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April 6, 2008
RIP Charlton Heston
Actor and conservative political advocate Charlton Heston died yesterday at the age of 83. A former president of the National Rifle Association, Heston's political advocacy stirred up plenty of controversy once he abandoned Hollywood liberalism in the early 1980's and began stumping for conservative causes.
But, of course, it was his career as one of the greatest movie actors of all time that he will most be remembered:
Mr. Heston’s screen presence was so commanding that he was never dominated by mammoth sets, spectacular effects or throngs of spear-waving extras. In his films, whether playing Buffalo Bill, an airline pilot, a naval captain or the commander of a spaceship, he essentially projected the same image — muscular, steely-eyed, courageous. If critics regularly used terms like “marble-monumental” or “granitic” to describe his acting style, they just as often praised his forthright, no-nonsense characterizations. There are many times over the years I have seen an historical figure portrayed on film and wished they had cast Charlton Heston instead. Heston filled up the screen with his dominant personality and whenever I see George Washington on film I find the portrayal lacking in stature. Heston may have been the only American who ever lived who could do justice to Washington's presence when in a crowd which was said to be electric and humbling. It's a shame he never played our first president.
After his success in “The Ten Commandments,” Mr. Heston tried a change of pace. Another legendary Hollywood director, Orson Welles, cast him as a Mexican narcotics investigator in the thriller “Touch of Evil,” in which Welles himself played a murderous sheriff in a border town. Also starring Janet Leigh and Marlene Dietrich, the film, a modest success when it opened in 1958, came to be accepted as a noir classic.
But the following year Mr. Heston stepped back into the world of the biblical epic, this time under the director William Wyler. The movie was “Ben-Hur.” Cast as a prince of ancient Judea who rebels against the rule of Rome, Mr. Heston again dominated the screen. In the film’s most spectacular sequence, he and his co-star, Stephen Boyd, as his Roman rival, fight a thrilling duel with whips as their horse-drawn chariots careen wheel-to-wheel around an arena filled with roaring spectators.
“Ben-Hur” won 11 Academy Awards — a record at the time — including those for best picture, best director and, for Mr. Heston, best actor.
Heston is one of the last of the great Hollywood movie stars of the 50's and 60's. His passing is a reminder of what movies used to be and will probably never be again; epic journeys into the human imagination.