Charlton Heston, who died Saturday at the age of 84, seemed to be built for the spectacles of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
He was never an athlete like Burt Lancaster, who took a pass on the role that made Heston a superstar, Ben-Hur. But no movie star ever looked like more of an athlete than Heston, with his comic-book wedge of a torso, his Dick Tracy-square jaw and the competitive glint in his eye, which also held signs of something deeper - a wounded masculinity. That's what made him shine in Ben-Hur.
He was a self-made superhero. As a kid he worked in a steel mill on Chicago's South Side and mastered archery and marksmanship. But from the time he dropped out of the rifle club, chess team and football to concentrate on high school and community theater, he was a man of the stage.
And it was on the stage that he first learned how to focus his gnarly temperament and command imaginary landscapes like a conquering hero. His knack for italicizing his own physicality and magnetizing everything around him is what drew the spectacle-makers to him, whether they were working in Westerns, period epics or apocalyptic fantasies.
Cecil B. DeMille used him as the circus manager in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). After he played Moses for DeMille in The Ten Commandments (1956), the big-picture men came calling. One after another, they signed him up: William Wyler for the ranch foreman in The Big Country (1958) as well as Ben-Hur (1959), Anthony Mann for the title role in El Cid (1961), Carol Reed for Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Franklin Schaffner for a love-starred knight in The War Lord (1965) and an astronaut in Planet of the Apes (1968).
To anchor these sprawling shows required something that went beyond technique - the quality of stature. Not all the training and invention in the world can supply it when an actor doesn't have it, and without it kings and last-men-on-Earth can bring a super-production tumbling down like Oliver Stone's Alexander.
Heston was that rarity - not the It Boy, but the It Man, if you define "It" as the elusive something that could convince audiences he could keep an empire from crumbling or the human species from completely disappearing.
These roles called for cleverness as well as conviction. Watching The Ten Commandments on its umpteenth TV run a few weeks ago, I couldn't help thinking that in its own showbiz-pious way it was far more clever than the DreamWorks cartoon The Prince of Egypt.
DeMille and Heston had the sense to toy with Moses' charisma, making him a stalwart fellow even when he was a prince of Egypt. He was a humane slave driver, while Yul Brynner's Rameses was an imperious, double-dealing schemer. Everyone in every class of Egyptian life seemed to spend their spare time siding with one or the other, and Heston's exuberant physicality provided them with something to root for. Heston gave melodramatic traction to Moses' emergence as liberator of the Hebrews and spokesman for universal freedom.
In real life, too, Heston often used his power for good, to support our greatest filmmakers. In his memoir The Actor's Life, he recalled, "When I called Universal and asked them [who would direct Touch of Evil], they said, 'That's not set yet, but we have Orson Welles to play the heavy.' I made the obvious comment, 'Why not have him direct, too? He's pretty good.' It genuinely seemed to strike them as a radical suggestion, as though I'd asked to have my mother direct the picture."
He thus paved the way for Welles' magnificent (if not triumphant) return to American filmmaking with a virtuoso border-town film noir after years spent making movies on the run in Europe. The studio truncated Welles' cut and tossed it into theaters in 1958. But when a team of filmmakers moved to reconstruct a version closer to Welles' original vision 40 years later, Heston lent his clout.
When I called Heston at his Beverly Hills, Calif., home to ask about Touch of Evil (1958), he answered the phone himself after a morning swim, and related with warmth and humor how working with Welles had honed his own self-knowledge.
"I have to confess a sense of confidence is something I never lacked," he said. "When I was first getting into Broadway, my wife got work before I did because the parts I was the right age for I wasn't right for: I was 6 [foot] 3, with a broken nose and a bass voice - I didn't look or sound right saying, 'Tennis anyone?'"
When he reminisced about those days with Welles, Heston said, the maestro "gave me a great deal as a director. 'Oh, my boy,' he'd say in his own great booming voice, 'you might develop a tenor range, you know.'"
Heston once again stood up for a maverick director when he starred for Sam Peckinpah in the cavalry Western Major Dundee (1965). In Dundee, he showed himself a master of complex male bonding with co-star Richard Harris. The whole movie rests on the push-pull chemistry of Heston at his most stoically magnetic and Harris at his most gallant and unpredictable.
And Heston carved out another niche for himself in pop culture when he starred in a series of apocalyptic sci-fi movies, including Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973). They were cautionary tales about man's dehumanization of man (Apes), biological experimentation run wild (Omega) and the dwindling food supply (Soylent Green). Planet of the Apes was also a handsome, punchy movie (with the surly Heston uproariously pitted against haughty apes) and Soylent Green an engagingly grungy one with a killer last speech: "Soylent Green is people."
Heston's choices bespeak a much more complicated man than the caricatured reactionary popularized by Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine. He was the president of the National Rifle Association and a forceful and sometimes insensitive spokesman for gun-owners' rights, but he also had been a champion of civil rights who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In the gorgeous El Cid, for example, Heston convincingly embodies the medieval champion as if he were a liberal Kennedy-era Cold Warrior, defending his Spanish homeland against fanatic Moors while displaying his decency and open-mindedness by enlisting a friendly Moor as his ally. In El Cid, Heston began to etch the weariness that comes with a life of physical exertion, which he continued with the 1968 Western Will Penny (his favorite) and the 1969 football movie Number One, in which he played an aging quarterback.
His most pertinent movie today may be Khartoum (1966), the tale of British military legend Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon and his doomed joust with the Mahdi ("the expected one") - and, yes, the Mahdi army - in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum in 1884 and '85. Written by Robert Ardrey, author of The Territorial Imperative, and directed by Basil Dearden, it's a ruminative action movie about the limits of heroism. Heston, a master of the grand gesture, embodies Gordon nobly and with grace, whether hoisting a little girl into his arms as if proclaiming himself the father of this country, or staring down the Mahdi's spears unarmed, in an attempt to conjure his own charismatic miracle.
Using kinetics to keep gravity from getting boring was always Heston's calling card, but as Khartoum showed, when he had some help from his scripts, he could also be a superb classical performer. In the entire star-laden cast of Kenneth Branagh's 1996 William Shakespeare's Hamlet, no had more force or panache than Heston.
He played a role that could sum up the position he had for decades in Hollywood: He was the Player King.
CHARLTON HESTON: A DIRECTOR'S BEST FRIEND
As many great American directors discovered, Heston was a man you wanted on your team, willing to support your most far-out reveries. Here are some high points from the Heston and Hollywood-auteur canon.
Touch of Evil (1958): Heston with a mustache and swarthy makeup looks right at home in Orson Welles' gloriously creepy film noir, whose scuzzy motel influenced Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and whose border-town atmosphere might have put an idea or two in the heads of the Coen brothers for No Country for Old Men.
The Big Country (1958): William Wyler's sweeping film was one of the last big-budget Westerns of the 1950s, and Heston brought the character of a lust-and-lovestruck ranch manager pining for Carroll Baker some of the same lodestone sexuality Gregory Peck brought to Duel in the Sun - thus wiping Peck off the screen as Baker's proper East Coast fiance. (Wyler knew what he had in Heston and cast him in Ben-Hur.)
El Cid (1961): The two capstone epic roles for Heston were as Moses in De Mille's The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur in Wyler's Ben-Hur, but Heston was never more convincing as a leader of men than as this champion of medieval Spain in Anthony Mann's sumptuous tapestry; his inspirational sendoff is one of the great heroic farewells in international movies.
Major Dundee (1965): As the director, Sam Peckinpah, chased his dream for a cavalry-picture version of Moby Dick all across some breathtaking landscapes, Heston kept his concentration and achieved a sort of "cool" that's actually white-hot.
The War Lord (1965): That underrated director Franklin Schaffner, who went on to make Planet of the Apes and Patton, handles Heston superbly as the feudal knight who says of his sword, "I've lived 20 years with that cold wife." As is his right, Heston takes another man's bride on her nuptial night and then, as is not his right, refuses to give her back.