Frontlines

Charlton Heston: more than just a granite jaw

Hubert de Santana December 18 1978
Frontlines

Charlton Heston: more than just a granite jaw

Hubert de Santana December 18 1978

Charlton Heston: more than just a granite jaw

He was Moses on Mount Sinai, shielding his eyes while the Almighty, looking like an outsize, out-ofcontrol blowtorch, branded the Ten Commandments on a nearby rock. He was John the Baptist, Ben Hur, El Cid, Michelangelo, Macbeth, Mark Antony, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. But the man who played those legendary roles in film or on the stage is in Toronto not as an actor but as an author. Charlton Heston has just published The Actor’s Life: Journals 19561976, and he is in town to promote the book.

Heston emerges from the bedroom of his luxurious hotel suite in a navy-blue track suit, the top partly unzipped to reveal pectorals the size of inverted soup plates. His feet are bare and gnarled as manzanita burl. The 54-yearold actor is six-feet two-inches tall, weighs more than 200 pounds, and looks sensationally fit. He has had a gruelling day signing books by the score, at one point being mobbed by crowds chanting, “Heston, Heston,” but he shows no signs, of fatigue.

Heston has the beautiful, modulated voice of the trained actor and talks with Gaelic fluency (he is of Scottish descent). He appears to be totally relaxed and self-assured, cradling a drink in his hand, but his glittering, recessed bluegrey eyes are watchful. His smile is slow and wide, and very disarming. The jaw is like granite; Jennifer Jones broke her hand when she slapped his face in Ruby Gentry.

The role of author is an unfamiliar one for Heston. “My ego has been much involved in this book,” he says. “This is probably the only book I’m ever going to write. With a play or a film, other people are involved in it, and you can always blame them. A book is more totally a personal undertaking.”

If Heston has other misgivings about the book, he keeps them to himself. It is likely to become a best-seller because it carries the Heston name, but it consists of little more than the sparse day-today jottings of a dedicated, hardworking actor, and the paucity of detail

sometimes makes for dull reading. But Heston writes movingly of his muchloved wife Lydia and children, Fraser, 23, and Holly Ann, 17. Readers who expect to find in these pages the glamor and gossip associated with movie-making will be disappointed. Heston explains why: “I am at pains to specify that it is a journal rather than a diary, because a diary seems to imply scandalous revelations and deeply personal insights, and this [book] is mostly preoccupied with professional choices.” Charlton Heston was born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1924, and was brought up in the woods of northern Michigan, where his father was manager of a lumber mill. He describes those days as “idyllic, a Tom Sawyer boyhood.” His parents divorced when he was in his teens, and he moved to a suburb of Chicago. Later, he attended Northwestern University, where he nurtured his passion for acting—and met Lydia Clarke, the other passion of his life. She has been his wife for 34 years. After some lean years in Manhattan, Heston landed a supporting role in Antony and Cleopatra in 1948, with Katherine Cornell. “I

think I got the part because of my size,” he says in the book. “Miss Cornell was very tall and she liked big men in her company.” There followed a string of roles in live TV before he was given his first lead in films, in Dark City in 1950. Heston was paid $400 for each of his TV roles. For the past 20 years, he has commanded a six-figure salary for each of his films, plus a percentage of the gross.

Yet for all his intelligence, sensitivity and conscientiousness, Heston is not a great actor and remains dissatisfied with all his performances. He is often unable to project emotion or tension, and most of his characters tend to be portrayed as stone-faced, humorless heroes. It is his majestic physical presence that makes Heston one of the most bankable stars in the business. “De Mille said to me more than once that one of the reasons he cast me as Moses was my physical resemblance to Michelangelo’s statue. Whenever he closed his eyes he saw me as Moses.” Nevertheless his acting has been taken seriously enough to garner for him an Academy Award (for Ben Hur), a German Bambi, an Italian David di Donatello, and three Belgian Uilenspiegels.

Heston is a purist. He studied the Dead Sea Scrolls and read theology before playing Moses. His hands were callused for months when he was learning to drive a chariot for Ben Hur. He pushed a plastic noodle up his nose to get it out of joint when he took on the

role of Michelangelo. “That’s not suffering,” he insists. “Actors are enchanted with undergoing various physical discomforts in the service of their art. Failure is suffering.”

“Chuck” Heston is a far more complex man than his screen image would suggest. He served six times as president of the Screen Actors Guild and is chairman of the American Film Institute. In 1961, long before it was fashionable, he supported the black struggle for civil rights and took part in a demonstration in Oklahoma City. In August, 1963, he joined the civil rights march on the Capitol. “It was one of the great days of my life,” he says, “it was a shining time to be in Washington then.”

Heston has now made more than 50 films, but increasingly he has been drawn to rubbishy money-spinners instead of the great roles (especially in Shakespeare) that he relishes. “Obviously the films I’ve done in recent years have been largely oriented toward huge commercial success. This ensures my viability as an actor and also allows me to do the great parts on the stage. I have to think in commercial terms enough to stay employable.” It is a quandary from which there is no easy escape. One is left with an image of him as Prometheus chained to the rock of his fame, his vitals gnawed at by his thwarted perfectionism. An image of heroic failure. Hubert de Santana