Charlton Heston, RIP
This morning I learned that legendary actor Charlton Heston passed away on Saturday, April 5, 2008, at the age of 84, in his Beverly Hills home. The cause of death has not yet been announced, but after a bout with prostate cancer, Heston had publicly acknowledged the onset of Alzheimer's disease in 2002.
Heston was well-known for such larger-than-life epic roles as Moses, El Cid, and Michelangelo, and for his Oscar-winning nod in the 1959 masterpiece, "Ben-Hur," which is still my favorite movie. Heston's passing saddens me personally; from the time of my childhood, I was inspired by his heroic screen portraits. So enamored was I of his performance as Judah Ben-Hur that I went to see him in-person when I was 10 years old when he made an appearance at my local movie house, the Highway Theatre. His film, "The Hawaiians," had just opened there and he'd shown up to promote it to a huge Brooklyn audience. I couldn't believe how red his hair was and was ecstatic that he'd mentioned "Ben-Hur" in his little talk.
Of course, much has been made of Heston's conservative politics, especially his Second Amendment "absolutism," as president of the National Rifle Association. He famously held a rifle over his head and challenged Democratic presidential nominee, Al Gore, to pry it "from my cold, dead hands." But, like his conservative pal Ronald Reagan, his own political positions were varied over a long activist career, as he traveled from the Democratic Party to the GOP. Like Reagan, he served as head of the Screen Actors Guild. And there is some irony in the fact that he passed away a day after the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination; Heston was a vocal opponent of racism and walked with King in the historic 1963 civil rights March on Washington. He was also opposed to the Vietnam War.
Regardless of his politics, it is Heston's film career that I remember today. Some critics have derided him as both stiff and over-the-top. But I think he hit many more nuanced notes than critics have acknowledged in the creation of his own cinematic symphony. Yes, he'll be remembered as the only one who could truly fill the sandals of Moses, who could stand on an extravagant Cecil B. DeMille set, and hold a staff above the waters to part the Red Sea (in what is still one of the most eye-popping special effects in Hollywood history). He portrayed presidents, cowboys, and even John the Baptist. He embodied the driven artist as Michelangelo in "The Agony and the Ecstasy." He starred in classic film noirs ("Touch of Evil") and sci-fi classics too (as the cynical George Taylor in "Planet of the Apes" and "Beneath the Planet of the Apes," or opposite Edward G. Robinson in "Soylent Green," or as "The Omega Man"). But even his understated roles offered something of poignance ("Will Penny") and principle (on the small screen, in the short-lived "Dynasty" spinoff, "The Colbys").
What I will remember of Heston's portrayal of "Ben-Hur," however, is not just the square-jawed ruggedness of his character. It was the humanity that he brought to the role, an ability to rise above the magnificent spectacle of ferocious naval battles, epic chariot races, and Passion plays, and to provide a deep personal sense of the character's nearly fatal inner conflicts. Beyond the words he speaks, he says more about pain, loss, and anger-driven hate, faith, hope, and redemptive love, through his eyes and his facial expressions. It was a performance for which he well deserved his Best Actor Oscar.
Heston died; but he will continue to "row well, and live" in the extraordinary films he has left behind.