Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston is pretty sure I’ll know the story, but tells it anyway. ‘It’s about – oh, nuts, who was that British actor in Room at the Top? Laurence Harvey – it’s about Laurence Harvey. When he was doing Romeo he called Olivier and said, “You must play The Chorus.” And Olivier said, “No.” And Harvey said, “Why not?” And Olivier said, “Because I’m too fucking grand.”‘

It’s as well I do know the story, for Heston has propped his crutches up against the table behind him and I have become distracted by the sight of them slowly sliding down. (Is it improper, I find myself wondering, to lean over a Hollywood legend to grab his falling crutches? It’s one of those questions upon which Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners offers no clear guidance.) There is a loud clatter as the crutches meet the floor. Without blinking or looking round, Heston growls: ‘All right. Stay there.’

Composed, in a word.

It’s nine o’clock in the morning – Heston can’t get out of the film actor’s habit of rising for 6.30am shoots – and we are sitting on a comfortable sofa in the stone and glass home he had built for himself on the ridge of a mountain in California, while he was away filming Ben-Hur in Italy 39 years ago. Below us is a swimming-pool, lined with poplars. Below that, 800 acres of forest. And below that, the rest of Beverly Hills. Most of the books that line the shelves that take up the whole of one wall are about Shakespeare. In the centre of the middle shelf there is a space cleared for a signed photograph of… yes, you haven’t guessed it: Prince Andrew (Heston is a great Anglophile, and an arch conservative. Indeed, he was one of the few Hollywood celebrities invited to Lady Thatcher’s 70th birthday party.)

On another wall there is a portrait of Laurence Olivier, his hero and friend. The reason he wanted to tell the Olivier anecdote was that he believes Olivier was too fucking grand to play minor roles in Shakespeare, while, he, Heston, is not. This is why he agreed to act in the comparatively modest role of the Player King in Kenneth Branagh’s full-length, four-hour Hamlet. While he was filming it at Shepperton Studios in London last year, Heston slipped on a step. ‘Didn’t even fall,’ he shrugs, his arms stretched out along the back of the sofa. ‘Just jarred down, and that really hurt. It wasn’t that I couldn’t work. They just had to prop me up between takes.’ Rather a come down, this; for such is the bruising toll that stunts have taken over the years that he has had to have a hip operation (which he had been putting off for fear of losing what mobility he had left). ‘I can really walk without those crutches,’ he now adds in a low voice like a sandbag slowly pummelling down a wooden staircase. ‘But I’m not supposed to for a week.’

Inevitably, it must be harder for Heston to accept the ageing process than it is for the rest of us (he’s 72). We have not climbed mountains as Moses, scaled scaffolding as Michelangelo, or been whipped as we rowed in galleys, our muscles oiled, wearing nothing but a loin cloth as Ben-Hur. In his day, the 6ft 3in Heston, with his broad shoulders and 45in chest, was an icon of virility, the great patriarch, a monumental presence on the screen. Indeed, our own Henry Cooper said of him: ‘That’s the only geezer I’ve met who makes me look like a poof.’ Now, partly because of a stoop, Heston has shrunk a couple of inches. He has a creaky, bow-legged walk and his grey flannel trousers have been let out at the back. His weathered face is still handsome, though. That famous wide mouth still shows about 48 shiny front teeth when he speaks; and he still has those sculpted cheekbones, that finely chiselled broken nose, that strong, flinty jaw, and those eyes that, though slightly watery and dimmed, are still a vivid blue. As for the hair… well, it fits.

Being immortalised on celluloid as a young demi-god must be the curse of the screen actor, mustn’t it? ‘Well, I’m certainly not going to be 30 again.’ Heston smiles, recognising that the question is a cue for the touching El Cid anecdote he relates in his autobiography. Again, he’s sure I’ll have read it but that I want to hear it from the Moose’s mouth regardless (Moose was his nickname when he was growing up in the Michigan backwoods. Now his friends call him Chuck. Except his wife who calls him Charlie. And his mother who called him Charlton. His staff call him Mr Heston.) Anyway: he has two (now grown-up) children, a son and a daughter, and when the daughter was eight, he (then 46) took her to see El Cid for the first time. Afterwards she wept and said: ‘Oh Daddy, you were so beautiful then.’ As he says this he emits a bass chuckle that makes the sofa tremble: ‘Well, I guess I still was beautiful then. But what are you gonna do? It happens to athletes. Happily, actors can go on working. Athletes just run into a wall.’

In his tennis pavilion, near the house, there is a life-size poster of Heston as El Cid. You can’t help wondering what goes through his mind when he contemplates it, especially in light of the story he goes on to tell. He was, he remembers, rehearsing in a production of Antony and Cleopatra that was just about to open at a Pittsburgh theatre. One dark winter night he went back to the theatre to check something on the stage and came across the huddled figure of the aged actress Lenore Ulric. Out of pity, she’d been given a job and cast – miscast – as Charmian, Cleopatra’s handmaiden. She knew, as everyone else in the cast knew, that she was too old for the part. Heston found her kneeling in front of a life-size painting of her younger self playing her most successful role, and crying like a lost child. ‘I slipped quietly out the stage door,’ he says, nodding his head in rueful sympathy.

There, thanks to the grace of the Old Testament God he sometimes plays, he hasn’t gone. Indeed, Heston says he has always kept his life in Perspective. ‘I did learn very early on that you shouldn’t take yourself as seriously as other people are prepared to take you,’ he says, compulsively patting his grey hair, presumably to prove it is real. ‘The main thing is the work. If they like it, it’s fine. If they don’t, well, what do they know?’ He keeps his feet on the ground by reminding himself of the Byzantine emperors who employed servants to stand behind them and whisper, ‘You, too, must die.’ It’s not that he suffers from Paradise Syndrome (a condition in which stars become hypochondriacs because their success has left them nothing to contemplate but ill health), but while he was filming Ben-Hur (in 1958) he was given to bouts of paranoia about dying young. They were triggered off by the sudden death that year of his fellow Hollywood star, Tyrone Power, who was only 45: ‘His death hung in my mind, resonating with my own mortality.’ Soon after, Heston hurt his hip in a fall – while trying to help Jesus carry his cross, as you do – and he felt sure he wasn’t going to make it to the end of the film.

Now he says he would like to die quickly – like Caesar, naturally – but not before he has had time to say some famous last words. This qualification is revealing. First, it shows how much Heston identifies with the heroic figures – kings, cardinals, generals, presidents – he has spent a career portraying on screen (‘One would like to hope that a tiny scrape of their greatness has rubbed off,’ is how he puts it). Second, it shows the extent to which the real world has collided in his imagination with the illusory world of the cinema. When this is put to him, he shrugs. ‘Unreal? I’ve been doing it for so long I feel at home with it. That’s normality.’ In his private twilight zone, he probably imagines there will be a camera rolling as he says his last words. After all, this is a man who once found himself talking to Tom Selleck at a bar and, seeing a shadow on Selleck’s face, though ‘Shit. I’m in his key-light.’

The anecdotage could go on, and on. It’s practised, perfect and charming. And, like much anecdotage, it serves instead of self-analysis. For it’s telling that Heston so often talks about his roles only in terms of how physically suited he was to play them. He doesn’t seem to believe that it is possible for an actor to play a character he does not identify with in these terms, just by acting. He says, for instance, that his height, deep voice and broken nose always precluded him from playing Hamlet: ‘Even when I was young enough it was never a part for me, I had the wrong persona.’

Try and imagine the big, strapping Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando or Daniel Day-Lewis being held back in this way and you will appreciate what an astonishing admission this is. The comment also shows, though, that Heston possesses an awareness of his own limitations. He probably knows he doesn’t have the subtlety to play Hamlet (although he does recite for me, quite stirringly, the ‘To be or not to be’ speech, as an illustration of how accessible ‘Old Will’s’ vocabulary is – only to ruin the effect by adding, ‘See? Not really very complicated stuff’). He once perceptively observed that some film directors actually consider intelligence in an actor a drawback. And, even more wryly, that: ‘Smoking a cigarette in a film can make you look cool and world-weary. Actually, I’ve learned to act determined and thoughtful. I can even throw in a dollop of anxious on top.’

Now, it may be that after many years of being gently ribbed by critics for his hamminess, he has learned to say such things to show he has a sense of irony. But I think not, for the first thing you notice about Heston is that he is neither precious nor pretentious but, rather, in possession of a lumbering sincerity. For example, when we discuss the dark, Freudian themes in Hamlet – sanity, guilt, self-doubt, shuffling off of mortal coils – I ask Heston if he couldn’t perhaps relate to the character of Hamlet by contemplating his own mortality. ‘No. Hamlet weighs up the advantages of killing Claudius as against killing himself. It has never crossed my mind to kill myself. Scots don’t do that [although Heston, somewhat provocatively, likes to refer to himself as a ‘Native American’, his mother’s side of the family was Scottish, and his father’s English]. They may think of killing someone else, though.’

Heston has played both Macbeth and Antony dozens of times, because he feels he looks the part. But what about King Lear? Now that Heston is of a certain age, surely he is perfect for the role? ‘As Olivier said, when you’re old enough to play Lear you’re not strong enough. Besides, I think you have to grow up with a role. I first played Macbeth when I was 14. I understand Macbeth. I understand Antony in both plays. But I don’t empathise with Lear. I just think, what is this idiot doing? Why is he doing this? A bit like Othello.’

Ay, as Hamlet would say, there’s the rub. Heston is probably the greatest epic hero Hollywood has ever produced. He has made more than 70 films and, alongside actors of the calibre of Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson, has performed in countless stage plays. He won an Oscar for best actor in a film which, to this day, still holds the record for most Oscars won (Ben-Hur, 11), and which, in the chariot race, includes one of the most dramatic action sequence ever filmed. Yet, at the media screening of Hamlet, the audience greeted Heston’s initial appearance with a titter.

Was this because he is so obviously wearing a syrup on his head? Was it because he starred in the Colbys (the Dynasty spin-off) as well as in dozens of mediocre films in which he was attacked by killer ants or taken prisoner by apes? Was it because, in recent years, he has been trying to lighten up his serious image by appearing on such programmes as The Dame Edna Experience and in such films as Wayne’s World? Or is it because he says he doesn’t take himself too seriously yet so obviously does, especially when it comes to his far right political opinions?

Certainly, it’s the seriousness factor – the lumbering sincerity factor – that lies behind the very public and very farcical feud Heston has been waging with the left-wing writer Gore Vidal over the past year. Vidal claims to have written a scene for Ben-Hur which, had it been in the final cut, would have explained the baffling rivalry between the Jewish Ben-Hur and his Roman rival Messala, played by Stephen Boyd: they had been teenage lovers and, when they meet again as adults, Messala wants to continue where they left off, but is spurned. Part of the reason Heston was so deeply rattled by this interpretation, I suspect, was that he identifies so strongly with the characters he plays. In some ways, the one he most resembles is Sir Thomas More (whom he played at London’s Savoy Theatre in 1987), a noble soul with the fatal flaw of innocence. Heston sees himself as – and surely is – the archetypal family man. That the straight and honourable hero he portrays in Ben-Hur might be considered homosexual is, for Heston, an abhorrent notion. And as if this were not bad enough, Vidal has rubbed salt into Heston’s whip welts by claiming that Boyd was allowed to know the homosexual subtext, but that the director decided not to let Heston in on it, for fear that he would fall apart. Vidal agreed, ‘awed by the thought of so much wood crashing to the ground.’

If Heston really didn’t take himself too seriously, he would have laughed the claim off. Instead, the naive, gentlemanly Heston decided to take on the street-fighting Vidal, describing him as ‘a tart, embittered man’ and firing off a letter of protest to the LA Times. When asked if he now has any regrets about rising to Vidal’s bait, Heston emits one of those bitter, mirthless laughs. ‘Poor Gore. Such…’ He trails off, remembers the Marquess of Queensbury rules, and recovers his air of resolution, superiority and dignity. ‘No. I don’t regret it because it’s so easy to discredit him. He is a member of the Screen Writer’s guild. If he wrote any of the script, he would have been given a credit for it. But he wasn’t. And how come he didn’t bring it up for 30 years? No. It puzzles me because Gore has a respectable reputation as an essayist and novelist. I don’t know why it’s suddenly so important to him.’

When I suggest that Vidal might conceivably have told the story out of mischief, Heston says: ‘Maybe. Or maybe he has a passion for me. Who knows? Maybe that’s the subtext!’ Now that’s a good joke, and the answer Heston should have given in the first place. But it still leaves you wondering: does Heston really get Vidal’s joke? Could it be that Heston is just so immune to malice and subterfuge, so decent, so, so solid, that Vidal’s point o’erthrows his noble mind by several inches? Or is it that he is smarting because he does get it and he is only too aware that the Olympian heroes he played in all those epics now seem crude, stylised and kitsch? Worse, he recognises that the point Vidal is making is that Heston – after years of playing characters who toss their heads, hold their chins high and leap from rock to rock in a leather thong – has, like the matinee idol Steve Reeves before him, become a gay icon.

Of course, Vidal’s joke only works, and wounds, because Heston is the all-American, gung-ho male. Politically, he is probably more reactionary and hawkish even than his good friend Ronald Reagan. Indeed, in America he is now almost as well known as a champion of the right to bear arms as he is for his acting. (He keeps about 40 firearms in his house, including a loaded one under his bed.) It was this reputation for rabid right-wingery that prompted the left-wing British journalist Christopher Hitchens to humiliate Heston on a live TV debate just before the Gulf War. Hitchens began by saying what an honour it was to be debating Middle Eastern politics with Moses himself. Then, suspecting that Heston was confusing Iraq with Iran, Hitchens challenged him to name the countries bordering Iraq. When Heston got them wrong, Hitchens said: ‘Before you support bombing a country off the map, perhaps you should pay it the compliment of finding out where it is.’ When Heston got angry at this, Hitchens retorted, ‘Keep your hairpiece on.’ Americans, Hitchens believes, still remember the debate because Heston was being so fatuous, complacent and self-satisfied. ‘But upon reflection,’ Hitchens tells me, ‘I feel a pang of regret because it was like humiliating your own father. To be fair to Heston, he has shown a sort of bovine courage over the years in the way that he has stuck to his convictions, even when it has meant alienating himself from the liberal Hollywood establishment.’

When asked why he thinks so many Hollywood actors are liberal, Heston says it is because they make their living from their emotions, being called upon to weep for someone about whom they care nothing by sheer technique – just like that old pro the Player King, in fact. Liberals, he believes, tend to be emotional (and therefore irrational) people. This seems a dangerous line to take, given the inevitable conclusion that, because Heston himself is anything but liberal, he must be an unemotional and therefore wooden actor. But, of course, he is emotional, although he would call it following his conscience, or his heart. In 1961, for instance, long before the civil rights movement had become a fashionable cause in Hollywood, Heston joined Martin Luther King on a protest march because, in his heart, he knew it was the right thing to do.

More recently, again because he knew that it was the right thing to do, Heston stood up to the black gangsta rap singer Ice-T in order to get his infamous record ‘Cop Killer’ banned (when Ice-T threatened to kill Heston, the actor just growled, ‘I’d like to see him try’). And even though he probably knew he would be ridiculed for missing the point, Heston criticised the violence in the films of Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino. When people did indeed laugh and ask if he had not realised the films were black comedies, he just shrugged and said: ‘”Didn’t you get it?” is a devastating question. Cool people cannot bear ever not getting a joke.’

As if all this were not enough to be campaigning about, Heston is vehemently anti-abortion and opposed to feminists because he believes they are responsible for the break-up of the family. Feminists can’t be blamed, however, for the divorce of his own parents. ‘I was still a child,’ Heston recalls, ‘and the loss of my father affected me greatly. I dealt with it, but I became a solitary, private child.’ He says his parents’ divorce was a terrible, dark secret he never told anyone about, saying instead that his mother’s new husband was his father. This, he says, has left him shy to this day but he now has a public persona he can step into.

Perhaps it was the failure of his parents’ marriage that made him want to succeed so much with his own. He married Lydia, his college sweetheart, when he was 19 (after his first date, he tells me, he ran the three miles home along the dark streets shouting, ‘I love her, I love her,’ over and over again. ‘I did, too,’ he adds.) Almost uniquely among the grandees of Hollywood, the couple have remained happily married for 53 years. Again, unusually, they have lived in the same house for much of that time. Wife? House? Politics? Stick to your guns. That seems to be the Moose’s philosophy.

Lydia now appears for her morning swim. She is wearing a dressing gown, a bath hat and what looks like a facepack. ‘Hello,’ she says, waving cheerfully when she sees me. ‘Excuse my clown make-up. It’s just sunblock.’

It is time for Heston to make his way up to the tennis court where a photographer is waiting to take his picture. He is pretty nippy with his crutches. ‘Learned to handle them playing Long John Silver,’ he says over his shoulder. ‘Although that was only the one crutch.’

The outside of the house has a faded appearance, bleached by the years of intense sunlight. Alongside a faded brass chariot and horse in the yard there is a sandpit with the words ‘jack’s sandbox’ daubed on the side. Further along the road towards the pavilion there is a faded sign which reads: ‘Unauthorized visitors not welcome. Guard dog on duty. Proceed to house. Sound horn. Wait in car.’ Another faded sign, at the back of the pavilion, says in more friendly letters: ‘Do not enter this area. Santa and his elves are busy.’

All of this serves as a melancholic reminder that some of Heston’s fame has faded, too. Inside the pavilion there is an even more poignant symbol of this: a beautifully hand-stitched leather director’s chair with the name ‘Charlton Heston’ carved in it. While Heston waits outside for the shot to be set up, I run my fingers over the letters and think ‘The Charlton Heston used to sit in this chair. It should be in a museum. It must be worth a fortune to collectors of Hollywood memorabilia.’ I almost forget that the genuine article is standing only a few yards away.

Outside, the Charlton Heston is growing impatient waiting for the photographer to finish his light readings. He has only had to wait about two minutes but he has started looking theatrically at his watch, shaking his head and sucking in breath. You can tell he hates having his photograph taken or, at least, that after so many years in front of a camera, he is bored rigid by it. After another few seconds have been wasted, he announces that he has a dentist’s appointment in ten minutes. Root canal work. It has the desired effect. As the photographer’s young assistant nervously shows the Hollywood veteran where to sit he makes the mistake of warning him to watch out for the light cables. ‘One has seen cables before,’ Heston sighs under his breath. ‘One has seen cables.’

Once seated, Heston instinctively raises his chin, tosses his head and levels a look at the camera lens which is, yes, so fucking grand it gives you goosebumps.