powered by AFI
When Charlton Heston accepted the challenge of directing himself as Sir Thomas More in a cable television adaptation of A Man for All Seasons (1988), he was 63 years old - six years older, in fact, than More had been at the time of his 1535 execution for opposing Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn - events that heralded the Protestant Reformation. Heston had played the martyred More several times onstage in the States and had headlined a sold-out 1987 British production at the Savoy Theater in London's West End. His take on A Man for All Seasons marked the first original production from Ted Turner's Turner Network Television and had its TV premiere in December 1988. Less a remake of Fred Zinnemann's Academy Award-winning 1966 feature film than a more faithful retelling of Robert Bolt's 1961 Broadway hit, the production restored a Brechtian framing device that Bolt had eliminated from the Zinnemann film in which a commoner (Roy Kinnear) comments on the historical proceedings in the manner of a Greek chorus.
Heston had coveted the role of Sir Thomas More while A Man for All Seasons was still enjoying its two-year Broadway run. Still fresh from his success (and Oscar® win) in the title role of William Wyler's Ben-Hur (1959) and Hollywood's go-to guy for playing larger-than-life historical personages (John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told, Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy [both 1965]), Heston saw in More another variation on his preferred stock-in-trade of intractable but principled heroes. The plumb role went instead to British actor Paul Scofield, who had created the part in London and on Broadway (and who went on to his own Oscar® win for his performance), while Heston had to content himself playing another Christian martyr - General Charles "Chinese" Gordon in Basil Dearden's account of the year-long siege of Khartoum (1966). Later in his career, Heston would have occasion to play the capricious King Henry VIII, albeit in the non-historical romp Crossed Swords (1977), Richard Fleischer's free adaptation of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. A decade after that, the much-coveted role of Thomas More was his at last.
Fans of the 1966 Fred Zinnemann adaptation will enjoy noting the differences between the two approaches. A student of history, Heston hoped with his turn as Thomas More would be a chance to imbue the characterization with more humor than had the somewhat dour Scofield. Given only a nonspeaking bit in the original film, Vanessa Redgrave enjoys the upgrade to leading lady in the 1988 A Man for All Seasons as Thomas More's wife, a part played by Wendy Hiller twenty years earlier. If Martin Chamberlain seems a centimeter shy of being every inch the king Robert Shaw had been as Henry Tudor in 1966, Roy Kinnear shines in the role of the Common Man (a part played by George Rose on Broadway but cut from the 1966 screenplay). Sadly, the production would be Kinnear's last completed film role. A deft comedian on both big and small screens, who contributed memorable character parts to several films by Richard Lester (among them, Help! (1965), The Three Musketeers (1973), and Juggernaut ), Kinnear died as the result of a riding accident while on a film location in Madrid three months before A Man for All Seasons aired at Christmas 1988.
"Why do I take as my hero a man who brings about his own death because he can't put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie?" This question was posed in 1960 by Robert Bolt himself and referred to Henry VIII's doomed Lord Chancellor. Bolt became interested in Thomas More (canonized by the Catholic Church in 1935) as a boy at Manchester Grammar School. A member of the Royal Air Force (in which he performed his national service during World War II) and the Communist Party (which he would soon abandon), Bolt chose in later life to identify more with causes than political parties. In 1961, he did jail time in England for protesting nuclear war as a member of the British antiwar group The Committee of 100. Unlike Thomas More, who willingly bent below the headsman's axe rather than betray his conscience, Bolt was persuaded by producer Sam Spiegel to cut a deal for his early release so that he could complete the screenplay for David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The compromise, and Bolt's guilt at having betrayed his own conscience, would haunt him for the rest of his life.
By Richard Harland SmithSources:Preface to A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt, September 1960
"Charlton Heston becomes a man for all seasons" by Matt Wolf (Associated Press, 1987)
In the Arena: The Autobiography by Charlton Heston (Berkley Trade, 1997)
Robert Bolt obituary by John Calder, The Independent, February 23, 1955
The Tudors on Film and Television by Sue Parrill and William Baxter Robison (McFarland Publishing Company, Ltd., 2013)
Henry VIII: The King and His Court by Alison Weir (Random House, 2007)