I was in New York last Monday talking to a literary agent when he happened to mention that Charlton Heston had passed away. My heart sank. I hadn’t paid much attention to the news over the weekend and didn’t realize that the man who had parted the Red Sea, won the big chariot race and had so vigorously fought for my right to keep a shotgun in my car was no longer with us. Although, I’d never much agreed with his political positions, I had always loved him. That is not to say I thought he was a great actor. He wasn’t, particularly. But he was a kick-ass movie star who had kept me thoroughly entertained from my childhood straight through adolescence. As an adult, I’d always enjoyed his cranky letters to the L.A. Times. He was an outspoken (and respected) conservative in a town that rarely forgives such things.
In one of the three (yes, three) tributes given to Mr. Heston in the L.A. Times last week, they actually reprinted some excerpts from his many letters to the editor. The subjects included handguns, political correctness, Elia Kazan, the general public’s ignorance of our political system, Bill Clinton, nuclear bombs, bloated Hollywood budgets, Ice-T, Rap Music, Kato Kaelin, the Riots of ’92, AIDS, bad television, affirmative action casting and the cost of bringing democracy into Panama. Although strongly worded, none of the letters were ill-informed and the man always handled himself with dignity. He unfortunately had a couple of less dignified moments too; mostly associated with his leadership of the NRA. These included revving up the crowd by waving a revolutionary war musket over his head and bellowing that it would have to be pried from “his cold dead hands.” And then there was the whole flap about the NRA deciding to go ahead with their convention just a few days after the Columbine shootings. His last high profile appearance was in Michael Moore’s documentary “Bowling for Columbine” where, already suffering from the early onset of Alzheimer’s, he chose to withdraw from the interview midway through. It was a sad moment (for a lot of reasons).
But personally, I will always remember Chuck Heston for his movies. If you were a kid growing up in the seventies, his movies were the best. For me, getting to see a movie at all was a huge deal since my family were Born Again Christians and therefore none too happy with the subject matter of most Hollywood films. I can still remember the week that “Planet of the Apes” opened in our little shithole of a town. Since I knew my mother sort of admired Heston for having played “Moses” in “The Ten Commandments” and “Judah” in “Ben-Hur,” I thought I might have a shot at seeing it. Pulling out all the stops, I staged a non-stop festival of begging and weeping until she finally gave in. Words cannot express how much I loved that film. Similarly, I did whatever it took to get into “The Omega Man” and I will never forget the terrifying conclusion of “Soylent Green.” There was more fun to be had in “Skyjacked,” “Airport ‘75” and “Earthquake” (filmed in sensational “Sensurrond!”). I would later catch up (via TV) on Heston’s early career as the star of lots of big costume epics where he always played the brash, sweaty commander of some group of underdogs -- The guy who snarled at authority, always won the heart of some stuck-up dame who didn’t know what was good for her and ultimately saved the day. Chuck was a hero who could whip any and all comers. I was surprised to read that he often did extensive research for his roles and kept lengthy journals about his process as an actor. This struck me as sort of poignant since very little of that preparation ever shows up in any of his performances. Generally speaking, he pretty much always gave the same performance over and over. It was good. Serviceable. But pretty much the same. There was one exception. Check out “Will Penny.” He’s really very good in that.
A quick glance over his credits reminded me of some other memorable projects like the Orson Welles’ cult classic, “Touch of Evil,” the hugely entertaining “Three Musketeers” and the campy biopic, “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” He tried out TV (“The Colbys”) and also used his distinctive voice to narrate many documentaries, including one called “Bagpipe: Instrument of War” (which sounds sort of interesting, doesn’t it?). One of my favorite memories of Charlton Heston is when he hosted “Saturday Night Live” in the late ‘80’s. In the opening monologue, he read a hilariously irate letter from a viewer that had been sent to producer Lorne Michaels some 10 years earlier. The letter furiously lambasted the show for its loose morals and poor taste. Wrapping it up, Heston dryly noted that “It was signed … ‘Sincerely, Charlton Heston.’” I should add that he was surprisingly very funny in the rest of the show, especially in a supermarket skit where he played the world’s oldest “bag boy.” You have to hand it to a guy who was a major star and managed to stay married to the same woman for over sixty years. And to this day, I’ve yet to see a piece of filmmaking more thrilling than the chariot race in “Ben-Hur” (80% of which was filmed without a stunt double). The guy was a true original. In a age where movie stars are becoming less and less entertaining, I gotta say our good friend, Chuck Heston will be sorely missed. Well, at least by me. For sure.
Copyright 2008 David Dean Bottrell