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Charlton Heston: he'd rather pretend than be president.

In a presidential election year, a prominent actor is always fair game for this question:

Charlton Heston, if you were drafted to run for President, would you? From where we sit, you've already played all the most coveted roles to perfection. What's ahead?

Would you be President?

His answer is short, a quick "No."

Would you ever be active in politics at all?

"I have been President of the United States three times!" he says with a laugh.

"I have been approached about running for the Senate, I believe, for both parties. I guess they call that the hat trick. The reason for that is that I have never been a member of either party. I have always been an independent. And so I can answer the question after consideration, because I went through this whole process some time ago. I don't have what politicians call the 'fire in the belly' about doing that kind of work. You have to have it to do that kind of work. I recognize the importance of the U.S. Senate, the vital role the men sitting in it play in our country's government. But I don't have that kind of commitment. i like pretending to be other people. I would rather play Andrew Jackson again or Thomas Jefferson than be President."

You don't think I play my part in the public process. Heaven knows, I shoot my mouth off all the time and have, as do all the performers and actors, an unusual, if you like unfair, access to the public forum. If I want to talk about some public issue I get to go on television. I have taken a very public part in the political process on behalf of candidates from both parties all the way back to Adlai Stevenson back in 1952, which was about the first time I had enough public identity to make it worth my while, and I have served in appointive offices for Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan.

"Political leadership requires a performance," he says. "Politicians are comfortable calling it communication, but it is performance. You think Winston Churchill rallied the world in World War II because of the force of his ideas? No--he was an effective performer. He could inspire people. The same is true of de Gaulle. De Gaulle was a minority of one after the fall of France. He had no constituency whatever, but the sheer force of his personality propelled him eventually to the presidency of France. The same thing is true of Mark Antony, Caesar and Napoleon. Of course it is performance."

How do you feel about Jane Fonda's political activities?

"Well, she has political convictions which she as a citizen has a right to promote. I can't challenge the sincerity of her convictions. I can challenge the accuracy of her statements, but, you know, when I was charging around the country in the early '60s demonstrating for civil rights, a lot of people got sore about that, too--not so many, though. But you in this country have a right to do that. It is true that actors and athletes have an unfair shot at having their voices heard. And if you disagree with what they are saying, why not get sore at them? But that is the kind of country we have. And thank goodness for it! I disagree strongly with almost all the positions, but old Voltaire had it right, you know. You only get a chance."

What do you think of the prayer-in-school controversy? That's something we haven't heard you voice an opinion on.

"Well, I understand the theory behind the opposition," he says. "But at the same time the United States Senate opens each session with a prayer. The Pledge of Allegiance refers to a nation under God, and though our cultural and religious diversity has been expanded enormously in 200 years, we still were founded as a Christian country. I think some more effective compromise could be arrived at than the impasse that we seem to be dealing with now."

When we had arrived for our nine o'clock appointment, charlton Heston had flung open the door and said, "Hello, I'm Chuck Heston." There was no mistaking this lithe, commanding figure in open-neck blue shirt and faded jeans, or the face that Heston himself has said "belongs to another century." The deep, resonant voice suits the figure well, although he told us that the voice was tired from having done a matinee and an evening performance of Detective Story (with Mariette Hartley) the night before.

The Heston's stone-and-glass house straddling a high ridge in Cold Water Canyon has been called foreboding. Heston describes it as "medieval modern" and refers to it as "the house that Ben-Hur built."

Perhaps the huge doors with knobs come from the sets of Ben-Hur, and the inside is all baronial wood, and the sword from El Cid hangs on a wall. We wouldn't know. Nor can we confirm that, for two years after the Hestons moved in, it was impossible to avoid the Ben-Hur sound track piped through ten miles of wiring to every point in the house and grounds, including the steam room.

One of Heston's friends, after looking down at Los Angeles from the Heston's vantage point, is said to have observed, "it's a hell of a place to pour boiling oil on them from."

We got no farther than the wall of old prints and meticulous pen-and-ink sketches by our host than he ushered us down the hall, out the door, past a carport shielding two sports cars from the California sun and into an adjoining glass-front building facing the tennis court. Is it on the court that the actor maintains the trim figure that belies his 60 years?

"Well, my Scotch-Protestant background tells me that anything that is fun isn't good for you," he said with a laugh. "So I don't count tennis, although I do play a lot. How do I keep in shape? Endless work. And I work out every morning. I jogged for an hour before you got here."

Then we were out on a wind-swept boardwalk leading to still another structure. While Heston returned to the main house to find the right key, we looked out across the unpopulated valley. The Hestons need not be concerned that the neighborhood will go to pot. Their house is the neighborhood.

"We are surrounded by 800 acres of water-development property," Heston said upon his return. he opened the door to a room whose ambience smacks of relaxation, hobby and stolen hours of togetherness.

Heston gestured toward the well-lighted lower level of the split-level structure: "That's my wife's studio down there." A glance aroung the more somber, somewhat cluttered upper section and he added, "We can talk down there."

Looking at Heston across the coffee table, we could easily identify the lean, 6'3", 207-pound frame with the many movers and shakers of history he has brought to life upon the stage or screen. What challenges the imagination is that the man who to us is John Jefferson and Moses actually grew up a shy little boy in the backwoods settlement of St. Helen, Michigan.

We said that we had fished Lake St. Helen many times.

"You have? For gosh sake! I haven't fished there in years. I own one of those lakes now. Russell Lake. It was one of the first things I bought with my movie money. But I don't get up there much.

"I lived there until I was ten. This was all a rustic community then. We didn't have a church. And our school was only one room," he said.

how many children?

"thirteen pupils in eight grades, three of whom were my cousins. I was the only child in my grade."

Was there running water?

"No indoor water. There was a pump in the front yard. I remember I had one of those folding aluminum cups, a telescopic cup. I'm not certain everybody did that, but I had one."

And did he skip some grades by being able to listen to the older kids?

"i didn't skip any grades," Heston said. "But in retrospect, I do think there were two things that were valuable about that experience. On the one hand you could say it was very depriving to be in such a primitive educational environment. On the other hand, there were no distractions. In my case, I had 1/13 of the teacher's time. There are few schools where you get that. The teacher, of course, was a man. He had to chop wood for the stove and carry out the ashes, and there was a lot of snow to be shoveled. I remember two different teachers in the time I was there, although nothing special about them.

"But another advantage of that school experience--the class seldom had more than two students, three at most. Say, sixth-grade geography would go sit on the bench in front. The whole building, you know, wasn't much bigger than this room. About this big, I guess. And the rest of us sat at our desks. So if I wasn't drawing cowboys in my geography book, I listened to what they were talking about. I guess some of it just rubbed off."

Did the drawing of cowboys mean that there were daydreams even then about a character outside the real-life role of the nine-year-old Charlton Heston?

"Well, I had almost no playmates," Heston said. "Of course, there was no television then. There were movies, but the nearest movie was 25 miles away. I remember going to it, but it was not something I did frequently. That was a very special experience. And there was certainly no theater. I remember going to the theater in Chicago, and sometimes when we would go down to visit my grandmother at Christmas, but that was very rare.

"There were books, hunting and fishing and pretend games. When you are nine years old and you are hunting rabbits and you are not seeing any rabbits, it really becomes more interesting to be hunting Blackfeet instead. And Davy Crockett is a more attractive personality than a little nine-year-old boy with his nose running. All kids play pretend games. Or they used to . I imagine they just sit and watch TV now. Children are instinctive actors. And because of the isolated nature of my boyhood, I went on doing it longer than most kids. Which, in a sense, was compounded when we moved to an affluent, very sophisticated city suburb like Winnetka [Illinois].

"I mean, it compounded my shyness. Because when I went to high school, I was certainly not equipped for it socially. Not even physically, especially in sports terms. I went out for football when I got big enough, but that wasn't until my junior year. I had no background for it and I wasn't particularly good at it. The rifle team I could make, because I knew about shooting. And the theater and the acting were there, where I could pretend to be other people; and I had a marvelous time."

So marvelous, in fact, that work in the community theater led to a scholarship to northwestern University, which has one of the country's better acting schools, one that would have been well beyond the reach of one of its most illustrious alumni without financial help. Here, in a particularly fertile period for the school, he came under the tutelage of an outstanding acting teacher and found himself in the company of such promising talents as Patricia Neal and Tony Randall.

Those early years of isolation, are they all behind him now?

"You could say that they are one of the reasons why I play so many biographical parts and, in effect, character parts where I put on false noses and rubber wrinkles and wear wigs and stuff," he said.

Does he, then, hide behind his characters?

"That is not as uncommon as one might think," he said. "That is why a lot of actors act. At least that is why I act."

Before going on, Heston picked up the phone and asked for coffee. He told us he can't make plays or movies without it--it's the lifeblood of those undertakings. This observation led to the question of smoking. He doesn't smoke, yet he claims no virtue as a nonsmoker. Smoking just never appealed to him, he said. In fact, he has always been repelled by it. He added that he has never been sick, essentially eats but one meal a day, sticks to fish and fowl, naps whenever possible and can even fall asleep in the makeup chair.

"People think of performers as gregarious and outgoing mixers," Heston continued. "This is perhaps true of comedians and singers and dancers who present themselves on an individual level to the people in the audience right then and there. But acting is a different thing..."

Yet Heston is certainly no stranger to a live audience. Trained at Northwestern as a stage actor, Charlton Heston began headlining theater marquees with Antony and Cleopatra in 1947. "In those days actors disdained movies as nonserious," he said. "That was before film had been recognized not only as the art form of the 20th century but the American art form, and no student of acting talked about going into the movies."

After Heston's starring roles in Leaf and Bough and Design for a Stained Glass Window, the camera's critical eye began to focus on this shy loner from the backwood of St. Helen. For television, classic followed classic: MacBeth, The Taming of the Shrew, Of Human Bondage, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights. For the screen, box-office blockbusters included The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, El Cid, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Julius Caesar, The Three Musketeers, Airport 1975, Earthquake, Midway. He became the biggest box-office attraction in the history of motion pictures.

So Charlton Heston has an impressive background going for him; today he is the social lion of Hollywood, right? Wrong. Rather, he is said to have few personal friends in the movie community. He has been quoted as saying, "I have maybe five men to whom I feel close enough that I could go to their houses at 3 o'clock in the morning and say, "I just killed someone--quick, give me the keys to your car!'" He is seldom seen along the party circuit and spends little time drinking in nightclubs. Why? Because he has to keep in shape. An agent put it another way: "If you had a party going, with lots of loose broads, plenty of booze, people with other people's wives--tell me, how would you feel if you looked across the room and saw Moses leaning on the mantel staring at you?"

The Moses character aside, Heston's personal lifestyle misses the movie magazines' mold of a Hollywood celebrity by a wide margin. He married anm art student, Lydia Marie Clark, in 1944, while they were both at Northwestern. They are still married in 1984. After having been shot at by gangsters and pursued by maneating ants, having braved Comanche arrows, escaped incineration on the largest circus tanbark ever built and floundered in raging seas, Heston's idea of a stimulating evening is to sit in his wood-lined study reading Arnold Toynbee.

Even the two Heston offspring fall short of the bizarre standards established by celebrity children. Heston's pride showed as he took care to spell their names while he told us that F-R-A-S-E-R is a screen writer and producer and H-O-L-L-Y is still in school, studying art history and hoping to have a career in gallery or museum work.

Heston's nightlife is also curtailed by his intensive work habits. Not satisfied with learning the lines and playing the role, he must immerse himself in the character he is to play until he and the historical image of that character become one. Upon seeing his performance in the screen adaptation of Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, Stone reflected, "he literally becomes Michelangelo."

"Dedication in preparing for a role depends upon the part," Heston said. "Biographical roles, of which I have probably played more than most actors, require more research. Roles with specific physical competence require a lot of preparation. My roles as a conductory and a pro quarterback required as much physical preparation as any parts I have done."

And, yes, it is true that before beginning The Agony and the Ecstasy he read 600 letters (the total that had been translated) written by Michelangelo, traveled to study as many of his works as possble and spent hours contemplating the artist's character. For the role of Moses in the classic The Ten Commandments he walked barefoot in costume across the broiling, jagged rocks at the foot of Mt. Sinai, memorized whole slabs of the Old Testament, studied the works of Biblical scholars and pondered the meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Your present play, Detective Story, is it just between films? we asked.

"I don't call it just," was his quick reply. "I do a play every other year. It is a very important part of my life, and my life is my work."

Having played Moses and John the Baptist, are you a religious man?

"My religion is one of the private areas I have," was his quick response. "It is personal and, obviously, like everything else in my life, it has been shaped by my life. I think it would be pompous of me to say I played Moses and found God. However, playing the two religious characters I have done, John the Baptist and Moses, two pretty good characters, had definitely marked my life. So has Richelieu; so has playing McCloud in Detective Story--that is a moral experience, if you will. Yes, it would be fair to say that the experience of exploring these great guys has been a profound influence on my life."

So where does he go from here? Are there any more roles for Charlton Heston to conquer?

"Acting, like painting or writing novels or designing bridges," he said, "is an undertaking you never get right. It is imperfectible. You fail at it every time. I have played MacBeth in five different productions in my life and haven't come close to it yet."
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good; SerVaas, Cory
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 1, 1984
Words:3048
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