Charlton Heston 1924-2008

heston-wells.jpg(Heston and Welles in Touch of Evil)

Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,

In general synod ‘take away her power;

Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,

And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,

As low as to the fiends!’

Thinking of the fate of Charlton Heston this morning, how he lost the power of memory and speech before he lost his life, I thought of him performing this scene in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet. His Player King is a slightly shabby traveling actor, come to Elsinore; hard times and fierce competition have set him on the road, and his last play was a financial failure: “caviar to the general.”

Hiring Heston was a canny idea by Branagh, a commentary on how actors go out of style. Age and familiarity had scuffed this once vainglorious figure of 1950s movies; the noble voice was slightly hoarse, the fine white teeth were now edged now in silver, and he has a Grecian Formula rinse.

As one can tell from Heston’s book An Actor’s Journal—an enjoyable collection of opinions, genial commentary and self-deprecating anecdotes, and essential for Orson Welles fans*—this actor loved Shakespeare. He played Mark Anthony in a 1949 16mm independent film, a performance he repeated in 1970. The Shakespeare-infused passion for larger-than-life characters sustained him throughout the late-period Hollywood epics.

Onscreen, Heston was the alpha and the omega, the actor who opened and closed Western Civilization: first as a brooding Moses in The Ten Commandments and, eons later, kneeling at a relic of the long-vanished New York City in Planet of the Apes.

I was most familiar with Heston onscreen in later years, as the last man on earth in The Omega Man, or sounding the hue and cry against the secret ingredients of Soylent Green; a disillusioned figure from a heroic past come to rest in the horrors and disappointments of the 1970s. 

I haven’t seen the rereleased 1961 El Cid (read Metroactive’s review) on the new DVD that just came out, though I saw it in the late ’80s and am loath to see it on a smaller screen. It is one of his grandest opuses, with one of the all-time best swordfights and Sophia Loren at maximum lusciousness .

I once got to see Heston at a round-table interview. He was indeed as tall and rugged and splendid as one would imagine, though frayed a little by age; the shoulders of his blue suit could have used a brushing.  

Seeing him then is why I prefer late-period Heston like the Player King, Shakespeare’s demonstration of how our most beloved actors change on the outside, but that nothing can dim the fierceness within them.

 *Not only had Heston got Touch of Evil made, he also pleaded with producer Samuel Bronston to give Welles a couple of hundred thou and access to the Spanish sets of 55 Days at Peking, to make an impromptu movie…

Heston links on

Review of rerelease of Touch of Evil

Review of Planet of the Apes cycle

Richard von Busack on Branah’s Hamlet 


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