Heston: a movie legend

Charlton Heston made his movie debut in the 1940s in two independent films by a college classmate, David Bradley.

He had the title role in Peer Gynt in 1942 and was Marc Antony in Bradley's 1949 version of Julius Caesar, for which Heston was paid £26 a week.

Film producer Hal B Wallis spotted him in a 1950 television production of Wuthering Heights and offered him a contract.

When his wife Lydia, also a budding actress, reminded him that they had decided to pursue a career in theatre and television, he replied, "Well, maybe just for one film to see what it's like."

More movies followed but most were forgettable low-budget films, and Heston seemed destined to remain an undistinguished action star.

He was rescued by his old boss Cecil B DeMille, who had given him star billing in his first Hollywood movie, Dark City, a 1950 film noir. DeMille next cast him as the circus manager in the all-star The Greatest Show On Earth, named by the Motion Picture Academy as the best picture of 1952.

The director had long planned a new version of The Ten Commandments, which he had made as a silent in 1923 with a radically different approach that combined biblical and modern stories.

He was struck by Heston's facial resemblance to Michelangelo's sculpture of Moses, especially the similar broken nose, and put the actor through a long series of tests before giving him the role.

Heston's newborn son, Fraser Clarke Heston, played the role of the infant Moses in the film.

Other films followed: the eccentric thriller Touch of Evil, directed by Orson Welles; William Wyler's The Big Country, co-starring with Gregory Peck; a sea saga, The Wreck of the Mary Deare with Gary Cooper.

Then his greatest role: Ben Hur.

Heston wasn't the first to be considered for the remake of 1925 biblical epic. Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster and Rock Hudson had declined the film. Heston plunged into the role, rehearsing two months for the furious chariot race.

He railed at suggestions the race had been shot with a double: "I couldn't drive it well, but that wasn't necessary. All I had to do was stay on board so they could shoot me there. I didn't have to worry; MGM guaranteed I would win the race."

The huge success of Ben Hur for which Heston won an Oscar in 1959 made him one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood.

He combined big-screen epics like El Cid and 55 Days at Peking with lesser ones such as Diamond Head, Will Penny and Airport 1975. In his later years he played cameos in such films as Wayne's World 2 and Tombstone.

He often returned to the theatre, appearing in such plays as A Long Day's Journey into Night and A Man for All Seasons. He starred as a tycoon in the prime-time soap opera, The Colbys, a two-season spin off of Dynasty.

At his birth in a Chicago suburb on October 4, 1923, his name was Charles Carter. His parents moved to St Helen, Michigan, where his father, Russell Carter, operated a lumber mill. Growing up in the Michigan woods with almost no playmates, young Charles read books of adventure and devised his own games while wandering the countryside with his rifle.

Charles's parents divorced, and she married Chester Heston, a factory plant superintendent in Wilmette, Illinois, an upscale north Chicago suburb.

Shy and feeling displaced in the big city, Charles had trouble adjusting to the new high school. He took refuge in the drama department.

"What acting offered me was the chance to be many other people," he said in a 1986 interview. "In those days I wasn't satisfied with being me."

Calling himself Charlton Heston from his mother's maiden name and his stepfather's last name, he won an acting scholarship to Northwestern University in 1941. He excelled in campus plays and appeared on Chicago radio. In 1943, he enlisted in the Army Air Force and served as a radio-gunner in the Aleutians.

In 1944 he married another Northwestern drama student, Lydia Clarke, and after his army discharge in 1947, they moved to New York to seek acting jobs. Finding none, they were hired as co-directors and principal actors at a summer theatre in Asheville, North Carolina.

Back in New York, both Hestons began finding work. With his strong 6ft 2ins build and craggily handsome face, Heston won roles in TV soap operas, plays Antony and Cleopatra with Katherine Cornell and live TV dramas such as Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew and Of Human Bondage.

Heston wrote several books: The Actor's Life: Journals 1956-1976, published in 1978; Beijing Diary: 1990, concerning his direction of the play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial in Chinese; In the Arena: An Autobiography, 1995; and Charlton Heston's Hollywood: 50 Years of American Filmmaking, 1998.

Besides his son Fraser, who directed his father in an adventure film, Mother Lode, the Hestons had a daughter, Holly Ann, born August 2, 1961. The couple celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 1994 at a party with Hollywood and political friends. They had been married 64 years when he died lasy night at his Beverly Hills home with Lydia by his side. He was 84.

In late years, Heston drew as much publicity for his crusades as for his performances. In addition to his work as president of the National Rifle Association, he campaigned for Republican presidential and congressional candidates and against affirmative action.

He served as president of the Screen Actors Guild and chairman of the American Film Institute and marched in the civil rights movement of the 1950s.

He later resigned from Actors Equity, claiming the union's refusal to allow a white actor to play a Eurasian role in Miss Saigon was "obscenely racist."

He attacked CNN's telecasts from Baghdad as "sowing doubts" about the allied effort in the 1990-91 Gulf War.

At a Time Warner stockholders meeting, he castigated the company for releasing an Ice-T album that purportedly encouraged cop killing.

Heston wrote in In the Arena that he was proud of what he did "though now I'll surely never be offered another film by Warners, nor get a good review in Time. On the other hand, I doubt I'll get a traffic ticket very soon."

In 2002 Heston revealed he had symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease, saying, "I must reconcile courage and surrender in equal measure."

In 2003 Heston was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honour.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing