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Heston's Legacy Widespread on DVD

6 Apr, 2008 By: HM Editorial Staff

Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur

Charlton Heston, who won the 1959 best actor Oscar as the chariot-racing title character in Ben-Hur and portrayed Moses, Michelangelo, El Cid and other heroic figures in movie epics of the 1950s and '60s, died April 5 at age 84.

“Charlton Heston was seen by the world as larger than life. He was known for his chiseled jaw, broad shoulders and resonating voice, and, of course, for the roles he played," Heston's family said in a statement. “No one could ask for a fuller life than his. No man could have given more to his family, to his profession, and to his country.”

Heston revealed in 2002 that he had symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease, saying, “I must reconcile courage and surrender in equal measure.”

With his large, muscular build, well-boned face and sonorous voice, Heston proved the ideal star during the period when Hollywood was filling movie screens with panoramas depicting the religious and historical past. “I have a face that belongs in another century,” he often remarked.

The actor assumed the role of leader offscreen as well. He served as president of the Screen Actors Guild and chairman of the American Film Institute and marched in the civil rights movement of the 1950s. In June 1998, Heston was elected president of the National Rifle Association.

In 2003, Heston was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. “The largeness of character that comes across the screen has also been seen throughout his life,” President George W. Bush said at the time.

Heston lent his strong presence to some of the most acclaimed and successful films of the midcentury. Ben-Hur (on DVD from Warner Home Video) won 11 Academy Awards, tying it for the record with more recent winners Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).

Heston's earliest film role came in 1941, when he was still in high school. He played the title character in David Bradley's Peer Gynt, based on Henrik Ibsen's play. A DVD version is available from VCI. In 1950, Heston appeared in Bradley's adaptation of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (DVD from VCI) as Antony, for which he was paid $50 a week. Heston reprised the role in a 1970 production available from Lionsgate.

Film producer Hal B. Wallis (Casablanca) spotted Heston in a 1950 television production of “Wuthering Heights” and offered him a contract. When Heston's wife reminded him that they had decided to pursue theater and television, he replied, “Well, maybe just for one film to see what it's like.”

Heston's first notable role came in 1950's Dark City (not yet on DVD), but his breakthrough performance was in 1952 best picture Oscar winner The Greatest Show on Earth, directed by Cecil B. DeMille. The DVD is available from Paramount Home Entertainment.

Heston re-teamed with DeMille for 1956's The Ten Commandments (on DVD from Paramount), in which he played Moses, touching off a long-standing association with religious epics that continued with Ben-Hur and as John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told (MGM) in 1965.

When it came to Ben-Hur, Heston wasn't the first to be considered for the remake of 1925 biblical epic. Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster and Rock Hudson had declined the film. Heston plunged into the role, rehearsing two months for the furious chariot race. He railed at suggestions the race had been shot with a double: “I couldn't drive it well, but that wasn't necessary. All I had to do was stay on board so they could shoot me there. I didn't have to worry; MGM guaranteed I would win the race.”

The huge success of Ben-Hur and the best actor Oscar made Heston one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood.

In 1958, Heston teamed with director Orson Welles to play a Mexican in Touch of Evil (on DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment), a fact that was poked fun at in Tim Burton's 1994 film Ed Wood.

Staying with the epics, Heston portrayed the title character in 1961's El Cid, which finally was released for the first time on DVD by Genius Products and the Weinstein Co. in January.

He played a cavalry officer in Sam Peckinpah's 1965 Western Major Dundee, on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Heston in the late 1960s and early 1970s became an icon in the science-fiction genre as well, starting with his appearance in the original Planet of the Apes in 1968. Heston reprised his role as astronaut Taylor in the 1970 sequel, and paid homage to his association with the franchise by playing an elderly ape in Burton's 2001 remake. In a wry bit of irony, Heston introduces a gun into the plot. The “Apes” films are available on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Heston cemented his status as a cult sci-fi icon with 1971's The Omega Man and 1973's Soylent Green, both on home video from Warner. In The Omega Man, Heston played the last man on Earth in an adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend (remade last year with Will Smith). Soylent Green became most notable for its famous scene of Heston alerting others to the secret of the world's food supply, shouting “Soylent Green is people!”

The 1970s also found Heston in such films as Earthquake (1974), Airport 1975, and Midway (1976), all on DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

Heston often returned to roles in the theater and on television. In the 1980s, he played Jason Colby on the legendary prime time soap “Dynasty” and its spinoff, “The Colbys.”

By the 1990s, filmmakers began to cash in on Heston's status as a Hollywood legend. In 1993 he appeared in Wayne's World 2 (Paramount) and Tombstone (Disney/Hollywood), followed in 1994 with a cameo in the James Cameron actioner True Lies (Fox) as the boss of secret agent Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 1999, he played the commissioner of a fictional pro football league in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, which incorporated images from Ben-Hur to highlight the gladiatorial aspects of the sport.

At his birth in a Chicago suburb on Oct. 4, 1923, his name was John Charles Carter. His parents moved to St. Helen, Mich., where his father, Russell Carter, operated a lumber mill. Growing up in the Michigan woods with almost no playmates, young Charles read books of adventure and devised his own games while wandering the countryside with his rifle.

Charles's parents divorced, and she married Chester Heston, a factory plant superintendent in Wilmette, Ill., an upscale north Chicago suburb. Shy and feeling displaced in the big city, the boy had trouble adjusting to the new high school. He took refuge in the drama department.

Calling himself Charlton Heston, he won an acting scholarship to Northwestern University in 1941. He excelled in campus plays and appeared on Chicago radio. In 1943, he enlisted in the Army Air Force and served as a radio-gunner in the Aleutians.

Heston and his wife of 64 years, Lydia, had two children, son Fraser Clarke and adopted daughter Holly Ann.

A cause of death was not immediately released.

Obituary excerpts from The Hollywood Reporter; DVD listing compiled by John Latchem

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