A Charlton Heston Renaissance style broadsword from El Cid

Screen god

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 12

Head of Boddhisattva Grey Schist

Screen god

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 12

An emerald, diamond, platinum and gold ring

Screen god

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 12

A Charlton Heston cloak from El Cid

Screen god

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 12

Charlton Heston's working screenplay for Ben-Hur

Screen god

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 12

Screen god

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 12

Behind the craggy face and rumbling voice of the megastar, Robert Osborne discovered a shy, thoughtful man when he met Charlton Heston

I had the great pleasure of working with Charlton Heston back in 1998, when he sat down with me to record a Private Screenings interview for Turner Classic Movies. Right from the start, he asked me to call him 'Chuck'. Not 'Charlton' or 'Mr Heston'. And certainly not 'Charlie'. Only his wife was allowed to do that. What followed soon after was a pleasant, affable conversation – although I couldn't help but think that any infraction of the rules would inspire a clap of thunder, a burning bush or a major earth tremor. And why not? He was, after all, a guy who was known to either cause or survive lightning bolts, earthquakes and other calamities, at least on screen. So why risk it? I called him 'Chuck'.

Meeting Chuck in person made you realize immediately that he was the kind of guy you hoped he would be – a straight-shooter, a thinking man, sturdy, dependable and professional. He was also a shy man – one who overcame that shyness because of the nature of his business – but still, deep down, a shy man. So I imagine he'd be a little baffled to think that people would want to purchase his personal memorabilia, which is to be sold in Los Angeles in March. But even he admitted the very nature of his work made people look up to him in a way that reflected the impact of the characters he played – rather than the real Chuck Heston. After all, he played some imposing men: Moses, Judah Ben-Hur, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, John the Baptist, Michelangelo. As he told me in our interview, these were individuals who did remarkable things, and it tends to rub off a little bit.

I, for one, think Chuck was being too self-effacing. After all, he was a very good actor, a devoted husband and family man, a social activist and, in my experience, a genuinely nice person. At least we'll always have his films to remember him by – and, should the bidding go your way in L.A., you might get to take home a piece of memorabilia too.

Which objects conjure most vividly to mind American movies in the mid-20th century? Steve McQueen's Mustang Fastback GT from Bullitt; Audrey Hepburn's cigarette holder from Breakfast at Tiffany's; Marilyn Monroe's billowing ivory cocktail dress from The Seven Year Itch?

An epic life

Heston's huge screen presence masked his mastery of his craft, says Neil Lyndon

Along with those emblems of a lost age, the charioteer's armbands worn by Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur demand recognition. Not only do they perfectly symbolize the 1959 epic, which was, for its time, the most expensive movie ever made, as well as garnering an equalled but still unbeaten 11 Oscars (including Best Actor for Heston). The armbands also bring to life the heroic male lead, who was himself the supreme incarnation of the Hollywood Empire.

With a profile ready to be slotted into the side of Mount Rushmore and a jaw permanently set in a don't-cross-me clench of unshakeable moral resolution, Heston's was the face of the post-war America whose ideal was to put a man on the Moon, a Ford in every garage and a chicken in every pot. He personified 1950s America's notions of manly virtue and heroism so completely that, as he said, "I've played three presidents, three saints and two geniuses – and that's probably enough for any man."

Not quite enough in his case, as a matter of fact. Heston's was also the persona and the voice through which Hollywood delivered its conception of divinity to the world. The man who played Moses in The Ten Commandments and John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told was the obvious choice to speak for God Almighty in the 1990 comedy Almost an Angel.

Though he came so singularly to represent Hollywood's blockbuster biblical epic, Heston had begun his career as a serious actor, devoted to his art and to the stage. Essentially, he was to remain a serious-minded man.

Born John Charles Carter in 1923, Charlton Heston took his billboard surname from his stepfather. After service as a gunner in bombers in the USAAF during the Second World War, Heston and his wife Lydia moved to New York to develop their art as actors. At 6'3" in height and absurdly handsome, he began to hoover up small parts on the stage and on television. When he was offered a movie contract by Hal Wallis, Heston talked his recalcitrant wife into allowing him to sign by arguing, "Maybe I should do it just for one film to see what it's like."

Such was young Charlton's enthusiasm and dedication to the dramatic arts that in 1960 he turned down the opportunity to co-star opposite Marilyn Monroe in Let's Make Love in order to work on the New York stage, for little pay, under the direction of Laurence Olivier. When the play flopped, Heston said "I am the only one who came out with a profit. I learned from [Olivier] in six weeks things I never would have learned otherwise."

He had already shown where his heart lay when he was offered the part as a Mexican police officer, Ramon Miguel Vargas, in the 1958 movie Touch of Evil. Based on a pulp-fiction thriller, this project had been intended by its producers to be workmanlike and unambitious.

Heston, however, had higher aspirations: he would not sign, he said, unless they appointed Orson Welles – the most original film-maker in America – as the film's director.

Welles and Heston then worked together on improvising the development of the script, batting ideas back and forth. In his journal for 8 February 1957, 10 days before shooting began, Heston wrote, "There is a stirring of unrest at Universal about the way Orson's going about the film. They seem to fear what I hope: that he'll make an offbeat film out of what they'd planned as a predictable little programmer.' He went on to note that "Orson is holding firm".

What emerged from their joint resolution was one of Hollywood's immortal noir masterpieces, revered by movie enthusiasts for more than half a century.

Heston understood completely the character of the industry in which he would eventually command such Olympian dominance. "The trouble with movies as a business is that it's an art," he observed, "and the trouble with movies as art is that it's a business."

After Ben-Hur, however, his opportunities to exercise the nuances of his artistry as an actor were to wane, as his status as the embodiment of the Hollywood epic grew to godlike proportions. When he was a little boy, Heston's son Fraser believed that his father was actually a full-time charioteer because he was always coming home from his day's work with his clothes full of sand from the arena.

Despite his superstardom, he never lost his grounding. Charlton Heston is one of only a handful of Hollywood megastars who stayed married to same woman – for more than 50 years, and living in the same house for most of those decades.

It was such an extraordinary house that it deserved exceptional cherishing. With his haul of booty from Ben-Hur, Heston commissioned architect William S. Beckett to design and build a flawless Modernist house in Beverly Hills. Set on three acres above Coldwater Canyon, its five bedrooms, six bathrooms, staff quarters, tennis court and swimming pool are the usual accouterments of a Hollywood star. But the house's two-storey library bears testament to an inquiring and studious mind.

That mind carried him along unconventional paths. Heston attracted the derision of the California trendies with his political shift from supporting John F. Kennedy to endorsing Richard Nixon. He also outraged liberal sensibilities with his support of the National Rifle Association, of which he became President.

He may be remembered for raging at Al Gore that the Vice President would take away Heston's gun only "from my cold, dead hands"; but ought, perhaps, more affectionately to be remembered as the dry wit who proved so adept at tongue-in-cheek teasing in that most hilarious of all Hollywood leg-pulls, Planet of the Apes. Surely no one else could have convincingly carried the line, "Get your stinkin' paws off me, you damned dirty ape!"

Neil Lyndon is a writer and journalist who has been a columnist for numerous national papers.

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