Heston: a movie legend

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The Independent Culture

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.