I, Legend

”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.

Then follow the apocalyptic heroes of Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man (based on novelist Richard Matheson’s vampire fable I Am Legend), Soylent Green and Earthquake. Throughout it all, Heston remains defiantly obsolete as both a character and as an actor -- the leading man who never made the emotional leap from hero to anti-hero. As acting styles and film aesthetics have passed him by, he has become something like a town-square war statue that now slightly embarrasses the citizens it once inspired. Heston‘s appeal has never lain with cineastes and trendsetters, however, but with a public that remains inspired by town-square statues.

When asked about all this, Heston shrugs and says, ”It’s possible.“ What he really finds fascinating and alarming is the indifference of Hollywood actors toward the stage.

”I am amazed,“ he says, ”that almost all of the major American film actors of our time will not do a play. Will not do a play. What are they worried about, that they‘re not going to get another picture? I mean, come on!“ The stage is where Heston got his start before making the leap to television and Hollywood, and he clearly loves it, having played Macbeth eight times. Which may explain his respect for his British colleagues, for whom theater is life. ”Brits tend to be the better actors,“ he says, ”because they’ve had more training, more experience. And they don‘t have the fucking Method!“

Today, of course, Heston’s name provokes more controversy for his politics than his acting or views on the theater. He particularly raises the fur on liberals‘ backs because of his leadership of the National Rifle Association and his outspoken support of conservative ”traditional values“ after being a Hollywood Democrat for much of his career. His successful campaign to get Time Warner to drop rapper Ice-T because of the latter’s ”Cop Killer“ song hasn‘t exactly endeared him to civil libertarians, either. a

”Barbra Streisand doesn’t understand the Bill of Rights,“ is the closest he comes to making a political statement this morning. In fact, the one condition set for the Weekly‘s interview with Heston was that no questions be asked him about guns or other weapons. Which is probably just as well, for while Streisand’s grasp of the Second Amendment may be debated, most Americans feel they know a school-yard massacre when they see one, and over the past few years they‘ve been seeing more than they care to.

It should, nevertheless, be remembered that in the early ’60s Heston opened the door for Martin Luther King Jr. to meet with International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees leaders in order to convince the notoriously nepotistic craft union to allow blacks into it; later, Heston headed up the Hollywood delegation to the 1963 March on Washington. He‘s also supported down-on-their-luck artists and in 1957 persuaded Universal to hire Orson Welles to direct and star in Touch of Evil at a time when the erratic auteur was considered spent plutonium by the studios. And it was Heston who kicked back his salary from Major Dundee to Columbia in a successful gambit to dissuade the studio from firing the film’s director, Sam Peckinpah.

Heston has, ultimately, been a risk taker throughout his life and has made a kind of secondary career internationally performing the role of Captain Queeg in Herman Wouk‘s play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (a 1988 production of which he directed in Beijing), even though, uncharacteristically, ”Queeg is a weak, terrible man.“

Yet it’s the square-jawed types with whom we will always associate Heston. ”I think the historical figures are more interesting than the rest,“ he says, referring to the hero of The President‘s Lady. ”Andrew Jackson was a tough son of a bitch, a modest leader as president. But the center of his life -- and it’s not true for many presidents -- was his wife. I understand that, I have a good relationship with my wife. [He‘s been married to Lydia Clarke Heston for 57 years.] Henry VIII could have been a great, great king, but he deteriorated and became too involved with women and jousting and stuff like that. Yes -- he was the Clinton of his time!“

Up on the cool, green ridge where he expects to die (”unless I fall off a horse in Pakistan or something“), Heston seems somewhat removed from news of the world below. Upon hearing that Lindsay Crouse is performing in an Irish play in Westwood, he asks, ”Is she related to Russell Crouse?“ And, told about some of the negotiations that may lead to strikes by the Writers Guild and by the Screen Actors Guild that he headed for six terms (”Longer than Reagan“), he replies that the writers’ demand to be on film sets during shooting was okay with a good writer like Ben-Hur‘s Christopher Fry, ”but if you’ve got Gore Vidal on the set, you‘re in trouble -- I would not do a film with him on the set.“

Although he may seem an anachronism to much of Hollywood, Heston exhales an infectuous enthusiasm for the future, even embracing the brave new technologies that have spooked many a young actor and which, this morning, are being haggled over by the studios and the guilds. ”Television, after all, was once this new thing that only 10 actors were involved in.“ Then he pauses thoughtfully: ”I don’t think I‘d like to be put into a video game though.“

”Larger Than Life: A Tribute to Charlton Heston in Person“ begins at the American Cinematheque on March 16. For details, see Film & Video listing in Calendar.


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