Great roles require great actors, and Charlton Heston played the greatest roles of the 20th century, or any century: Buffalo Bill, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Michelangelo, John the Baptist, Marc Antony. Heston even played God.
It was while shooting The Ten Commandments on location at Mount Sinai that Heston, already cast in the starring role of Moses, talked himself into the biggest part of all. He and legendary director Cecil B. DeMille were having dinner with the abbot of St. Catherine’s monastery at the base of the mountain.
“I said, ‘You know, Mr. DeMille, it seems to me that if you hear the voice of God, you hear it inside yourself. I’d like very much to do the voice of God in the burning bush,’” Heston later recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, Chuck, you’ve got a pretty good part as it is.’ But the abbot, fortunately, was intrigued by that. He said, ‘I think that’s an interesting idea.’ So Mr. DeMille said, ‘Well, we’ll see about that.’”
So it is that in the 1956 classic, when Moses hears the Almighty, he hears his own voice — disguised by audio effects and speaking the “thy-thou-thine” language of the King James Bible, but still unmistakably Heston.
HESTON’S VOICE WAS his greatest asset as an actor. He was handsome, but so were many other actors. He had the muscular physique required for such sword-and-sandals epics as Ben Hur, but directors never had a shortage of brawny leading men, and neither Steve Reeves nor Johnny Weismuller ever won Oscars. It was his deep, resonant voice that set Heston apart from the Hollywood herd.
Some might think he was born with the voice that delivered great lines like “Let my people go!” However, his majestic vocal quality was actually the product of training as a stage actor — from the Winnetka (Ill.) Community Theatre to Broadway — years before he went into movies, where he first worked with DeMille in 1953’s The Greatest Show On Earth.
His stage training gave Heston the gravitas necessary to seem believably natural when speaking the almost comically stilted dialogue required by his many historical roles. (Sample line from The Ten Commandments: “What change is there in me? Egyptian or Hebrew, I am still Moses. These are the same hands, the same arms, the same face that was mine a moment ago.”)
Even in schlocky sci-fi films, Heston’s voice had the power to turn an otherwise absurd phrase — “Soylent Green is people!” — into a memorable line. Roddy McDowell was a fine actor, yet no one ever quotes his dialogue from Planet of the Apes. Instead, they remember Heston: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” A silly sentence somehow infused with significance, simply because Heston said it.
AFTER HESTON DIED Saturday at age 84, his friend and National Rifle Association colleague Wayne LaPierre praised the former NRA president as “a man who devoted his life to his profession with grace and dignity.”
Dignity was the essence of Heston’s onscreen appeal. He was barely 30 when DeMille cast him as Moses, but already possessed the mature dignity needed to play the mighty prophet, and Heston was as believable as the gray-bearded Hebrew lawgiver as he was as the young Egyptian prince.
The theme of human dignity runs like a thread through Heston’s career, both on and off the screen. Heston was seemingly typecast as the voice who speaks for the dignity of downtrodden mankind, whether enslaved by Egyptians or Romans, oppressed by apes, or euthanized and ground up for food in Soylent Green.
His consistent concern for human dignity helps explain why Heston, a liberal Democrat in younger years, eventually emerged as one of conservatism’s most visible spokesmen. A prominent supporter of Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights crusade who joined King for the 1963 March on Washington, a year later Heston joined his Hollywood friend Ronald Reagan in supporting Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid. (As Heston later said, he decided to support Goldwater after seeing a sign with the Arizona senator’s slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” and being struck with the thought, “Son of a bitch, he is right.”) Like Reagan, Heston became an ex-liberal not because he changed, but because liberalism changed.
Heston’s principled consistency was evident in his 1999 speech at Harvard Law School, where he urged students to engage in “massive disobedience” against political correctness. “I learned the awesome power of disobedience from Dr. King … who learned it from Gandhi, and Thoreau, and Jesus, and every other great man who led those in the right against those with the might,” Heston said. “Disobedience is in our DNA.”
Heston knew his voice could have a powerful effect. He famously shocked Time-Warner board members when he showed up for a stockholders meeting in Beverly Hills and read aloud the violent, vulgar lyrics of gangsta rapper Ice-T, whose records the company had released.
The lyrics included the rapper’s fantasies about sodomizing Al Gore’s nieces, and as Heston said, his performance “left the room in echoing silence.” Heston had spoken. Ice-T’s contract was soon terminated. (Informed later that the rapper had threatened to kill him, Heston replied, “Let him try.”)
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