voice of God twice — first at the burning bush, and again when he receives the 10 commandments. And I did not do that one. I don’t know who did. [It was rumored to be DeMille’s voice in the tablet-giving scene, but] I don’t think he did it. Because it was a very heavy voice, and he had a baritone voice, but not a bass voice. He was a much older man then, and not in the best of health. But I don’t know who did it. You know, there would be no shortage of finding guys with good voices to do it. See, [DeMille] was a master at that kind of thing. There was no reason not to say who did it. But he didn’t want to, and so people have been arguing about it ever since.

NEXT PAGE: ”There were three myths about the chariot race…”

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