For an actor of such limited range, Charlton Heston, who died earlier this evening at the age of 84, had a pretty remarkable career.
He starred in several of the biggest blockbusters of the 1950s and 1960s, among them The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), The Ten Commandments (1956), The Big Country (1958), Ben-Hur (1959), El Cid (1961), and Planet of the Apes (1968), and in numerous classics and near-classics of that period, ranging from the aforementioned Ben-Hur (which won a total of 11 Oscars, including Best Picture) and the box office friendly Planet of the Apes to Orson Welles’ auterish flop Touch of Evil (1958) and Tom Gries’ unglamorous Western Will Penny (1968).
Like Paul Muni in the 1930s, Heston became associated with prestigious historical roles. Also like Paul Muni in the 1930s, Heston’s historical heroes all looked the same, sounded the same, and were none too convincing. Among them were General Charles Gordon in Khartoum (1966), Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1966), Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra (which he also directed), and Cardinal Richelieu in The Four Musketeers (1974).
Additionally, Heston won a best actor Academy Award for the bloated, ponderous Ben-Hur – one of the most undeserved Oscar victories in Academy history. (Others in the running that year were James Stewart for Anatomy of a Murder and Jack Lemmon for Some Like It Hot. Among those who weren’t even nominated were Tony Curtis for Some Like It Hot and Cary Grant for North by Northwest.)
By far his best performance (I’ve seen about 40 or so of his films) was his Mexican (!) police officer in Touch of Evil (top photo). Despite the poor accent and the risible make-up, Heston – who is excellent in the role (I may well be the only person who thinks so) – for once proved himself capable of creating a multi-dimensional character, one displaying facial expressions other than his patented, granite-like Sheer Determination look.
In the last few decades, the former Democrat became as well known for his right-wing politics as for his film work; he was a poster-boy for the National Rifle Association and supported Republican presidential and congressional candidates. As president of the NRA, at the organization’s 2000 convention he declared that his guns would have to be taken away “from my cold, dead hands.”
In recent years, it was announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.
His last film appearance was in Egidio Eronico’s 2003 drama My Father, Rua Alguem 5555, in which Heston played the Nazi Angel of Death, Josef Mengele.