MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston was the sort of movie icon that received either grudging respect or abject derision rather than the praise or affection extended such contemporaries as William Holden and Burt Lancaster. The caricature is one of a face permanently cemented in some tense fashion with teeth clenched. The verity of his filmography contradicts such easy comic illustrations.

The actor had a facility for larger than life portraits that began five decades back with Moses in The Ten Commandments. His towering frame lent itself to historic characters with gravitas and he gave them a veracity no other stars of his day could affect … or did so at some considerable artistic peril.

There were also the riskier efforts – not always successful – that included Touch of Evil, Major Dunde, Will Penny and the expertly timed comedic menace he invested in Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers. Heston was a real actor who didn’t balk at playing against type and appreciated that he had to stretch his acting muscles whether the role was set in a cinemascope landscape, the boob tube or the boards where he got his start and which he never abandoned.

The in-person Heston appeared to have a more contained spectrum. He was associated with liberal social causes at the out set including marching with the Reverend Martin Luther King from Montgomery to Memphis. But he evolved into a staunch conservative with stints as the president of the Screen Actors Guild, on the Academy board, various California agencies, the AFI and culminating in his presidency of the National Rifle Association. In the latter role he was ridiculed in Michael Moore‘s Bowling for Columbine and the later revelation of an advancing Alzheimer condition made the confrontation a sad affair.

There was a time when he was simply ever present on the social-political scene and benefit circuit of Hollywood. There were endless rumors of his imminent abdication to the realm of national politics and he was unquestionably a skilled and, one must add sincere, schmoozer. I can vividly recall him working a room at some event and on reflection no one of his peers did it better. He talked to everyone and listened, responded and moved on without any sense that any individual was short-shrifted his attention.

Back in 1980 I flew to Vancouver to do a story on Motherlode, a film he directed, co-produced and headlined that was written by his son Fraser who had relocated to that Canadian city. It quickly became apparent that the production was literally a family film. His daughter in law was the publicist, his wife did still photography and the crew was dotted with old friends and collaborators including second unit director Joe Canutt who he first met on Ben-Hur. His mother even showed up and sat in his chair and attentively watched the filming. She was the only person I ever heard call him by his given name – to everyone else he was Chuck.

It was the most civilized set I can recall. Heston was the most courteous host, telling the old jokes about Moses’ staff and even old cynics like cameraman Richard Leitermanthat poked fun about the “squareness” of the environment, conceded that the professionalism and civility trumped his niggly irritations.

Over lunch one day the subject of Touch of Evil came up and after the usual discourse about Welles’ genius, Heston digressed into a squabble that arose out of a schedule conflict. Heston segued into the picture from the big budget western epic The Big Country with the understanding that he might be called back for re-shoots and dubbing sessions. He admitted that he deluded himself into believing there would be no conflicts when he jumped at the chance to work with Welles. However, one day the call came from his agent to report back to The Big Country and Heston wasn’t about to abandon or ask the director of Touch of Evil to juggle the shooting schedule.

Eventually some concession was made but in the interim Heston was slapped with a fine ($25,000 as I recall) for delaying production on the western. At that point Heston’s wife Lydia jumped in and said, “You should never have paid that.” An old wound had been opened up and for the first and only time something resembling heat permeated the otherwise climate controlled environment. It never became repellent; rather it revealed a humanity that was touching and honest. After a few minutes of fierce debate I imposed by asking if this argument had been going on for 22 years. The Hestons stopped, looked at one another and in unison said “yes.” I like to think the issue remained unresolved and somehow kept Heston’s toward the industry, his life and work in perspective to the end.

April 6, 2008

– by Leonard Klady

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