Sunday, April 06, 2008

Charlton Heston


Charlton Heston, manly-man actor who starred in many of the screen epics of the 50's and 60's, passed away Saturday night at age 84. He had been battling Alzheimer's disease for the past several years.

Heston, a graduate of Northwestern University, made his way to New York after a stint in the Army Air Force in World War II. He struggled on Broadway, but had better luck in the movies where he was first noticed playing a circus manager in Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 flick The Greatest Show On Earth. In 1956, when casting The Ten Commandments, DeMille remembered the jut-jawed, muscular Heston and decided he was the perfect actor to portray his Moses. The Ten Commandments became a huge success and propelled Heston into a career of portraying virile, larger-than-life characters in some of the most spectacular productions of the day, including Ben-Hur, El Cid, The Agony And The Ecstasy and Khartoum. His portrayal of the rebel Jewish leader Judah Ben-Hur won Heston an Academy Award. In later years Heston specialized in sci-fi epics such as Planet Of The Apes and Soylent Green.

As his acting career waned, Heston became involved in politics. Like Ronald Reagan, Heston served as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and also like Reagan, he switched his political affiliation from Democratic to Republican as he aged. In the 60's, Heston participated in civil rights demonstrations, but was best known in later years for his hard-boiled conservatism and his uncompromising stance in favor of gun rights. He was such an effective spokesman for gun owners that in 1998 he was elected president of the National Rifle Association. He stirred controversy in 2000 when at the NRA convention, he raised a rifle above his head and announced that Presidential candidate Al Gore would have to pry it "from his cold, dead hands".

Ben-Hur is one of my dad's all-time favorite movies. Mom used to dread when it came on, because she never cared much for Charlton Heston, and because she knew that the TV would be tied up all night. I've never been able to sit through all of Ben-Hur myself, even as an adult. I've gotta say, though, that they don't make chariot races like they used to.