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Charlton Heston's career as a commanding male lead has provided a one-person Hollywood trek through the pages of world history and a forceful, conservative vision of a world in which America always wins. The Northwestern University acting student's first film appearances were in ambitious amateur 16mm productions of "Peer Gynt" (1941) and "Julius Caesar" (1949), both directed by fellow student David Bradley. After WWII service, he and his wife Lydia Clarke worked as models in New York and ran a theater in Asheville, North Carolina before Heston found success on Broadway in Katharine Cornell's production of "Antony and Cleopatra" (1947). He also made a vivid impression on early TV, especially in a flurry of dashing romantic leads (Heathcliff, Rochester, Petruchio) on the famous drama anthology "Studio One". By the time he went to Hollywood to act in William Dieterle's moody film noir "Dark City" (1950), Heston was already a star, listed in the credits ahead of the more established Lizabeth Scott. Over the next four decades he rarely had less than top billing. With his role as the ill-tempered circus manager in his second film, Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952), Heston...
Charlton Heston's career as a commanding male lead has provided a one-person Hollywood trek through the pages of world history and a forceful, conservative vision of a world in which America always wins. The Northwestern University acting student's first film appearances were in ambitious amateur 16mm productions of "Peer Gynt" (1941) and "Julius Caesar" (1949), both directed by fellow student David Bradley. After WWII service, he and his wife Lydia Clarke worked as models in New York and ran a theater in Asheville, North Carolina before Heston found success on Broadway in Katharine Cornell's production of "Antony and Cleopatra" (1947). He also made a vivid impression on early TV, especially in a flurry of dashing romantic leads (Heathcliff, Rochester, Petruchio) on the famous drama anthology "Studio One". By the time he went to Hollywood to act in William Dieterle's moody film noir "Dark City" (1950), Heston was already a star, listed in the credits ahead of the more established Lizabeth Scott. Over the next four decades he rarely had less than top billing.
With his role as the ill-tempered circus manager in his second film, Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952), Heston began his reign as the actor of choice for Hollywood epics. Solidly built, with a lithe walk and boasting an iron jaw, a granite-carved profile and sonorous voice, he could intimidate opponents with just a glare. Few actors could dish up righteous anger with such force, yet even though many of his screen creations could be unpleasantly hostile, the power of his presence invariably commanded respect, conveyed integrity (even in villainous roles) and often managed to be likable. There was something timeless about his rueful expression and his brand of gritty heroism. At the same time, though, he glorified a concept of the power of the individual which was perfectly in step with middle America's vision of how the world should be. Consequently, even though Heston never quite disappeared into his roles, he was perfect for Hollywood's writing of an Americanized world history picture book and its equally splashy renditions of the Bible.
Heston's take on Buffalo Bill in "The Pony Express" (1953) was the first in a long line of historical and Biblical characters that have included Andrew Jackson ("The President's Lady" 1953; "The Buccaneer" 1958), Moses (in DeMille's landmark second version of "The Ten Commandments" 1956), El Cid (in the 1961 film of that title), John the Baptist ("The Greatest Story Ever Told" 1964), Michelangelo ("The Agony and the Ecstasy" 1965), General Charles Gordon ("Khartoum" 1966), Cardinal Richelieu ("The Three Musketeers" 1973 and its 1975 sequel), Henry VIII ("Crossed Swords" 1977) and Sir Thomas More ("A Man for All Seasons", TNT 1988). Indeed, he seemed to possess the power to transform fiction into fact when his Oscar-winning turn in "Ben-Hur" (1959) elevated the story of a Jewish charioteer transfixed by the sight of Christ to the stuff of legend. As French critic Michel Mourlet infamously rhapsodized, "Charlton Heston is an axiom of the cinema."
Less indecisive and rebellious than Robert Mitchum, less Everymannish than William Holden, Heston, like these fellow 50s icons, was frequently called on to suffer, and frequently with his shirt off. Perhaps it all started with Moses making bricks, but Heston was still stripping down to either get down to work or be punished well into the 80s. As historical epics gradually became passe in the late 60s, Heston made more Westerns, war sagas and, interestingly, science fiction films to take up the slack. 1968 marked a banner year with two fine landmark roles: the anguished hero of the highly entertaining, futuristic "Planet of the Apes", and the aging, reflective cowpoke of "Will Penny", one of his finest films. The 70s brought the cult classic sci-fi pic "Soylent Green" (1973) ("It's people!!") and a series of routine roles in "Battle of Midway" (1976) and "Gray Lady Down" (1977) titled major, colonel or general. Some later parts, though, traded in wastefully on his iconic value, for instance, his cameo in "True Lies" (1994).
Though hampered by budgetary restrictions, Heston directed his first feature in 1971 with a decent adaptation of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" and did double duty again with "Mother Lode" (1982), which was written and produced by his son Fraser. After a fifteen year absence, the actor returned to the small screen as the star of the CBS miniseries "Chiefs" (1983) and later found work as a series regular on the primetime soap opera "The Colbys" (ABC, 1985-87) before settling into a succession of starring roles in telefilms. He directed and starred in a 1988 TNT remake of "A Man for All Seasons", reprising his stage role as Sir Thomas More. Heston went on to essay iconic fictional characters Long John Silver and Sherlock Holmes in two TNT movies adapted and produced by his son. "Treasure Island" (1990) and "The Crucifer of Blood" (1991). Although features allowed him to portray God ("Almost an Angel" 1990) and provided ample opportunity for him to use his marvelous voice as a narrator (e.g., "Armageddon" 1998), Heston continued to find his best roles on TV, adding to his gallery of historical figures with a turn as Brigham Young in TNT's "The Avenging Angel" (1995).
Throughout his career, Heston has been active in the industry, serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild (1966-71) and chairman of the American Film Institute. During the 80s, he was head of President Reagan's task force on the arts and humanities, and remained active in charity work (e.g., The Will Rogers Institute) and politics, earning a reputation as a staunch Republican and a supporter of the National Rifle Association (NRA). He assumed a higher profile in 1998 with a guest appearance as himself on NBC's "Friends" and as the NRA's newly elected president. Later that year, he made the rounds in support of the re-release of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" (1958), in which he had starred as the virtuous Mexican government official (sans accent but sporting some nifty black hair) opposite Welles' supremely debauched police captain. Heston, who had been responsible for Welles getting the directing assignment, received a "special thanks" credit on the re-edit fashioned from a 58-page director's memo and has repeatedly avowed his agreement with Cahiers du Cinema that "Touch of Evil" is "beyond any question the greatest B movie ever made."
Heston made a cameo in 2001's "Planet of the Apes" remake as Tim Roth's father, meaning his role was so small he can in no way be blamed for the film's many flaws. This was one of his rare appearances in film or television, though he has stayed active in his political causes. In 2002, he lent his voice to an animated version of "Ben-hur" which was produced by his son Fraser and shortly after announced he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
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Heston supplied the voice-over for the Anheuser-Busch environmental campaign.
He underwent treatment for prostate cancer in December 1998
Heston has served as the US delegate to the Berlin Film Festival.
Besides winning an Oscar, Heston has received Germany's "Bambi", Italy's "David di Donatello" and Belgium's "Uilenspiegel", winning the latter three times.
Favorably reviewing the 1968 feature film "Planet of the Apes", film critic Pauline Kael notes, "All this wouldn't be so forceful or so funny if it weren't for the use of Charlton Heston in the (leading) role. With his perfect, lean-hipped, powerful body, Heston is a godlike hero; built for strength, he's an archetype of what makes Americans win. He doesn't play a nice guy; he's harsh and hostile, self-centered and hot-tempered. Yet we don't hate him because he's so magnetically strong; he represents American power--and he has the profile of an eagle." --From "5001 Nights at the Movies" by Pauline Kael (NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1991)
"Heston ... says he hates being described as a star or a celebrity. 'I find those words distateful ... Although I dislike those descriptions, I suppose they are appropriate in my case." --quoted in "Page Six", New York Post, October 2, 1996.
He underwent hip surgery in November 1996.
Heston was elevated to the rank of Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in March 1997
On his experience with Orson Welles in "Touch of Evil": "He was a good actor, not great on lines. That's probably because he didn't study them. Actually, I remember when we finished, it was about six in the morning, we went to have some champagne and scrambled eggs, and we were telling each other how marvelous we were. I said to him, 'I think you only made one mistake in the picture.' He said, 'What is that, my boy?'--he always called me 'my boy.' I said, 'There are three short scenes that serve no point other than to remind the audience that I am the leading man and I have the best part, and that's not really true. This picture is about the decline and fall of your character, Captain Quinlan.' He said, 'Well, then I won't worry about them in the cutting room.' And he didn't--he cut them." --Heston to Time Out New York, September 10-17, 1998.
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Holz ( 2008-03-28 )
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Somebody once approached Kirk Douglas and said they had enjoyed his performance in Ben-Hur (1959). So he said, 'That wasn't me, that was another fellow.' And the man said, 'Well, if you aren't Burt Lancaster, who the hell are you?'
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