Charlton Heston has died
. Certainly one of the biggest stars Hollywood has ever known. He was the post-WWII ideal of what a movie star should be--square-jawed, deep-voiced, tall, handsome, maybe just a little stiff. (In one of my favorite quotes, Cahiers du Cinema
film critic Michel Mourlet looked at this beautiful man and observed "Charlton Heston is an axiom of the cinema.")
He first came to notice in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show On Earth
(1952) as the absurdly macho leader of the circus. He runs the place as if they're fighting a war. The film isn't great (though it won the Best Picture Oscar) but it was a huge hit and a star was born.
He went on to be perhaps become the top leading man of the decade, starring in its two biggest hits, The Ten Commandments
(1956) and Ben-Hur
(1959), winning an Oscar for the latter.
Many movie fans prefer Touch Of Evil
from 1958, the last film Orson Welles directed in Hollywood. It's a crime story where Heston plays Mexican police officer Miguel Vargas, married to the very white Janet Leigh. Vargas is a noble guy ("A policeman's job is only easy in a police state") who clashes with the dirty cop Quinlan, played by Welles.
It was not a hit, and Heston has said it's a B-movie--if a great one--but some critics today consider it a classic. (Welles steals the film, but Heston let him. He actually had the power to call the shots but allowed Welles to do what he wanted. In fact, the only reason Welles got to direct is that Heston heard Welles would be involved in the production and assumed that meant he'd direct, and the studio figured they should give the star what he wanted. This is why I'm so disgusted with the scene in Tim Burton's Ed Wood
, where Johnny Depp in the title role meets his idol Welles at Musso and Frank's
and Welles complains that Heston as a Mexican cop is being forced on him.)
Heston continued starring in Westerns, action films and costume epics throughout the 60s. (He occasionally did comedy, but it wasn't his forte.) Pretty much every one of his films was a major production, but none of them meant too much to me until he made the one that defined him for a new generation--Planet Of The Apes
(1968). He stars as the cynical astronaut who makes it to another planet ruled by primates, only to discover (and if you need a spoiler warning for this, you've come to the wong place) it's actually Earth in the future! He acts up a storm, and has the deathless line: "Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!" (Way to get in good with the ones in charge.) Then there's his classic speech
at the end when he discovers the truth. (Homer Simpson does a bit of the speech in "Deep Space Homer.")Planet Of The Apes
sent him off in a new direction, and he became Hollywood's go-to guy for post-apocalyptic sci-fi films, such as The Omega Man
(1971) and Soylent Green
(1973). Soylent Green
, in fact, has a line that may surpass all the others in notoriety--his anguished cry
when he discovers what people in the Ted-Turnerish
future are actually eating (another spoiler, by the way, but it will save you the trouble of watching the movie).
Around this time, he also became a regular in the popular disaster films of the decade, such as Airport 1975
(1974), Two Minute Warning
(1976) and Gray Lady Down
By the 1980s he was getting a little long in the tooth to play action heroes, and started appearing more often in supporting roles, not to mention doing more work in TV--including a recurring role on Dynasty
--and the theatre. He also showed a talent for self-mockery, making fun of himself in Wayne's World 2
(1993) and Bud Light commercials. In general, he was a highly respected representative of the old guard and would often be used in small parts for his iconic value. He also became somewhat controversial in his later years as the highly visible President of the National Rifle Assocation, and was--unfairly, many say--attacked in Michael Moore's film about gun violence, Bowling For Columbine
About six years ago he announced he had Alzheimer's and left publc life.
One of my earliest memories of Hollywood is seeing Heston. He did a live appearance at a Cinerama Dome
showing of The Ten Commandments
. Afterward, he signed autographs in the lobby. He was very gracious, and I remember being impressed with his posture. A lady next to me, who must have been a teenager when the film premiered, was crying. She told her friend that life was more dignified when Charlton Heston was a big star. She may just be right.
(Note: I had to write this twice, as my Road Runner
service went out the first time. While waiting for it to come back up, I saw an ad on TV saying how great Road Runner is.)