Most people associate Charlton Heston with either his controversial presidency of the National Rifle Association or his performance as Ben-Hur. An early civil rights advocate, he eventually left the Democrats to become a strong supporter of Ronald Reagan but his politics did not influence his choice of roles. Blockbusters like El Cid and 55 Days at Peking were balanced with smaller films, such as The Agony and the Ecstasy and Major Dundee.
Born on October 4, 1923, Heston’s early childhood was spent in the wilds of Michigan, where he hunted and fished to help put food on the table, and attended a one room school. When he was ten, he lived with his aunt in Georgia, while his mother divorced his father, which was the most traumatic experience of his life. His mother’s marriage and divorce was such a bitter experience that she rarely discussed it and he did not even know how his parents met. She married Chet Heston soon after the divorce, and they moved around for a few months as Chet tried to find steady work in the Depression. While his step-father was a dutiful father, they never really became close, and he was never adopted. Charlton is actually his mother’s maiden name. The first time Heston admitted that his parents were divorced was on his wedding night.
After entering his high school’s drama program Heston found that he loved it, so he performed in as many plays as possible. He was so dedicated to acting that he spent one summer acting in an independent film for free instead of working in a steel mill like he had the previous summer. He also took part in a local community theater, which gave him a scholarship to the drama school at Northwestern University.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Heston put his studies on hold and joined the Army Air Corps (forerunner of the Air Force), which meant that he had six months before he had to report for training. He had fallen in love with Lydia Clarke, a girl in one of his courses, and she initially refused to marry him, partially because she did not want anything stopping her from getting her degree, but she finally relented during basic training. He also found his father again by chance while on leave and restarted their relationship. The war was spent guarding the Aleutians, and although he was part of a bomber crew, there were no nearby Japanese targets, so the primary enemy was boredom. Manpower needs for the planned invasion of Japan meant that he would have been transferred to the front, so he strongly supported the bombing of Japan because it saved many American lives, including quite likely his own. He was discharged in the spring of 1946.
Although the GI Bill meant that Heston could return to Northwestern, he decided that he had already waited long enough and it was time to start acting instead of simply studying acting. The young couple survived on her modeling and his veteran’s pay, which would only last a year, so the pressure was on. They moved to New York, where living conditions were rough but they were young and in love. A brief period as co-directors at a community theater in North Carolina boosted their savings but they turned down a permanent position, and returned to New York. Desperate for any chance to work, Heston agreed to act in a performance for television, the brand new medium that was disdained by established theater actors and feared by the studios. Since he was there at the beginning, he soon had enough contacts that he could pick his parts.
A contract with Fox Studios was refused because it was an exclusive contract that would prevent Heston from working in television or in the theater. Although his Broadway career had been relatively successful, he went out to Hollywood when producer Hal Wallis offered a contract that still allowed him to work for other studios or in the theater as long as he committed to five films. Unlike most of his peers, Wallis knew that the studio system was coming to an end, and flexibility was needed to attract talent. Heston made only one film with Wallis and was rented out to other studios for the remaining four films. The first movie was Dark City (1950), a film noir, and it did well enough that his future looked good.
A chance encounter with Cecil B. DeMille won Heston the lead role in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), which was a major financial success and won an Academy award. Working with such a talented director and leading actors like Jimmy Stewart was great training, while coming off an Academy award-winning film did not hurt his career either. Following the saying “strike while the iron is hot,” Heston made ten movies in the space of three years. His wife continued to act as well, both in theater and in movies, although she did not achieve the same level of success. He learned a great deal but none of the movies from that period stand out. However, those three years did strengthen his public image, so DeMille decided to cast him as Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956), which was a turning point in his career.
After taking a break to spend some time with his newborn son, he acted in a couple of plays so that he would be around as his child grew up. Coming off a monster hit, he could pick his next few projects. After making Touch of Evil (1958) with Orson Welles, he did Big Country (1958) with William Wyler, even though he thought his part was too small. His agent basically forced him to do the picture, saying only an idiot would turn down an opportunity to work with Wyler, one of the top directors in Hollywood at the time.
It was the right choice since Wyler gave him the title character in Ben-Hur (1959). Heston spent weeks learning how to drive a chariot, but the effort paid off, producing a simply astonishing action scene. In the end, he was in Rome for about ten months, while supporting actors did some scenes, flew out to do other films and then came back to finish the rest of their scenes.
By the time he made El Cid (1961), Heston was a star with casting approval and a percentage of the gross. Soon after he returned from Spain, he took part in a small protest against white-only restaurants as part of the growing civil rights movement, despite the studio’s fear that it would affect the film’s earnings. He also represented the United States at the Berlin Film Festival, and experienced a brief yet extremely depressing tour of East Berlin, where he saw the grim reality of communism. Shortly afterwards, he and his wife adopted a baby girl.
Although Heston would trudge through endless interviews and PR sessions to promote his films, and then flee happily to his home, an almost physical need to act would always force him to accept another project. However, financial success meant that Heston could choose his projects. Having done Ben-Hur and El Cid, producer Samuel Bronston wanted him for Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), but there was no script, so he wisely passed. However, he had not tired of epics and fell for a pitch about the Boxer Rebellion from writer Phillip Yordan and director Nicholas Ray during a transatlantic flight. Unfortunately, while the idea was attractive, the script would prove so troublesome that they started filming 55 Days at Peking (1963) without a completed script and it showed in the final version. Afterwards, he rushed to play John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), which was his fifth film in two years.
Tired of epics, he took a break and made The Warlord (1965) because it was a small story without thousands of extras. He also wanted to do Major Dundee (1965) because he was fascinated by the Civil War. Although both movies’ scripts had problems, Universal gave them the time to do a rewrite on The Warlord (1965) but Columbia put more pressure on for Major Dundee. Sam Peckinpah was approved as director after Heston watched Peckinpah’s first film Ride the High Country (1962) and they shared an office at Columbia. Unfortunately, the effort of finishing the script while preparing for his first major film proved to be much for Peckinpah and the final result was disappointing. Even though he knew that the film had problems, when Columbia attempted to replace Peckinpah halfway during filming, Heston threatened to quit and the studio backed down.
Like many actors, Heston wanted to make blockbusters to pay the bills and smaller films like The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) to keep the actor in him happy. It was a difficult balance because he did view success in box office numbers.
He took a break between films to fly to Vietnam in 1965 and visit the soldiers who were really in the boonies to thank them for being there. When he returned to the US, he called up three hundred friends, relatives and girlfriends of the soldiers as a favor. While he was a firm advocate of the war at the time, he later came to believe that Kennedy and Johnson should have followed the lead of Dwight Eisenhower, a soldier who refused to become involved in Vietnam.
Back from Vietnam, none of the projects he was interested in were ready to go, so he did a tour of A Man for all Seasons with his wife. Afterwards, the two films he wanted to make were approved even though neither of the studios involved was enthusiastic. While Will Penny (1968) did not seem likely to be a box office hit, it did not cost much. However, Planet of the Apes (1968) was a big risk, since it was the first of the large-scale space operas. The gamble paid off and the huge profits paved the way for later movies by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Despite having zero interest in the sequel, Heston agreed to make a cameo as a favor to repay Fox studio head Richard Zanuck’s risk in making the original.
Although remembered as a granite-jawed alpha male, Heston genuinely loved performing Shakespeare. His most recent two films, Number One (1969) and Julius Caesar (1970), had been modest successes, but instead of making another blockbuster, he decided to direct his own version of Antony and Cleopatra since he felt that he was more familiar with Shakespeare than any American director. The only two qualified Shakespearean directors (in his opinion) were Orson Welles and Lawrence Olivier, who were both too busy. He put up his own money for Antony and Cleopatra until the Rank Organization bought the British rights. As a personal favor, Kirk Kerkorian, then-owner of MGM, let Heston use some outtakes of war galleys in Ben Hur. The film received horrible reviews, and he never directed another movie. Fortunately, the Omega Man (1971) had been a success at the box office, ending a two-year-long bad streak.
Public Service and Politics
In 1965, Heston took a year off from acting to serve as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), succeeding Ronald Reagan. He had worked with Reagan during the strike negotiations in 1960 when Reagan was still SAG president and thought that he was a great leader who produced the best contract ever for the SAG, gaining residual TV payments for actors. As president, Heston won an excellent pension, welfare and medical plan for the guild.
Believing that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a special man, a twentieth-century Moses for blacks, Heston helped gather actors, including Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman and Marlon Brando, for King’s march on Washington in 1963.
Although Heston was later viewed as an ultra-conservative, he admits that many well-intentioned, decent people were left dangling when Stalin removed the nice face and dropped the Iron Curtain. Furthermore, he did not have a high opinion of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the accompanying witch hunt for leftists. “The HUAC hearings abused the democratic process and provided nothing useful to the country’s confrontation with the Soviets.” In fact, he felt that the whole affair was pointless because even the few real communists in Hollywood had zero access to sensitive intelligence.
Heston’s politics began to change during the 1960s. Although he had been a committed Democrat for many years, when Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson, he started to realize that while he had strongly supported John F. Kennedy standing up against the Russians during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was less enthusiastic about Johnson, and even less enthusiastic about the Democratic Party. In his opinion, the Democrats had changed, not him.
In 1969, he turned down an offer from the Democrats to run for senate despite his desire to serve his country because he wanted to continue acting. However, he continued to serve on the National Endowment of the Arts and as president of the Screen Actors Guild. He resigned as president of the SAG when he left to direct Antony and Cleopatra (1972), after serving six terms.
The role of Cardinal Richelieu in the Three Musketeers (1973) was his first villain but he thought that Richelieu was a great man who had helped to build France, rather than destroy it as Napoleon did. He was attracted by a character who did not have the audience’s support and he was promised 10 shooting days. It was also his first supporting role since he had become a star and more would soon follow.
Like most big name actors, Heston did disaster movies, such as Airport 1975 (1974) and Earthquake (1974) because they paid his usual salary but required much less time, since he was only part of an ensemble. He had no illusions about making art, it was simply an offer too good to refuse. The success of one of them, Skyjacked (1972), persuaded MGM to agree to make Soylent Green (1973), a dystopian film about the future where overcrowding threatens to destroy the human race.
Despite his successful film career, Heston never lost his love of the theater, and he performed regularly in plays at the Los Angeles Music Center during the seventies and early eighties, which was another advantage to doing well-paying cameos. He also directed and starred in a lengthy run of The Caine Mutiny in London and Los Angeles. He even directed a Chinese-language version in Beijing in 1988.
During most of the eighties, Heston focused on television. After spending two seasons on the night-time drama The Colbys, a spin-off of Dynasty, and making several television movies for Ted Turner’s cable network, he produced a documentary series where he presented stories from the Bible in their original locations.
Beginning to feel his age, Heston switched from supporting roles to cameos in the nineties, making memorable appearances in Wayne’s World 2 (1993), True Lies (1994), Hamlet (1996) and Planet of the Apes (2001). He also served as president and spokesman of the NRA from 1998 to 2003, where he became an icon to the pro-gun lobby.
After announcing in August 2002 that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, Heston passed away on April 5, 2008 from pneumonia.
The President’s Lady (1953)
Directed by Henry Levin, starring Susan Hayward and Charlton Heston
A young Andrew Jackson falls in love with an already married woman, who eventually becomes his wife, although the scandal that follows them everywhere they go drives Jackson to fight several duels.
Pony Express (1953)
Directed by Jerry Hopper, starring Charlton Heston and Forrest Tucker
In 1860, Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok have to overcome Indians, storms and outlaws as they try to establish a route that can transport mail from Missouri to California in ten days.
Directed by Charles Marquis Warren, starring Charlton Heston and Jack Palance
The US Army is trying to negotiate peace with the Apache despite warnings from the cavalry’s chief of scouts that the Apache are planning to revolt.
The Far Horizons (1955)
Directed by Rudolph Mate, starring Fred MacMurray and Charlton Heston
After President Thomas Jefferson purchases Louisiana from Napoleon in 1803, Lewis and Clark are sent to map the huge and largely unexplored territory.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner
Raised as an Egyptian prince, Moses discovers that he is actually a Jew, chosen by God to lead his people out of Egypt into Israel.
Three Violent People (1956)
Directed by Rudolph Mate, starring Charlton Heston and Anne Baxter
Unaware of her past, an ex-Confederate officer marries a former dance hall girl, and has to resist attempts by the carpetbagger government to seize control of all of the ranches in Texas.
The Big Country (1958)
Directed by William Wyler, starring Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons
A wealthy sea-captain arrives in the vast West to meet his fiancé’s father and finds himself in the middle of a war over water rights between two rival clans.
The Buccaneer (1958)
Directed by Anthony Quinn, starring Yul Brynner and Claire Bloom
Powerful pirate Jean Lafitte debates whether to join the greatly outnumbered American army and defend New Orleans or play it safe by working with the invading British during the War of 1812. (full review)
Directed by William Wyler, starring Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins
The childhood friend of a Jewish prince returns to Jerusalem as the new Roman governor during the 1st century AD. Political differences and a freak accident result in the prince being sentenced to life as a galley slave, but he eventually arrives in Rome seeking revenge.
El Cid (1961)
Directed by Anthony Mann, starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren
Moorish and Christian kingdoms fight amongst themselves in eleventh century Spain until one nobleman, El Cid, dares to forge alliances between Christian and Moorish nobles to bring peace to the land.
55 Days at Peking (1963)
Directed by Nicholas Ray, starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven
The diplomats and representatives of a dozen nations are besieged at Peking during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Directed by George Stevens, starring Max von Sydow and Charlton Heston
The life of Jesus Christ.
Major Dundee (1965)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah, starring Charlton Heston and Richard Harris
During the last winter of the Civil War, faced with a tribe of Apaches based in Mexico that regularly cross the border to raid American posts and settlements, the commander of a Union prison leads a force of Union soldiers, Confederate prisoners, and civilians into Mexico to eliminate the Apaches. Unfortunately, the commander’s zeal leads them into French controlled territory and they have to face French lancers.
The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
Directed by Carol Reed, starring Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison
Commissioned by Pope Julius II, Michelangelo struggles with the challenge of painting the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The War Lord (1965)
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, starring Charlton Heston and Richard Boone
In the eleventh century, a Norman knight is sent to rebuild a small fort on the edge of his duke’s domain and hold it against Frisian raiders but when he falls in love with a peasant girl, the peasants conspire with the Frisians against him.
Directed by Basil Dearden, starring Charlton Heston and Lawrence Olivier
After a British led Egyptian army is destroyed by the Mahdi, British general Charles “Chinese” Gordon is ordered to arrange the evacuation of Khartoum but decides to hold the city, hoping his presence will force the British government to send more troops.
Directed by Ralph Nelson, starring Charlton Heston and Maximilian Schell
A USO orchestra is captured by the Germans in Belgium during the battle of the Bulge in WWII, and the conductor tries to delay performing for a German general in order to plan an escape.
Will Penny (1968)
Directed by Tom Gries, starring Charlton Heston and Joan Hackett
An aging cowboy finds himself sharing a cabin with a woman and her son throughout a winter but she is being hunted by a crazy family of outlaws.
Julius Caesar (1970)
Directed by Stuart Burge, starring Charlton Heston and Jason Robards
A film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play about the Roman senate’s battle with Caesar for control of Rome and his eventual assassination.
Antony and Cleopatra (1972)
Directed by Charlton Heston, starring Charlton Heston and Hildegarde Neil
A film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play.
The Three Musketeers (1973)
Directed by Richard Lester, starring Oliver Reed and Raquel Welch
A young swordsman arrives in Paris and becomes involved in the musketeers’ attempts to defend the king against the schemes of Cardinal Richelieu.
The Four Musketeers (1974)
Directed by Richard Lester, starring Oliver Reed and Raquel Welch
Sequel to the Three Musketeers.
The Last Hard Men (1976)
Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, starring Charlton Heston and James Coburn
In the early 20th century, a convict escapes from a chain gang and captures the daughter of a retired lawman, who originally put him behind bars.
Directed by Jack Smight, starring Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda
The American Navy wins its first decisive victory against the Japanese Navy following Pearl Harbor.
Crossed Swords (1977)
Directed by Richard Fleischer, starring Oliver Reed and Raquel Welch
Prince Edward, son of Henry VIII, trades places with a peasant boy who looks exactly like him but they soon find themselves involved in a conspiracy to seize control of the throne.
Directed by George P. Cosmatos, Starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer
Famous and retired lawman Wyatt Earp and his brothers plan to settle down in Tombstone, Arizona but find themselves drawn into conflict with the Clanton clan.
In the Arena: An Autobiography-Charlton Heston, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
It suffers a bit from the Grumpy Old Man Syndrome. Heston constantly makes unfavorable comparisons between his youth and present society. The phrase “political correctness” appears much, much, much too often in the book. I do not agree with many of his criticisms of modern society but it is a great book because he does not edit his opinions. In addition, I was repeatedly impressed by the amount of research that he did to prepare for roles. Heston says he does not care about the actor’s race for ethnic parts, only acting ability, which is very laudable. I presume that he would not have objected to Cuba Gooding, Jr. playing Rob Roy or Jesus Christ. It is a very honest autobiography, and it is clear that he is working through some deep-rooted personal issues, like the impact his parents’ divorce had on his life.