Charlton Heston : Hollywood’s Last Icon
by Marc Eliot
Eliot has a large number of bios out including ones on Walt Disney, Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant and Steve McQueen among others.
As a child of the heroic Heston years of the 1970’s, Chuck will always have a place in my cinematic heart. I’ve featured him here at various points and even gave him a page all his own known as The Heston Cameo. Picking up a new book on Heston was an easy decision for me to make and I was glad to see that writer Eliot had the co-operation of the Heston family. Various quotes from his children, Holly and filmmaker Fraser as well as others during his research are sprinkled throughout on the man who would become a controversial figure as the years passed for what occurred off screen as opposed to on.
The book traces his early years and the breakup of his parents marriage to his formative hears in school and subsequent enlistment in the military during WW2 where he was stationed in Alaska for the impending invasion. Before heading off to war, he like many others married his sweetheart Lydia who finally gave in to his many proposals. He had met her while working the stage after catching the acting bug at an early age and finding some success in small theater venues. Upon his return from the war, the pair would make their way to New York where they would struggle to break into the acting world of broadway. While Heston may be considered an overnight success to a degree in the world of movies, such was not the case with the stage though he would eventually make ground. With his rising in the ranks and movie producer Hal Wallis calling, Lydia would ultimately settle in the background and raise the children in the coming years.
Into Heston’s world came Cecil B. DeMille and stardom was within his grasp.
As one might expect, there is plenty of detail on the major film successes. The pair of DeMille films, The Greatest Show on Earth and of course The Ten Commandments as well as his Oscar winning role in Willy Wyler’s Ben-Hur. Both characters are revisited throughout the book for a variety of reasons. In part because the public identifies with him as Moses or Ben-Hur. From the outset Heston strikes me as a man of principles. Like them or not. I appreciate the fact that as he headed off to war he more or less went against his Mother’s wishes and brought his paternal Father back into his life after having gone years without seeing him. He would keep that relationship alive till his Father’s passing. I find it admirable that he stood up for equal rights and marched alongside Martin Luther King and other influential figures of the entertainment world standing on the podium when the famous King speech was made.
Never one to shy away from political intrigue, Heston was bound to become controversial and was constantly at odds with members of the SAG including what appears to be a long standing feud with Ed Asner once he ascended to the presidency of the organization. So while the book has little choice to go into the political side, I am of course more interested in the movie career. I’ll leave the politics in general to the Political Bloggers.
On that note, the book goes into detail on some productions but others are noticeably absent or reserved for just a paragraph or two. While I’m always interested in reading up on the Planet of the Apes or The Omega Man as well as his somewhat strained relationship with Richard Harris on Major Dundee, I would have welcomed the smallest details on flicks like The Last Hard Men or The Awakening to go along with the information on Number One, Counterpoint or Diamond Head.
Know it all that I proclaim to be, I’m not sure but I think there may be an error in here when Eliot points out that Heston’s role as Brad Braden in Greatest Show On Earth was a direct influence on the Indiana Jones character. Possible I guess but I do believe that honor goes to Heston’s work as Harry Steele in The Secret of the Incas. Right down to the Indy looking outfit. As a matter of fact, that’s another production I wish we might have learned more about as well as that other 50’s adventure, The Naked Jungle. Perhaps a Heston in Hollywood book might be in order to dig deeper into each production for us film historians.
Not to be overlooked is Heston’s love of the stage and Shakespeare. His failure to bring the writer’s work to the movie screens with any degree of success yet achieve just that while enacting the roles on stage. His subsequent movement into some enjoyable cable TV productions for Ted Turner and finally his descent into the cameo role as the years wound down.
Say what you will about Heston but I came away from the book admiring the man himself for what appears to be staying true to his convictions in many aspects of his career and life. I think it’s worth noting that he was an individual of great loyalty. The fact that he stayed married to the same woman his entire life should back up that thought. I’ve always tried my best to keep off screen antics separate from movies and that isn’t always easy but with Heston, I have little problem in doing just that which is probably due to seeing all those Heston heroics like Airport ’75 as an impressionable child on both the Big Screen and the small in rerun.
Then again, why should I even have to sound like I’m apologizing for liking him. I’m sure he had plenty of supporters to go along with his critics when the dust finally settled. Ponder this in closing, what would have happened to Jaws if Chuck and Universal had hammered out a contract for the Chief Brody role? Would it still be the classic it is today and one of two films I like to reference as my all time favorites?