Life of Charlton Heston
The acid test of a biography is if the reader can put down the book and feel like they have actually met the subject. It is a difficult thing to do and most biographers fail. Not here. Most readers of Marc Eliot’s “Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon” (HarperCollins, 2017) will feel like they have met the actor.
When he was 10, Heston’s parents divorced and his mother remarried, giving her son a new first and last name. As it is for many children, the divorce of his parents was a trauma that affected the actor for the rest of his life. He attended Northwestern University where he majored in drama. He did not graduate because of his service in the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, but he met the love of his life, Lydia Clarke; the first girl he ever dated who became his wife in 1944. They remained married until his death in 2008.
After the war, Heston and his wife went to New York to become stage and live television actors. The Heston’s were barely getting by and Lydia was getting more work than her husband. Then success suddenly struck. Heston made one movie, Dark City (1950) to supplement his work in New York, but while driving on to the Paramount Pictures studio lot, he waved to Cecil B. DeMille. The famed producer/director had already passed on Heston for a role in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), but was impressed by the confidence he showed in the moment and reconsidered his decision, casting him in the central role. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Heston was suddenly getting numerous roles, but many of the projects are not remembered much for a reason. DeMille intervened in his life a second time, giving him the role of Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956).
Heston always wanted to be an actor, but now he was a movie star. The height of his popularity as a leading man was in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Eliot makes it clear that wife and family, not career, were central in Heston’s life. He and his father had reconnected just before he left for the war and grew closer during this period. Lydia Heston’s career had faded and she decided to become a full-time wife and mother. Giving up her career, though, remained a decision that troubled their marriage for years. Heston won the Oscar for Best Actor for Ben-Hur (1959), and used the money from that film to build an impressive mid-century modern hilltop residence in Beverly Hills. His career began to dwindle in the mid-1960s. A capable actor—one does not win an acting Oscar on accident—Heston had a limited range. He did not do romance or comedy well. He preferred action, drama and historical epics, but a willingness to experiment with different genres like science fiction and disaster movies that might seem beneath an actor of his stature rejuvenated his career. The key film was Planet of the Apes (1968) but The Omega Man (1971), Airport 1975 (1974) and Earthquake (1974) all extended his career.
Heston was always a good citizen. At the height of box office pull, he marched for civil rights when people warned him that it would endanger his career. He also became active in the Screen Actors Guild, eventually serving as president of that union. A liberal at the time, his politics changed and he moved to the right. Later he became president of the National Rifle Association. Eliot and Heston’s children believe his association with the conservative NRA hurt Heston’s career in liberal Hollywood. While that is true—particularly in the refusal of the American Film Institute to award him its Life Achievement Award despite his work in founding that organization—other factors appear to have played a larger role for his dwindling career options.
He was getting older and Hollywood worships youth. Also, in the early 1980s he got into a public feud with Ed Asner—a successor as president of SAG—over labor issues. Eliot is good at explaining why being controversial on either side of the political divide can hurt an acting career. The feud did, indeed, hurt both men’s careers. Heston continued to get jobs, but more in television than film. As he got older, though, his film roles were in support and cameo appearances. His association with the NRA came long after this career decline was in play. Other reviewers of this book have noted that in interviews Heston made it clear that he never believed the NRA hurt his career. Even if he did, complaining would be undignified. His career had made him wealthy and afforded him opportunities to speak out on public issues. That type of character and decency that personified Heston comes through in this account. You can like him, even if you disagree with him.
Eliot brings a lot of skill and expertise to this biography. Like many actors, Heston gave numerous interviews to various media publications, and the biographer has mined them well. The Heston family cooperated with this project, which helped Eliot develop the human, private side of the actor with lots of private, family stories. Heston kept a diary and wrote memoirs which gives him voice. The Heston family even provided most of the photographs in the account. This book is Eliot’s eighteenth with most of the others being on the entertainment industry. As a result, he is able to explain the technical elements of filmmaking without delving into confusing film major jargon. The writing is engaging, and even the structure of the biography is compelling. Twelve and thirteen page chapters are easy to consume and encourage the reader to keep going.
Long story made short, this is an informative and fun book.