Actor Charlton Heston, one of the most memorable figures ever to stride across the movie screen, died at home in Beverly Hills on Saturday night, from undisclosed causes. He was 84. Famous for his work in historical and Biblical epics like THE 10 COMMANDMENTS (pictured), Heston was not a genre star, but he is well remembered to fans of cinefantastique for headlining a trio of science-fiction films that helped defined the genre in the late 1960s and early 1970s: PLANET OF THE APES (1968), THE OMEGA MAN (1971) and SOYLENT GREEN (1973). Other genre roles include THE AWAKENING (1980), IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1995), and SOLAR CRISIS (1990). He also appeared in such borderline genre efforts as THE NAKED JUNGLE (1954), EARTHQUAKE (1975), and TRUE LIES (1994).
Heston imposing physique and stern good looks made him virtually the perfect embodiment of White Male Authority. In the world of cinema, which relies more on images than dialogue, his mere appearance was the perfect short-hand, instantly establishing him as the reliable hero who could overcome any dire situation. This personal served him equally well whether he was playing Moses, Ben Hur, El Cid, or the Last Man on Earth.
His first brush with science-fiction and horror came in 1954’s THE NAKED JUNGLE, the film version of Carl Stephenson’s short story “Leiningen vs the Ants,” in which a colonial plantation owner fends off his property from an invasion of soldado ants, “a monster twenty miles long and two miles wide…forty square miles of agonizing death!” Produced by George Pal and directed by Bryon Haskin, the team behind the 1953 classic THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, NAKED JUNGLE establishes the persona and conservative credentials that would become Heston’s trademark in later years. As Leiningen, Heston declares that he has a moral obligation not to abandon his planatation to the ants, because if he leaves, the local natives he employs will inevitbly revert back to savagery. Talk about White Man’s Burden!
1956’s THE 10 COMMANDMENTS brought Heston his most famous role: Moses, the Law-Giver. Although based on the Old Testament, producer Cecil B. DeMille’s epic plays more like a mythical fantasy film, filled with colorful special effects to represent the various miracles and plagues that Moses calls down upon Egypt to convince Pharoah (Yul Brenner) to release the Jewish slaves. This culminates in the memorable parting of the Red Sea, one of cinema’s most spectacular moments. More spectacular than the visual effects is that Heston sells the scene as an actor.
In 1958, Heston starred in one of the great film noirs, TOUCH OF EVIL, earning the undying gratitude of film fans everywhere when he insisted that Orson Welles, originally hired only to co-star, be allowed to direct the film as well. Considering Heston’s later conservative politics, it is amusing today to hear his character, Mexican policeman Mike Vargas, mouth liberal sentiments regarding restraints upon police authority.
Another Hollywood religious epic, BEN HUR (1959) brought Heston an Oscar for Best Actor. Decades later, the film found itself retroactively embraced by gay film critics and historians when uncredited screenwriter Gore Vidal claimed that he had, unknown to Heston, inserted a gay subtext in the film. The whimsical and witty and liberal Vidal was probably making a joke at the conservative Heston’s expense. Nothing in the script suggests homo-erotic undertones; the only hint of this comes from the performance of Stephen Boyd, who plays Messala as if he were a frustrated would-be lover of Ben Hur. Heston continued his association with religious epics with a cameo part as John the Baptist 1975’s THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, and he recreated the voice of his Oscar-winning role in a 2003 animated version of BEN HUR, made for television.
1968 landed Heston on the PLANET OF THE APES. Adapted by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling from the novel by Pierre Boulle, the film stands as one of the best depictions ever of an astronaut finding himself stranded on an alien world, in this case one ruled by intelligent apes who dominate humans. There is a justifiably famous twist ending (similar to the ending of one of Serling’s TWILIGHT ZONE episodes) that the 2001 remake failed – as in all other areas - to match. As a favor to the producers, Heston (who disliked sequels) recreated his role as George Taylor for a cameo in the 1969 sequel BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES. He also made an unbilled appearance in Tim Burton’s remake, playing the elder of the ape tribe.
THE OMEGA MAN (1971) was another version of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, previously filmed in 1964 as THE LAST MAN ON EARTH with Vincent Price. Heston played Robert Neville, a military scientist immune to bio-chemical weapons that turn the rest of the population into albino mutants. Unlike the source novel, whose point is that normalcy is defined by the majority, Heston’s character remains the unequivocal standard of of old guard authority, whose rightness is unquestioned. The film makes an attempt to seem relevant to 1970s audiences by including a black woman and what looks vaguely like a commune of human survivors, but despite their counter-culture appearance they all bow down to Neville’s authority.
1973’s SOYLENT GREEN rounded out Heston’s sci-fi trilogy. A topical film, focusing on the prevalent concerns at the time about pollution and over-population, SOYLENT GREEN depicts an over-crowded future when the diminishing food supply leads to an alternative called “Soylent Green.” A murder-mystery with Heston as Detective Robert Thorn, the film turns into a conspiracy story that leads to a revelation about the nature of Soylent Green – a surprise finale quite as memorable as the one in PLANET OF THE APES, delivered in Heston’s outraged cry of “Soylent Green is…!”
Heston found work in disaster films during the ’70s. His stable, strong appearance was the perfect counterpoint to the frenzied action of SKYJACKED (1972), EARTHQUAKE (1974), and AIRPORT 1975 (1975, of course). Though not a particularly solid film dramatically, EARTHQUAKE stands as a sort of time capsule of the era. Seen over three decades later, the film seems to present a weird alternate reality, back when White People ruled Los Angeles, and minorities were lucky to receive a token appearance.
As the ’70s ended, Heston’s star faded somewhat. His larger than life persona was out of fashion in an era increasingly dominated by the likes of Everyman actors like Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson. During the 1980s and 1990s, Heston found work on television, in night time soaps like THE COLBYS and DYNASTY. He appeared in the “Abalon” episode of SEAQUEST DSV (1994) and in the “Final Appeal” episode of THE OUTER LIMITS (2000). One of his last starring roles was as Sherlock Homes in the made-for-television THE CRUCIFER OF BLOOD (1991).
During this time, film work continued, if not quite as top notch as before. Heston starred in 1980’s THE AWAKENING. Although based on Bram Stoker’s novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars (previously filmed by Hammer as BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB), the film came across more like a belated attempt to cash in on THE OMEN. MOTHER LOAD (1982), in which Heston played a crazed hermit harassing a couple who stumble upon his gold mine, was not a horror film, but it utilized an overload of horror shtick (e.g., dead bodies popping up in dark places).
In later films, Heston began to appear in supporting parts, where his famliar face lent a touch of distinction to roles that were not necessarily fleshed out in the script. He was Admiral Skeet Kelso in SOLAR CRISIS, an ill-fated sci-fi opus from 1990, and he was Spencer Trilby, head of a secret spy organization in James Cameron’s TRUE LIES. He also played publisher Jackson Harglow in the John Carpenter-directed IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, a very interesting horror film that failed to find much of an audience when it was released in 1995. He narrated Disney’s HERCULES (1997) and Michael Bay’s ARMAGEDDON (1998).
Heston’s last widely seen film appearance was as himself in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE. According to the Internet Movie Database, Heston’s last film was the obscure MY FATHER, RU ALGUEM. Thomas Kretschmann played a young orphan, searching for his father, who turns out to be Mengele (Heston), the notorious real-life Nazi doctor, who was previously fictionalized in THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. F. Murray Abraham co-starred.
More than a movie star, Heston was a great actor. Even in later years, when he was more known as a mouthpiece for right-wing politics and as the president of the NRA, his onscreen skills demanded respect even from liberals who might have violently disagreed with his opinions. (His brief turn as the Player King in Kenneth Branagh’s version of HAMLET, will bring tears to the eyes even of non-Shakespeare fans.) Sadly, his conservative conviction sometimes upstaged his better judgment: in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, when Michael Moore confronts him over his controversial decision to head a pro-gun rally in Michigan shortly after the infamous shootings, Heston makes a bizarre remark, to the effect that violence in America is the really result of racial miscegenation; then he cuts himself off and storms out when Moore suggests that he may owe an apology to the families of the Columbine victims
Although Heston probably did not want to be typecast in the public imagination as a science-fiction star, he took his genre roles as seriously as any of this other work, bringing a conviction that elevated them a notch above typical fare (an important achievement at a time before STAR WARS, when much cinematic sci-fi was low-budget junk). As a performer, he could be stiff and mechanical, but more often than not he filled the screen in a way that few actors can do. As Mike Clark wrote in USA Today:
Put him in a comic or conventional romantic role that any relaxed B-lister could ace, and he could appear stiff and even pompous. But give him a role that was littered with minefields or even nearly unplayable, and he could give you a movie Moses, Ben-Hur or El Cid for the ages.
Read Michale Wilmington’s obituary for Heston, “Born for the Screen“
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