Monday, April 7, 2008

Charlton Heston, RIP

I haven’t been blogging of late, thanks to a hectic work schedule and the worst head cold I’ve experienced in many years, but I had to take a few moments to pen a few words on the occasion of the passing of one of my favorite actors, Charlton Heston.

Far better writers than I can address his particular appeal. One of the best can be found here:

He will go down in film history as one of the true icons of cinema, because he was an original. Like all the great legendary screen figures, i.e. Flynn, Astaire, Bogart, John Wayne, Bette Davis, etc., he dominated his particular forte – in Heston’s case spectacles – and ruled in that genre. Many screen spectacles are so vast in production that the actors get lost amidst all those castles and coliseums.

But Heston’s larger-than-life persona anchored those productions. While never convincing playing the everyman, and he could often be awkward and out of place in intimate love scenes, he excelled at playing the great men of history.

Politics aside, I always enjoyed the man and his performances. I happen to enjoy spectacles, those cast of thousands epics which take us back to other times, and Heston was the perfect guide. No elaborate backstory was required where Heston’s characters were concerned. One had no doubt that El Cid could unite medieval Spain, or that Ben-Hur would engage in a life or death chariot race to avenge his family’s honor in ancient Rome.

Despite his roles in spectacles, Heston always favored his performance in “Will Penny” (1968) as his favorite and I would have to concur. In that film, he plays an illiterate, middle-aged cowboy who finds himself falling in love for the first time with a widow (Joan Hackett). The film’s final scenes are devastating as Penny realizes he can never offer her the life she needs. It’s a beautiful film to watch, and Heston is marvelously low key in it. You believe he is a lonely saddle tramp without much to show for his life.

That same year Heston played, with equal success, in one of his biggest hits “Planet of the Apes.” His portrayal of Taylor is every bit as good as Will Penny’s, and every bit as different. Taylor holds all of mankind of contempt and is harsh and unforgiving, a far cry from Will Penny’s humble manner. One year, two performances, both great and both very, very different.

I had two personal encounters with Heston, one in person and one on the radio. In the mid 1970s he was making a personal appearance to herald the opening of the new B. Dalton bookstore in downtown Chicago. The appearance was before publication of his first book, “The Actor’s Life” and he no doubt wanted to earn the good graces of the nation’s booksellers. Plus, he likely took the gig as another opportunity to visit his mother, who still lived in the area.

The place was mobbed but I worked my way up to the front of the line where he was autographing pictures. I already had two Heston autographs that I received in the mail so passed on the ones he was handing out that day. I just wanted the opportunity to meet the man. He was extremely tall (various sources peg him at 6 feet 2 to 6 feet 6), very gracious and with the bluest pair of eyes I’ve ever seen.

I told him how much I enjoyed his performance in “Will Penny” and hoped it was now getting the reputation it deserved. He said, “I wish that as many people that now say that had seen it when it first came out, but it’s very gratifying.” Then I asked if he was still going to do the Robert E. Lee biopic it was rumored he was going to star in. He said he didn’t think so, as they were having trouble raising the funding for it, but he would like the opportunity to play Lee.

Not much, but it was a big thrill for me. He was one of the first big celebrities I met and he could not have been nicer.

Flash forward ahead quite a few years and he was making an appearance on the WGN-AM radio show “Extension 720” to promote his autobiography “In the Arena.” (A marvelous read, by the way). As faithful readers of this blog know, a particular interest of mine is film scores and I was interested to get Heston’s take on this subject.

I talked to the producer who screens the calls and he must have liked my question, because he put me on the air. I said something like, “Mr. Heston, I would have to say that your movies have had more classic, superior musical scores written for them than any other actor. You’ve always received marvelous musical support.”

He said, “Oh, yes, I agree. I’ve always maintained that without Elmer Bernstein’s music, “The Ten Commandments” would not be the film classic it is.” He also cited Jerome Moross’ music for “The Big Country” (1956) as one of the greatest western scores of all time.

I then asked how he felt, as an actor, about the role of music in movies and did his opinion change after he became a director. He said, “Oh no, not at all. I learned very early on in my career that while a good music score could not save a bad movie, a good score can greatly improve a movie to make it a more memorable experience.”

Of course, he’s dead right, and he often noted Miklos Rozsa’s and Jerry Goldsmith’s contributions to his movies. How refreshing to see an actor understand the importance of quality musical support, a far contrast to today’s pea-brain actors who want to plug onto the soundtracks of their movies whatever indie band is playing on their Ipod at the moment.

No other actor ever wore period costumes with such comfort. It’s often been said that Heston was always more comfortable in any century but the 20th. To those who have enjoyed his performances as El Cid, Ben-Hur, Moses, General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, Cardinal Richelieu, Michelangelo, Thomas More, Long John Silver, and yes, even a credible Sherlock Holmes, the Heston magic will live on. There is nobody to replace Charlton Heston.

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