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I, Legend 

A morning with Charlton Heston

Wednesday, Mar 14 2001
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”I love this ridge -- I‘m going to die here.“

Charlton Heston looks out over the green drapery of hill and meadow as he has thousands of times since he bought his three acres of Coldwater Canyon in the 1950s, although today he seems to be experiencing the view for the very first time. His home is one of those Los Angeles aeries where mortality is planned and Catalina glimpsed, a tribute to success and a rebuttal to the coarse tumult of life below. This morning is the first break in a week of rain, and the air is brisk, the sky blue -- as blue, one might be tempted to say, as Heston’s eyes.

The 76-year-old actor and Second Amendment activist had hip surgery two years ago and ambles slowly about his grounds before settling into a chair inside a rec room filled with chess sets, coffee mugs, testimonial plaques and a mismatched collection of promotional beer glasses. Sunlight pours through a big plate-glass window of this room that looks onto the tennis court where Heston has rehearsed many a sword fight. A large portrait of the actor as Cardinal Richelieu from The Three Musketeers presides over the adjoining weight room and sauna.

”I‘ve played cardinals and presidents, tyrants, kings and geniuses,“ he muses, a boast that would hang loosely on the shoulders of most actors, but which fits Heston like a wet suit. To claim you know his career is to begin a process of realizing just how little you’ve seen of it. His list of credits is less a filmography than a media-library catalog, stretching from the title role in a 16mm student production of Peer Gynt to a cameo in Tim Burton‘s upcoming Planet of the Apes. In between are 60 years of films about war, art and the American West, with a notable detour into the Sinai.

”I love pretending to be people, that’s what I do,“ he says simply. ”I get to travel all over the world and get paid a ridiculous sum of money to do what I would do free. I certainly have no complaints.“

Among the things you notice about Heston close up are the hawk nose (broken in some long-ago high school football game) and how well he listens -- or at least appears to, which, anyway, is half the task of being an effective actor. He also savors his cup of caffeine. ”I‘ve learned a few things in my life,“ he says in the first of many aphoristic observations, ”and one of them is that you cannot make a movie or fight a war without coffee.“

Interviewers always feel a little cheated when their subject rattles off anecdote after funny anecdote that they have just read in published memoirs. Still, how can one demand that Heston disclose a heretofore unpublicized life? Besides, his stories are now the stuff of Hollywood lore: the time he accidentally punched ex-wrestler Mike Mazurki during the former’s first Hollywood movie, William Dieterle‘s Dark City, with the friendly giant picking the green Heston up and assuring, ”Don’t worry, kid, you ain‘t got much of a punch anyway“; the way he got Fox to leave in the seemingly profane line ”God damn you, God damn you all to hell!“ in the original Planet of the Apes by explaining to Dick Zanuck that his character, Taylor, wasn’t really swearing but calling on God to destroy those who had destroyed the world.

And, then again, Heston must also hear the same interview questions week in and week out; he groans, for example, when Gore Vidal‘s screenwriting role in Ben-Hur invariably arises. (”Poor Gore’s been chewing on this for 40 years!“) And, in a career as long and legendary as his, Heston has seen a lot to be interviewed about. ”I came into film just on the cusp of when the old studio system was ending,“ he says, ”just ahead of me were Paul Newman and Burt Lancaster. The studio system was oligarchic, it was huge and it worked very well then, creating film as the art form of the 20th century.“

Inevitably, Heston has come to embody a particular heroic vision of that century, and it isn‘t too much to say that his more famous roles reflect our changing definitions of heroism and masculinity -- to say nothing of American society. If, in the depths of the Cold War, he appears as the rugged individual redeeming the mob -- Moses, Judah Ben-Hur, El Cid -- by the 1970s he is the rugged individual struggling to survive the mob. (Forget Michael Douglas -- Heston would have been the perfect lead in Falling Down.)

The turning point comes roughly in the middle of the ’60s, in some of Heston‘s historical epics. In hindsight you can discern omens of our own imperial dementia in Chinese Gordon’s look of mad satisfaction as he descends the steps to his death in Khartoum, or when Heston‘s Yankee officer crosses the Rio Grande in Major Dundee -- two glimpses of Anglo-Saxon saviors made insane by destiny and reckless by necessity.

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