In "Charlton Heston, Last Hollywood Icon," Marc Eliot's biography of the actor's long life, extensive acting career and controversial political activism, readers will discover that there was more to the matinee idol than Ben-Hur and gun-rights.
Heston was born John Charles Carter in 1923 in a rural, woody section of Evanston, Illinois. At a very young age, his father took him fishing and hunting and taught him about guns.
He attended a one-room schoolhouse where he describes himself as a shy little country boy. At the age of 5, cast as Santa Claus in a Christmas play, he delivered his first line of dialogue: "Merry Christmas.”
When he was ten, his mother, a city girl weary of life in the wilds, packed her bags and her three children and left her husband. She remarried Chester Heston and then changed John Charles Carter to Charlton Heston. Charlton was devastated at the loss of this father: "I missed my dad greatly, and the woods I knew best…."
Of his freshman year he says: "I was a hick kid from a lonely part of the woods, who didn't know how to dance, who didn't know how to drive, didn't have any money, had never played team sports…The only thing I felt equipped for were the riffle team and the chess club."
By his senior year; however, his body had filled out and he was tall and handsome, had discovered the drama club and was offered all the leading roles in high school productions and at the local community theatre. He could have had his choice of dates, but until he met Lydia Clarke, during his freshman year in college, he never had the courage to ask a girl out. They were married on March 17, 1944 and stayed married until he died of the complications of Alzheimer's on April 5, 2008.
In 1944, Heston enlisted in the United States Air Force and served for two years as a radio aerial gunner aboard a B-25 medium bomber stationed in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands with the 77th Bombardment Squadron of the Eleventh Air Force.
After the war he and Lydia decided to pursue careers in theater and television. Between jobs they supported themselves by sometimes acting as painters' models, he in the nude, and she as a lingerie model. Reluctantly, and only because he was not a resounding success on the Broadway stage, he considered working in films. His eventual success in films did afford him the luxury of doing regional theaters at least every other year for the rest of his working life.
Heston starred or appeared in some 80 films. Many were unforgettable: In "The Greatest Show on Earth," he was the beleaguered circus manager who kept the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus running; as Ben-Hur he won a breathtaking chariot race which earned him an Oscar for best actor; as Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” he parted the Red Sea and was nominated for a Golden Globe, and in “Planet of the Apes,” he was the stranded astronaut at the mercy of a race of primates.
Some of his other films were more forgettable. However he was a man who sometimes accepted roles not expected to gross millions, but because he believed in the story and had the courage to take on challenges others might avoid.
Because in his later years Heston was so very vocal and visible in his support of right wing causes and of the NRA in particular, it is easy to forget that he was once a registered Democrat. He campaigned for Adlai Stevenson and endorsed Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. During the march held in Washington, DC, in 1963, he accompanied Martin Luther King, Jr. and in later speeches said he helped the civil rights cause "long before Hollywood found it fashionable." Even more surprising, after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, along with James Stewart, Gregory Peck and Kirk Douglas, he signed a petition supporting President Johnson's Gun Control Act of 1968.
By 1980s, however, Heston was a registered Republican, supported gun rights and went on to campaign for Ronald Reagan, George H.W.Bush, then George W. Bush. His support of gun rights particularly at the time of the Columbine massacre cost him many Hollywood friendships and job opportunities in the film industry.
In "Charlton Heston, Hollywood's Last Icon," Marc Eliot tells a story of Heston's life and 6-decade-long career in full detail, 530 pages. He says that he was given almost total access to Charlton Heston's letters, photos, and documents, many of which are included in the book. Heston was a "constant diarist" and recorded the minutiae of his life including, in some instances, what he ate for breakfast.
I wish the author would had omitted such irrelevant details in what otherwise would be an invaluable, if shorter, resource for those interested not only in Heston but in the Hollywood star system, the making of epic movies, and the involvement of the movie industry in American politics.