I met Charlton Heston only once, in 1996, but that brief interview cemented for me an admiring fondness for an actor whose politics I disagreed with, whose acting style I often found hammy and quaint, and yet who gave me and millions of other moviegoers enormous pleasure watching his performances over the years. At the time, Heston was promoting the film Alaska (pictured), directed by his son Fraser, a minor film that gave him a rare villainous role, which he bit into with his usual gusto. (Years later, I’m still tickled by his typically clenched-jaw reading of such lines as, “Magnificent creature, the polar bear. Nature’s most perfect carnivore.”) Heston was proud of his son’s work and modest about his own, feeling that, at age 71, he was still just a working actor hoping to get it right one of these days. He talked about his recently completed role as the Player King in Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Hamlet (and told a hilarious, unprintable story about one of his fellow cast members in that film, a tale made even funnier since I was essentially listening to the voice of God using the f-word). I asked why, at this stage of his career, with no more worlds to conquer, he’d take a walk-on role in a Shakespeare movie. He replied, again with that famously tightened jaw, “No actor with the brains God gave a goose would turn down the chance to waltz with the old gentleman from Avon.” Yes, Heston really spoke that way. It was awesome.
All right, maybe he was putting me on a little; he certainly had the capacity to laugh at himself, as was evident from his self-parodic cameo in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake, or his role as a crazy, trigger-happy coot in Town and Country. Even talking about politics, about which he was famously passionate, he was capable of being tongue-in-cheek. I asked him if he was going to stump for the Republicans in the 1996 election, and he said he might, but that right-leaning actors were generally leery of campaigning because they feared losing work in liberal Hollywood, just as outspoken leftists had during the Hollywood blacklist of the ’50s. I told him that sounded disingenuous, especially since he was there at the time and would have remembered seeing film folk not just lose their jobs but sometimes even go to jail or flee the country; surely he didn’t think conservatives in Hollywood faced similar peril in 1996, did he? Well, he replied, it still felt that way to him, and he asserted, “There are more conservatives in the closet in Hollywood than there are homosexuals.” “You’ve used that line before, haven’t you,” I said. “Yes, it’s a good line, isn’t it?” Now, I don’t think Heston had anything against gays or anyone else; back in the ’60s, he’d been an active Hollywood supporter of the civil rights movement and had joined Martin Luther King’s march on Washington in 1963. Rather, whether Heston was campaigning for the National Rifle Association or selling a character to moviegoers, he was a showman first, an entertainer, and he knew how to please a crowd and play to an audience.
He was old-fashioned in that sense, calling upon a repertoire oforatorical skills that seemed practically Victorian even back in the’50s, when his contemporaries (like Marlon Brando or Paul Newman) wereadvancing the Method and changing the techniques of screen actingforever. Heston, however, was built for lofty speeches full ofrighteous anger — which made him perfect, as it turns out, both forold-school Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur and for cutting-edge dystopian science-fiction sagas like Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, and Soylent Green.No matter where he was set, Heston seemed a man out of time, and towatch him (or speak with him) was to be entertained by a visitor froman ancient past, an age of vanished heroes. That was the uniquepleasure he brought to audiences, and it’s a sensibility that, alongwith him, has now passed forever from the screen.