One of those actors (David Niven is another one) who was seemingly never really “young” looking, (even as a youth, he had creases on his forehead!), Heston, a 6’2” outdoorsman with an inimitable voice, was born to play historic figures and men whose achievements were larger than life.
Raised in heavily wooded northern Michigan, Heston spent his free time hunting, fishing and fantasizing about the various literary and movie characters he adored. He had no memory of ever wanting to be anything other than an actor. He did stage work in school, even playing the lead in a student film made by his friend, and eventually earned a drama scholarship to Northwestern University. However, service during WWII put a two-year crimp in his momentum. Afterwards, he and his new wife Lydia ran a theatre company for a while until Heston appeared on Broadway. It wasn’t long until Hollywood came calling and he made his belated film debut (at age 27) in 1950’s Dark City.
The great Cecil B. DeMille used him to play the circus manager in The Greatest Show on Earth (a film which won the Oscar for Best Picture, likely due to the sheer spectacle of it all) and Heston received what he considered to be the greatest acting compliment when folks congratulated “that manager who held his own in the film up against all those actors!”
A top-billed star almost from the beginning, he toiled in various western and historical dramas in the early 1950s. Already by 1953, he’d portrayed Andrew Jackson and “Buffalo Bill” Cody! My favorite flick of his from this early stage is The Naked Jungle in which he plays a surly plantation owner in South America who gets more than he bargained for in mail-order bride Eleanor Parker. While they tangle with each other, a mass of army ants is preparing to lay waste to anything and everything in its path! It’s a terrific little film with compelling work from Parker and the reliably strong presence of Heston.
DeMille called on Heston again, but this time for a role that would be identified forever with him, that of Moses in The Ten Commandments. TTC is a favorite film of mine for many reasons including the amazing all-star cast, the splendid color, the scope of the epic scenes and the memorable music. A person could search for years and never find a performance more deliciously campy and slinky than that of costar Anne Baxter who utters the unforgettable line, “Oh Moses, Moses… You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” Heston is well matched by the powerful and exotic Yul Brynner as well. Though I can’t say Heston was ever a favorite of mine in the looks department, I do think he was never more handsome than in this film (the early Prince Moses scenes, of course!) His features took on a harsh, severe, almost craggy quality as he aged, but in this instance, he was more than good looking, even with the goofy side braid sewn into his hair. Naturally, by the end of the film, he was buried under increasingly long and grey beards and wigs and this part of the film gets quite preachy and loony, but it’s still a tremendous cinematic achievement.
Chuck accepted a smallish role in The Big Country rather reluctantly, but it worked to his advantage because the association with director William Wyler ultimately led to his being cast in the title role of Ben-Hur, which was not only a stunning success, but also netted him a Best Actor statuette. (His Oscar was presented to him by Miss Susan Hayward and Heston would later escort her to her final appearance at the ceremony in 1974 when she was suffering from terminal brain cancer.) Here he continued the trend (begun when he was stomping straw into mud for bricks in Commandments) of wearing a loincloth on screen. A surprising number of his biggest films had this unusual distinction. Though Heston always took pains to avoid the mere notion that any of his characters could be homosexual, debate persists as to how much of the animosity between his character and Stephen Boyd’s was the result of an implied love affair gone wrong. Writer Gore Vidal claimed that Boyd and Wyler knew it and Heston didn’t while Heston basically denied that such a subtext even existed despite Vidal’s attempts to insert it! He needn’t have worried about his reputation since there was never one whisper of any type of impropriety in Chuck’s love life during his 60-year acting career, be it with woman, man or horse! His 64-year marriage to Lydia was one of H-Town’s true success stories.
In 1961, he was memorably paired with Sophia Loren in El Cid. They made a striking couple though she did drive him mad with various delays and issues during filming. (He would shortly experience this type of thing again, to an even greater degree, with Ava Gardner in 55 Days at Peking in 1963, though the pair settled their hash by the time Earthquake rolled around in 1974. By then, Ava was somewhat less concerned about her looks, never more true than in the watery finale in which she did her own stuntwork.)
Heston continued to play famous characters such as John the Baptist and Michelangelo, eventually working on two key films in 1968. One was Will Penny, a modest success, but a role and a film that Heston loved as his favorite. Pictured here with Lee Majors, he played a simple, less-towering type of role than he most often did. Though Chuck was an old-fashioned, perhaps even sexist, type of guy, with little patience for the fussy, he occasionally doled out high praise to his leading ladies and Joan Hackett in Penny was one he singled out with great admiration.
The other 1968 film of note was the legendary Planet of the Apes. Back in the loincloth, he brilliantly portrayed a cocky astronaut who crash-lands into a society in which men are treated like cattle and apes rule. It’s an underrated, multi-dimensional performance, a fact that is often forgotten in the wake of the many parodies and imitations of his unique delivery. (His emphatic line readings in 1973’s Soylent Green would also engender many hilarious take-offs, notably by Saturday Night Live’s Phil Hartman.)
The 70s were the years in which Heston enjoyed terrific pay for less-than-demanding work and churned out film after film concerning any and all types of catastrophe. The list of his disaster films, or films in a similar vein, is staggering and every one of them is held dear to me, regardless of quality. Skyjacked, Airport 1975, Earthquake, Two-Minute Warning and Gray Lady Down are all part of my own personal Hall of Fame and I have to watch them every so often just as plants need water.
Heston, of course, was also one of the stars of The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers, which meant that he was among the first actors ever whose name I knew (see other entry regarding that story elsewhere on this blog.) His projects became less prestigious as time wore on and his roles became smaller, though he continued to work in films when he wasn’t taking on a favorite classic stage role. Shakespeare was always a favorite of his. Surprising as it may be for a film star of his stature, he was not a stranger to TV and worked on many dramatic anthology series and tele-films throughout his career. However, in 1985 he jumped off the cliff and headlined his own primetime soap opera, Dynasty II: The Colbys. Just as all his epic films needed that larger than life presence to lead the way, the glitzy, glamorous, over-the-top show needed a person of his magnitude to anchor it and he was perfect for that. Unfortunately, he was put in the unenviable position of not only having to deal with some fairly ridiculous plot lines, but also having to portray deep affection for an unspeakably drab, wooden and out of her element Katharine Ross while eschewing Stephanie Beacham, who was stunning, sexy, magnetic and unforgettable. Deemed a failure (and dealt a bit of a blow when costar Barbara Stanwyck took flight after one season and dissed the series and him to the press), the show only made it two years before it was cancelled.
Heston continued to appear in at least a film a year (even showing up briefly in the horrific Tim Burton remake of Apes) before realizing that he was coming down with Alzheimer’s Disease. With that, he scaled back considerably before passing away in 2008. One of the few times I’ve ever wanted to slap the love of my life George Clooney was when he took aim below the belt at Heston concerning his illness. Heston’s outspoken stance on certain issues easily guaranteed him enemies, but there are some things you just don’t say or do.
Two Heston films in particular have evaded me for years. I can’t imagine that they’re good, but they cry out to me in the night for viewing because of the female costars. One is Counterpoint, about a symphony held prisoner by the Nazis. As the World Turns’ (a show that was, for about a decade, my favorite soap) Kathyrn Hays is the leading lady. The other is Number One, regarding the travails of an aging pro football quarterback. This one has Jessica Walter and Diana Muldaur, who I always enjoy. Until I come upon them, I’ll have to make due with the other 70 some odd movies he did!