Heston's Characters Glimpsed America's Future

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Actor Charlton Heston died over the weekend in Beverly Hills, Calif., at the age of 84. He did more than star in epic films like Midway and Ben-Hur. Some of his characters glimpsed our future — and our collective nightmares.

In Omega Man, Heston is among the last survivors of a war waged with biological weapons. In Planet of the Apes, he plays an astronaut returning to a world from which human civilization has vanished.

Maybe the creepiest Heston movie is Soylent Green. In the 1973 film, the world population has exploded. New York has 40 million people, sleeping in tiny rooms or on stairwells. People have poisoned the environment, changed the climate and diminished their own sources of food.

Most survive on synthetic food from a giant corporation. Its products include "Soylent Green," which Heston reveals in a famous last line, is made out of people: "You tell everybody. Listen to me, Hatcher, you gotta tell 'em — Soylent Green is people!"

Whatever led Heston to choose such roles, there's a reason we remember them. They play on the flip side to America's great success, and to our optimism. It's our equally American tendency to brood about harder times ahead.

Though Soylent Green explores what seem like a liberal's nightmares — a giant corporation that eats up the little guy — it's not surprising that its star ended up as president of the conservative National Rifle Association.

Heston's eeriest movies imply a world in which you never know when you might need a gun.

Charlton Heston, Old-School Gentleman, Dies at 84

Charlton Heston, a Hollywood leading man for six decades, died Saturday night at his home in Beverly Hills. At 84, he had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease. In films ranging from biblical epics to science-fiction dystopias, he stood tall as a heroic figure.

The Charlton Heston you remember stands atop a mountain, or a chariot, or in Pharaoh's palace, declaiming.

Not for nothing do people talk of Heston's "chiseled" jaw, "craggy" features and "steely" gaze. In 1950s and '60s Hollywood, the man was a rock, a monument, the go-to guy for biblical and historical epics.

At 6-foot-3, with his muscular bearing and commanding voice, he — and, it sometimes seemed, only he — had the stature to play Moses and John the Baptist, Mark Antony and Michelangelo, El Cid and Andrew Jackson. And of course, Judah Ben-Hur, the Jewish prince who runs rings around the Romans — after communing with the horses that would pull his chariot.

He couldn't help being an imposing figure, whether he was playing a principled detective in A Touch of Evil or a reclusive cowboy in Will Penny, his own favorite of his films.

But in that Mount Rushmore visage of his, the eyes could go suddenly liquid, making him appear haunted by memories or by grief. There was a vulnerability to him. And it served him well later in his career, when Hollywood needed, say, an alpha male to play The Omega Man, or when a sci-fi epic required a sensitive finale: an astronaut on a planet of apes who sees a metal torch on a beach and realizes where he is.

Later in his career, his best qualities tended to be ill-used by Hollywood. He mostly looked grim in interchangeable disaster epics in the 1970s. And in the '80s and '90s, he tried to counteract that image by flirting with Dame Edna on TV (she called him Chuck), and appearing on stage in classic dramas.

When he brought one of those to the Kennedy Center in the 1980s, I interviewed him for a local paper. I'm guessing he knew — well into his Earthquake, Airport, Dynasty period — that any press he got from an alternative weekly was likely to be skeptical.

But he showed up without a public relations person, and sat for photos and answered questions. A few days later, a letter arrived — embossed stationery, typed note above his signature — saying he had thought the interview went well, and thanking me for my time. The first and last note of that sort I've ever gotten from an actor — and an indication, I suspect, of the sort of thoroughgoing professional he had always been.

Despite the angry political moments and lesser roles that dogged him for the rest of his career, that's how I find I remember him now: old-school, straight-backed, a gentleman.

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