Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Charlton Heston

Chariots of Celluloid

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Charlton Heston Movies on DVD

Note: Charlton Heston died April 5, 2008 at the age of 83. The following is an interview I wrote based on an all-too-brief, ten-minute phone conversation we had in 2001, promoting the new Ben-Hur DVD.

Upon encountering Charlton Heston on the set of the new Planet of the Apes, star Mark Wahlberg told him that it was "very disturbing meeting you."

I can't say the same thing. I recently spoke to Mr. Heston about the DVD release of Ben-Hur (1959, Warner Home Video, $24.98) for which he has recorded a new commentary track. During our phone conversation, Mr. Heston was gracious and professional. He was talking about a 40 year-old film, and no reporter could possibly think of a question that he hasn't been asked yet. Yet, he answered all of my questions with charm and grace, as if they had been asked for the first time.

Heston recently returned from shooting a cameo appearance in the new Planet of the Apes film directed by Tim Burton. "It should be a fun summer release," he says. "They paid me very well, if I may say, and I got to die, which is the most fun for an actor." Heston says Planet of the Apes is one of three films most people ask him about. The other two are, of course, Touch of Evil and Ben-Hur.

I've never seen Ben-Hur on the big screen and I tried to watch it on television once, to no avail. It just did not work on the small screen. So I was skeptical about this new DVD. But moments after I loaded it my player, I was thoroughly impressed. This widescreen transfer just sparkles, the sound thunders, and the movie's epic feel comes through even on the tube. (The disc also contains an hour-long documentary about the film's history as well as a delicious early screen test with Leslie Nielsen playing Messala.)

Ben-Hur's most celebrated scene is still the chariot race. During the late 1950s, various Hollywood luminaries traveled to Rome to see the set, and many asked for chariot rides. Heston himself gave a ride to Ed Sullivan. "He was a little disturbed even though we took it pretty slow," Heston says.

The action scenes in Ben-Hur are beautifully shot and extraordinarily clear, especially compared to last year's choppy and muddy Gladiator, because Heston and the crew were not computer assisted, but were out there racing chariots in real life. Heston laughs and replies, "You know that the chariot race was rigged, don't you?"

"You know about the three myths about the chariot race, don't you?" Heston asks. "The first myth says that a red car is visible; the second says that a man was killed, and the third is that I'm wearing a wristwatch." All false, according to the man who was there. "Even if I was wearing a wristwatch, you couldn't see it because of the leather arm bands I had on."

A high point for Heston while promoting the finished Ben-Hur back in 1959 was meeting Japanese Emperor Hiro Hito. "They refurbished this theater and the Emperor arrived in a limo. The limo driver drove right up onto the stairs of the theater. And I wasn't sure how to greet him. I asked, and they said, 'we don't know. Just do what he does.' He shook hands, and so I shook hands. I had been to many many countries by that time and had seen the film many many times. So I would sit down in the back and watch just the first five minutes to get a sense of the audiences' reaction. But this time, the film broke. And the Emperor didn't move a muscle. He was used to people doing things for him and he knew someone would fix it. Well, I left to get something to eat and the film had broken three times in all. But it was still a rousing success."

Of course, Ben-Hur still holds the record for the most Oscars won by a single movie, with eleven (though Titanic tied the record in 1998). One went to Heston for Best Actor, and British actor Hugh Griffith also won for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Sheik Ilderim.

On the film's commentary track, Heston proclaims that, on the whole, English actors are better than American actors, due to their Shakespearian training. But Heston himself is an accomplished Shakespearian actor. It occurred to me that Heston, at 76, would make a great King Lear. "That's funny," he replies. "We've been talking about doing Lear for about three years. I'm old enough to do it now. It's the most difficult part Shakespeare ever wrote, which means that it's the most difficult part, ever. Someday soon I may just drag my weary bones out there and do it."

"You know, I met Bob De Niro recently. I was in a restaurant waiting for my wife and he was waiting for someone, and I told him, 'you are the best American film actor we have, but you have to do Shakespeare.' And he said, 'I know. People have been telling me that.' And I said, 'That's how we know if you can really play.' And I think he got a little irritated with me."

I wonder if Jake La Motta could lick Ben-Hur in a fair fight? Nah.

March 8, 2001

Partial Filmography:

  • Dark City (1950)
  • The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
  • Ruby Gentry (1952)
  • The Naked Jungle (1954)
  • The Ten Commandments (1956)
  • The Big Country (1958)
  • Touch of Evil (1958)
  • Ben-Hur (1959)
  • El Cid (1961)
  • 55 Days at Peking (1963)
  • The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
  • The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
  • Major Dundee (1965)
  • Khartoum (1966)
  • Planet of the Apes (1968)
  • Will Penny (1968)
  • Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
  • Julius Caesar (1970)
  • The Omega Man (1971)
  • Antony and Cleopatra (1972)
  • Skyjacked (1972)
  • The Call of the Wild (1972)
  • Soylent Green (1973)
  • The Three Musketeers (1973)
  • Airport 1975 (1974)
  • The Four Musketeers (1974)
  • Earthquake (1974)
  • Midway (1976)
  • The Awakening (1980)
  • Solar Crisis (1990)
  • Wayne's World 2 (1993)
  • Tombstone (1993)
  • True Lies (1994)
  • In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
  • Alaska (1996)
  • Hamlet (1996)
  • Hercules (1997) [narrator]
  • Armageddon (1998) [narrator]
  • Any Given Sunday (1999)
  • Cats & Dogs (2001) [voice]
  • The Order (2001)
  • Planet of the Apes (2001)
  • Town & Country (2001)

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