And when I got a little older, I realized he had a great body, which he showed off in nude scenes in the 1968 sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes (which I actually saw twice upon its release). And when I worked at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Los Angeles Times I interviewed him several times. He could be intimidating. There was something very Moses-esque about him. He didn’t want to be kept waiting. When I was two minutes late calling him for an 8:30 a.m. interview, I apologized profusely that my toilet had overflowed that morning and I didn’t leave my apartment on time. He said in that famous voice, “That’s okay, Miss King. You are only two minutes late.” Gulp.
He also could be very funny; he was wonderful when he hosted Saturday Night Live and was equally entertaining on Friends. One interview he talked about doing live television and how everything could go wrong, especially when his co-star Lon Chaney Jr. got a wee bit confused.
Of course, I was surprised and a bit saddened when he became so involved in the NRA, eventually becoming president of the gun lobby. And some people best know him now for his speech when he took up a rifle and told Al Gore, who was running for president, that the only way he would give up his second amendment rights is if Gore pried the gun from his “cold, dead hands.”
Heston, who died in 2008 of Alzheimer’s, will be celebrated this late afternoon Sunday at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre with two of his sci-fi classics: Planet of the Apes and 1971’s The Omega Man.
Marc Eliot is the author of the expansive new biography Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon, written with full cooperation of the Heston family, who gave him access to the actor’s personal diaries, private papers, and letters. He will be at the screening, along with Heston's son Fraser. Eliot recently chatted on the phone about Heston.
Susan: Why do you believe that Heston is "Hollywood’s Last Icon"?
Marc: He comes out of that last wave of Hollywood big movies in the 1950s. You could make a case that Ben-Hur is the last big Hollywood film. The ones that followed were either independent or foreign - a lot of British film.
And then you see him change. You see his films and his performances change. He gets a little older. He goes through his action cycle and then tries to reinvent himself. When the average life span of a leading man or above-the-title star is about 10 years, he was able to sustain a presence in film, really, for the most of the second half of the 20th century.
What were among his other strengths as an actor?
Marc: One of his talents as an actor was able to find characters…and use them in a way to express himself in an articulate fashion. That’s why he loved Shakespeare, because Shakespeare did all the work for him. Shakespeare’s a teacher. Shakespeare gives you no stage directions, no movement, just dialogue. For most actors that’s a relief because it allows you to connect yourself to the character.
That’s something Heston was really good at - finding a character, not operating like a Method actor from the inside out, but approaching from the outside in. The Ten Commandments - it was all the costume, the beard, the heft of the external parts that led him to find the internal motives.
Like James Dean, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen, Heston was a mainstay in live television in the late 1940s and early 1950s, doing 14 installments of Studio One.
Marc: He was a pioneer. He was one of the first who developed a method for acting in an area where Rome would be two and a half feet wide. He knew how to do that instinctively. He became, along with with a handful of others - Jack Lemmon was one of them - one of the actors who really learned their craft on TV.
Most people don’t know that Heston was a Broadway actor before he became a movie star. He considered himself, really, for his entire life, first a live theatrical actor. Secondly, a film actor.
Well, if you lived in Los Angeles you knew about his love for the theater because he would always appear at the Music Center in plays. I saw him in A Man for All Seasons, Crucifer of Blood, and Detective Story, and they were huge hits.
Could you talk about his 64-year marriage to Lydia, who is still alive?
Marc: One thing about the marriage, it’s more complicated than one might think. She gave up her career for him. She had been from the beginning more successful than he was. She was on Broadway while he was still posing nude at the Art Students League on 57th Street. But in those days, wives gave way for the husband - he was the breadwinner and she was the mother and housekeeper. She really didn’t like that.
Heston was so hurt when his parents suddenly divorced when he was a child and his mother remarried. Is that one of the reasons why he worked so hard to make the marriage work?
Marc: One of the reasons, I think, Heston was never a real leading man in films - he’s more of an action figure - was because he didn’t want to risk upsetting his marriage. The reason was because his childhood trauma was so deep that he vowed never to do that to his own children, what his mother had done to him.
Because of that, he made a lot of career sacrifices for the sake of being home as much as he could, raising the kids as a hands-on father and keeping Lydia happy, though, she was perpetually frustrated as a creative person. In a different time, in a different world that might have been not the way it played out.
His career was hurt when he became president of the NRA and told said the members in 2000 when Al Gore was running for President that Gore would have to take his rifle from "My cold, dead hands!" Did he ever regret saying that?
Marc: He never regretted that. He never regretted anything in his life. He wanted to do it. It may not have been the best career choice. He believed in the Second Amendment. He saw action in World War II and believed he did that to have freedom. He thought it was the right decision. So I tried to stay away from judging him I the book and tried to show why he did what he did.
I thought it was exceptionally brave for him to come out and announce he had Alzheimer’s, and even did interviews before the disease robbed him of his memory.
Marc: When he got sick, [the whole family] was determined not to let it affect their happiness. They wanted to live happily up until the last moment and enjoy each other other while they could as a family.
He really took his cue from Reagan, who was very public about his own illness. Heston wanted to try to stay as much as he could in the present time and the whole family would celebrate that time. Nobody was mourning or upset or whiny or woe-is-me.
Veteran journalist Susan King wrote about entertainment at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years (January 1990 - March 2016), specializing in classic Hollywood stories. She also wrote about independent, foreign and studio movies and occasionally TV and theater stories. She received her master's degree in film history and criticism at USC. After working 10 years at the L.A. Herald Examiner, she moved to the Los Angeles Times.