By Ray Bennett
LONDON – Charlton Heston, who was born on this day in 1923, was as stiff in person as he invariably was onscreen. He had not yet become a shill for the National Rifle Association when we spoke but I knew he had veered from his early liberal views to support right-wing Republicans. He took himself very seriously in both acting and political activism so I asked him if he would ever run for office.
‘I certainly take advantage of the forum my public indentity allows me,’ he said. ‘In this country, we’re allowed to do that and I thank God for it. I have resisted people who have asked me to run for the Senate and that is a final decision now. I think I just like acting better. I can make my voice heard fairly effectively. I spoke of the public forum I have access to; more than most of my fellow citizens. I seriously considered running for office. I was pulled and tugged and urged to but I would rather play a senator than be one.’
I spoke to him in 1985 on the set of the ‘Dynasty’ spin-off series ‘The Colbys’ where he played billionaire Jason Colby with a cast that included Tracy Scoggins, Barbara Stanwyck, Stephanie Beacham and John James (top photo). I was happier meeting the legendary Stanwyck briefly but I was there to speak to Heston. He had won the Oscar as best actor for ‘Ben-Hur’ and appeared in many fine pictures including the ‘Three Musketeers’ films in which director Richard Lester managed to get him to have fun as Cardinal Richelieu (pictured below)..
Seated casually just off the soundstage, I asked him why television, why now? ‘I think the thing that draws an actor to almost any project is a good part,’ he replied sonorously. ‘Jason Colby is a very rich man and as with many of my characters, both the biographical and the fictional, he is an authority figure. I’ve played kings and cardinals, quarterbacks and cops, presidents and whatnot. I think the easiest way to sum him up is a line I got from Sam Peckinpah when I worked with him on “Major Dundee”. Sam said his grandfather used to say he liked to go through his own front door every night justified. That’s a good summary of the part.’
He went on, ‘I’ve played a lot of men of achievement. I’ve played genuinely great men, extraordinary men, historical figures. Each is different from the others … Michelangelo from Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson from Mark Anthony or Henry VIII. But I think they have two things in common and this is true of Jason Colby. They all have extraordinary energy and the capacity to focus on a single goal.’
I asked which of his many film directors he enjoyed working with the most: ‘Well, enjoyment is the wrong word,’ he said. ‘I don’t rate a director by how I much I enjoyed working with him. In fact, if it’s fun for you, you probably aren’t gonna get a good picture. The only exception I would to that would be Orson Welles (‘Touch of Evil’, above) who is of course beyond question a remarkable director. He was able to make it fun but that’s the only exception. Making a picture for William Wyler (‘Ben-Hur’) was not fun, I’ll tell you that. He was a relentless craftsman and one of those men we were talking about with inordinate energy and the capacity to focus it.’
I had met Charlton Heston once before in the mid-Seventies when he was with a bunch of other celebrities at the Hiram-Walker distillery in Walkerville, Windsor, in connection with a charity tennis tournament across the river in Detroit, Michigan.
Guests were on the lawn outside the Hiram-Walker Reception Centre when Heston looked up at some flagpoles and saw the Soviet Union’s hammer-and-sickle flying next to Canada’s maple leaf.
Immediately, he began fuming and made it clear loudly that he did not want anything to do with some damned communist flag. Hiram-Walker’s smooth and capable P.R. man, my friend Al Milne, reminded the star gently but firmly that he was not in the United States and Canada did business with the Soviets. Heston growled, ‘I hope the stars and stripes are flying too’ and Al assured him Old Glory was elsewhere on the grounds.