Charlton Heston Biography

Entertainment Magazine: Celebrities: Charlton Heston

The Charlton Heston Story in his own words

The following is a biography of Charlton Heston, presented by himself in March 1987. Heston passed away on April 5, 2008.

Charlton Heston 1987Charlton Heston was born in Evanston, Illinois on October 4, 1923. He spent his early years at St. Helen, Michigan, a northwoods hamlet where his father was a mill operator.

The Heston family lived in an isolated house far from the limited companionship available to a boy in a community of 100.

"Chuck" learned to amuse himself by acting out the stories his father read to him and as soon as he was able to, he read for himself.

He appeared in every entertainment put onby the little school and when the family moved to Wilmette, Illinois, Heston attended New Trier High School. There he took full advantage of the school's excellent drama training program, playing leads in a variety of offerings. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at Northwestern University in the School of Speech on an acting scholarship, majoring in theatre and playing lead roies in many of the plays presented by the institution's justly famed drama department.

He became interested in a lovely classmate in his freshman acting class, a bright girl who was also an aspiring actress in the School of Speech. The interest eventually proved mutual and soon after Heston enlisted in the Air Corps, Lydia Clarke became Mrs. Charlton Heston.

While his bride continued at Northwestern, he served three years with the 11th Air Force in the Aleutians, mostly as a radio operator on B-52s, with the rank of staff sergeant. After his discharge, the Hestons moved to New York City and rented a cold water flat in a Hell's Kitchen tenement, where the rent was cheap and they were close to the theatre district.

Between rounds of theatrical casting offices, the Hestons supported themselves by modeling.

"We never starved," he recalls, "but we weren't far from it occasionally."

When they finally landed jobs, it was as co-directors and performers in the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Theatre, not in New York, but Asheville, North Carolina, later the Asheville Community Theatre.

"We went there to do one play, earn a little money and then get back to New York," he states.

"It was a pleasant change after having been thrown out of countless offices and having doors slammed in my face, to go where my opinion was respected and I could work."

Returning to New York in 1948, Heston made his Broadway debut as a member of Katharine Cornell's "Antony and Cleopatra" company, performing a number of roles during the play's long and successful run.

"I'm sure I got the job," he says, "because I'm six foot three.

Miss Cornell was tall and liked tall actors around." During the run of the play, television came of age and Heston became-one of the first Broadway actors to achieve success in the new medium, playing leads in "Studio One" and other live dramatic programs.

"When I started to do television," he recalls, "theatrical actors of any reputation wouldn't do it because it didn't pay anything, and film actors were contractually prohibited from doing TV. So I was competing with actors in my own category -- out of work! "

In 1949, Heston appeared in the short-lived play, "Leaf and Bough," and the following season in "Design for a Stained Glass Window," opposite Martha Scott. The Hestons also did a series·in summer stock at the Mt. Gretna Theatre in Pennsylvania.

Few remember (since few ever saw it) that an amateur film of "Peer Gynt" offered Heston his movie debut at sixteen. He first drew Hollywood's attention after playing Antony in David Bradley's widely acclaimed l6mm version of "Julius Caesar." When producer Hal Wallis saw the picture, he brought Heston to California to play the lead in "Dark City." Immediately thereafter, Cecil B. deMille signed him for "The Greatest Show on Earth." The film won the Academy Award as Best Picture of the Year and Heston was on his way.

Over the years, he has proven himself in a wide range of roles, cover~ng5,000 years of past and future history and a dozen different nationalities. His reputation looms as a specialist in historical specta~les, particularly Bible stories. However, not more than half a dozen of his 50 films could be categorized as epics, and in them he has played only two Biblical roles -- Moses in "The Ten Commandments" and John the Baptist in "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

"I've played cardinals and cowboys," he says, "kings and quarterbacks, presidents and painters, cops and con-men, astronauts and geniuses."

Heston won an Academy Award for Best Actor for "Ben-Hur" in 1959 and has earned numerous overseas equivalents of the Oscar, including Germany's top acting honor, the "Bambi," Italy's "David di Donatello" and Belgium's "Uilenspiegel." (He is a three-time winner of the latter, which no other actor has won more than once.)

A conscientious citizen, Mr. Heston takes an active part in community and film industry affairs. He has made numerous overseas tours under the State Department Cultural Presentation Programs; was U.S. Delegate to the Berlin Film Festival; vis~ted American troops in Vietnam three times, as well as a New Year's Eve visit to the Marines in Beirut; serves as co-chairman of the board for Center Theatre Group; and was a member of the National Council of the Arts.

After serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild, he became chairman of the American Film Institute. For these and other special services, Heston received the 1978 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences .. That same year, he made his debut as an author with E.P. Dutton's publication of the best-selling "The Actor's Life: Journals 1956 to 1976."

Heston served six terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild, longer than anyone else has held the office. Although the post provided two of his predecessors with a springboard into politics, Heston disclaims any ambitions for a political career. "I've played three presidents, three saints and two geniuses," he says. "That should satisfy any man."

The presidents he has played in movies are Andrew Jackson in "The President's Lady," Thomas Jefferson in "The Patriots" on television, and the voice of Franklin D. Roosevelt for a TV series.

The saints he played in films are Moses in "The Ten Commandments," John the Baptist in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and Sir Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons." The two geniuses he portrayed were Michelangelo in "The Agony and the Ecstasy" and Thomas Jefferson.

In 1971, Heston made his bow as a motion picture director with the first film version of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra," produced by Peter Snell with Heston also playing Antony. He offers a principal reason why he was chosen to direct (as he recently did for "Mother Lode," a film written by his son, Fraser.): "Few Shakespearean directors have done films," he says, "and few film directors have done Shakespeare. The ones who do both, Larry Olivier and Orson Welles, weren't available. Besides, Peter and I figured that I've worked with so many great directors, including Olivier and Welles, that some of their talent must have rubbed off on me."

When his filming schedule allows, Heston makes a point of appearing on the stage "to renew my passport," he says.

One theatre venture were he appeared as Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt's play, "A Man for All Seasons," which he performed in Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami, breaking box-office records and drawing critical praise in each city; and as John Proctor in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," for a highly successful run at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in 1973. Since then, he has returned to that theatre on a semi-annual basis: as "Macbeth," with Vanessa Redgrave, for an engagement in

1975 that set a box-office record; as James Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night," with Deborah Kerr in 1977; again in 1979 in "A Man for All Seasons"; as well as a 1980 production of "Crucifer of Blood" as Sherlock Holmes, and "Detective Story" in 1984, both setting house records.

Heston pointedly keeps in good physical condition. "An actor's primary tool is his body." He runs, plays a driving game of tennis and is an expert horseman. He prefers Bach and Brahms to most contemporary music, but is a Sinatra fan, reads books by the score and goes through newspapers thoroughly, including the comics. "I'm a print freak," he admits. "If there's nothing else at hand, I'll read cereal labels." He is also a deft artist whose pen-and-ink sketches have been exhibited in galleries in New York, London and Glasgow. Katharine Cornell was his favorite actress, and he considers Sir Laurence Olivier the world's best actor.

Heston retains a love for the Michigan woods and keeps a small cabin amid 1400 acres of forest, purchased with the first money he earned in Hollywood.

With their son, Fraser, born February 12, 1955, and daughter, Holly Ann, born August 2, 1961, Lydia and Chuck Heston lead an active but informal life in their modern home atop Coldwater Canyon in Beverly Hills.

Heston in "The Coby's"

Charlton Heston portrayed Jason Colby, the wealthy, tough business magnate in "The Colbys," airing on ABC-TV in 1987.

After more than fifty starring roles in films and many in the theatre and television, Heston is still bemused at receiving a huge salary for doing what he'd rather do more than anything else.

After appearing in a school playlet at age five, he decided to become an actor.

"Since it was a one-room school with thirteen kids in eight grades, landing the role was hardly an endorsement of my ta\ent," he said. Nevertheless, he can't remember ever wanting to be anything but an actor. "The Colbys" is a Richard and Esther Shapiro Production in association with Aaron Spelling Productions.

Charlton Heston photos and interview courtesy of Michael Levine Public Relations Co., Los Angeles, California. March 1987.

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