Charlton Heston: The Alpha and Omega Man
In a career spanning more than half a century, Charlton Heston has played everyone from Moses to Michelangelo, John the Baptist, to the last man on Earth. Here Heston talks about the great roles he's played in the past and the role he'll be playing this summer in the remake of one of his own classics, Planet of the Apes.
With the recent DVD releases of the great noir film Touch of Evil, in which Heston plays a Mexican narcotics investigator opposite Orson Welles, and The Greatest Story Ever Told, in which he plays John the Baptist to Max von Sydow's Jesus, there has been renewed appreciation for how far-ranging his accomplishments on-screen have been and how forward-looking many of his choices have turned out to be. Gladiator director Ridley Scott noted in his Movieline interview last year, "Charlton Heston was really brave. He made one of the greatest [ancient historical epics], Ben-Hur. But he also did every other conceivable kind of world. He had his eye on the ball. He did Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and The Omega Man... Sometimes he had great success, sometimes less, but Heston was an inspiration [to me]." Heston's stature on-screen and off is so substantial that he still works frequently, doing savvy turns in roles that are often, as with his CIA director in James Cameron's True Lies, ironic plays on his commanding screen persona. Naturally, the first topic of interest in talking with Heston at the moment is one of the summer's most anticipated films, Planet of the Apes, in which he has a small role and on which he has no small amount of historical perspective.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: Let's start out with a movie that's being talked about right now because it's being remade. When you made the original Planet of the Apes, did you have any idea it would achieve cult status?
CHARLTON HESTON: I was not overwhelmed with Pierre Boulle's book, but the idea was marvelous. Arthur Jacobs owned the property and it got to be kind of a joke, because every month or two he would call to say, "Well, I've got it over at Warners now." And I'd say, "Didn't you have it there last year?" And he'd say, "Yeah, it's a different bunch there now." This went on for nearly two years. They'd say to him, "For Christ's sake, talking monkeys? Buck Rogers? Get out of here." Then Dick Zanuck, who was running Fox, said, "There are going to be actors in makeup, right?" Then he said, "I'll give you $50,000 to develop the makeup. If it looks good, we'll do a test scene. If the test looks good, I'll take it to New York and show it to the board of directors. If they don't laugh, you've got a picture." And that's how it turned out. I was positive it would be a successful film.
Q: You stayed out of all the sequels but the first, right?
A: I told Dick, "We've done the movie. The rest is going to be further adventures about the monkeys." Which it was. He said, "Chuck, I have to do a sequel and I can't do it if you're not in it." I said, "You stepped up to the plate on this when no one else would, so I guess we owe you one. Just kill me off in the first scene." He said, "How about you disappear in the first scene and we kill you off in the last?" That's how it worked.
Q: In hindsight, do you regret not having done the sequels as well?
A: No, because the first one is the best one. I haven't seen all of the others.
Q: Is it true that when Kim Hunter embraced you at the screening of the first one, you didn't know who she was?
A: Yeah. I'd never seen her without the makeup.
Q: Where would you rank this film among your work?
A: Pretty high. I'm very proud of it and I still get checks.
Q: Is it the way you think our world might end--not with a whimper, but a bang?
A: Who can say? You know, for that scene on the beach where you see the Statue of Liberty stuck in the sand, Dick Zanuck was there that day, and when my character said, "You finally really did it. Goddamn you, goddamn you all to hell," Dick said I couldn't say that. I said, "Dick, I'm not swearing, I'm calling on God to damn the people who destroyed civilization." He said, "That's pretty good. That will fly."
Q: What's your part in Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes?
A: In a relatively brief scene I play a senior ape, a great ape in the literal sense, who is dying.
Q: What do you think about Tim Burton?
A: He's pretty good. I'm delighted to be working for him.
Q: Do you think it's being remade because of the spate of '70s remakes like Charlie's Angels, The Mod Squad and Shaft?
A: Might be. All I know is I got a call from Dick Zanuck, whom I hadn't seen in a couple of years. He invited me to lunch, and we went down to Beverly Hills. He said, "Chuck, I have to do another sequel to Planet of the Apes. And I have to have you in it. It wouldn't work if you weren't." Then he described the part--a day's work, but I'd be paid a large sum of money for it.
Q: When you made Planet of the Apes, you were an established star. But you'd had a pretty smooth ride from the beginning, right?
A: When I came home from the war, my wife and I went straight to New York to get work, beginning as nude models at $1.50 an hour, which wasn't bad. A production company was holding free auditions for anyone who served in combat overseas, so I went in and did Mercutio's death speech and the producer said, "Come up to CBS tomorrow." Having almost no experience, I did The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, Jane Eyre, Of Human Bondage and Wuthering Heights in the space of 14 months. The actor doesn't draw breath that isn't going to be good in one of those parts, so then I got a movie, Dark City. I did it and I met DeMille. Every new actor on the lot was invited to go to DeMille's private dining room and have coffee and talk to him for a minute.
Q: Were you nervous meeting him?
A: Not very. A few months later, as I was driving off the Paramount lot, DeMille was standing on the porch of his building. I probably wouldn't be here if I hadn't been driving a convertible with the top down. I made a gesture to him, and as I was told later, he asked his secretary, "Who was that?" She said, "Charlton Heston. He's a Broadway actor, just made a picture with Hal Wallis, you ran it two weeks ago, you didn't like it." He said, "I like the way he looked just now. Have him in to talk about being the manager in The Greatest Show on Earth." Bingo! There you are. My second picture won the Academy Award, and I had the leading role. I'm a great believer in serendipity.
Q: Ridley Scott recently cited you as a pioneer and an inspiration for doing not only Ben-Hur, but Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and The Omega Man. Do you consider yourself a pioneer?
A: I made my first movie just as the studio system was ending. Being independent was an enormous advantage--you could pick your scripts, rather than have them just toss a script at you that you had to do.