Sunday, April 17, 2011

Exodus, Hollywood-Style

The holiday of Passover, when Jews around the world celebrate throwing off the shackles of slavery, is almost here. So naturally I’ve been thinking about Charlton Heston. Heston of course starred as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s Bible epic to end all Bible epics, The Ten Commandments. For the Baby Boom generation, it was Heston—tall, broad-shouldered, jut-jawed, and Anglo-Saxon to the core—who led the Jews out of Egypt.

Back in the days before he became the prime-time spokesman for the National Rifle Association, and long before he was claimed by Alzheimer’s disease, I interviewed Heston at his home, an aerie of stone and glass perched in a canyon high above Los Angeles. As I noted then, power symbols were everywhere: “Once past the rather frightening signs that warn off interlopers, you encounter the tennis court and the stable full of family cars (big black Cadillac, white Mercedes sports coupe, new black Corvette). Park at your own risk; you will be instantly surrounded by four enormous mastiffs. (‘Down, Wotan!’, commands Heston in passing.) But the most startling sight here is a huge sculpted horse’s head dramatically mounted near the home’s main entrance. Only plaster, as it turns out . . . but it’s an authenticated full-scale reproduction of a figure from the pediment of the Parthenon.”

Amid all this grandeur, Heston was surprisingly informal, decked out in tennis shorts and alligator shirt, his feet bare. Still, he projected an unmistakable air of authority. My published interview focused especially on his voice, which I described as deep, resonant, and carefully controlled: “Words are chosen slowly, thoughtfully. He is both articulate and candid, but expect from him no lapse into casual banter, no off-the-cuff moments of personal interchange. Cordial though he may be, Heston does not confuse an interview with a conversation. He listens intently to your questions, his keen blue eyes boring into yours, but there’s no idle curiosity on his part about his interlocutor. And why should there be? He’s the star, that’s a fact of life.”

After discussing with Heston his stage and screen career, I segued into a natural question: When your public life is cast in a heroic mold, how is your private world affected? He grinned at that, admitting his friends did expect the occasional miracle: “If I go to a party and it rains, people look at me reproachfully.” And when making a guest appearance on a beautiful day, he enjoyed solemnly taking credit for the weather. “You’re never certain,” he quipped to me, “whether they think I mean it or not.”

Though Heston in those days seemed like the sort of guy who COULD part the Red Sea through sheer force of will, I was never really a fan. Nor was he entirely my vision of Moses. The way I personally read the book of Exodus, Moses wasn’t exactly the tall, dark, and majestic sort. He was humble, sometimes tongue-tied, and in his latter years often exasperated to the max. Above all, he was fallible, and knew it. Yes, not a bad role for Mel Brooks.


  1. Wonderful post, Beverly. I had a good giggle at the end, though. During your description of Moses, I immediately envisioned Mel Brooks as Moses from HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART 1 and lo and behold, the link shall appear!

    But seriously, I like some of Heston's movies and I'd say he was the epitome of the larger than life hero of the movies during those days. My favorite of his will always be PLANET OF THE APES.

  2. Glad I gave you the giggles! I never loved Heston's sort of roles (watching Ben-Hur, I rooted for Stephen Boyd), but he was known in the industry as a thorough professional. Given all the prima donnas (of both genders) out there, that's certainly an admirable thing. Yes, Planet of the Apes was one of his best. He told me his biggest regret as an actor was that he couldn't sing. He said he would have loved to play Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady.

  3. Heston takes a beating these days in a lot of circles - but the man was a bona fide Hollywood Legend, and I love your story of interviewing him. Where was the interview run? Were you happy with it? Do you know if Mr. Heston was?

  4. The interview was run in Performing Arts magazine, which served as the program for all the offerings at the Los Angeles County Music Center. I was happy with the way it came out. I don't know about Heston's opinion. He may not have cared -- he did a lot of press in that era. But he was a major supporter of the theatres at the Music Center,as well as a board member, so if he had been seriously displeased I suspect I would have heard.