by Tony Dayoub
I've seen Charlton Heston in parts great and small. I've seen him keenly underplay a line, and also play so over-the-top that you wonder if he's even in the same movie as his fellow actors. Not only was Heston, the actor, a man of contradictions, but so was Heston, the activist. He courageously supported the civil rights cause in the 60s, while being an outspoken member, and eventual president, of the NRA in his later life. But personally, as well as to many film buffs of my generation, he will always be one of the seminal figures in my own entry into the world of cinema.
He generally played larger-than-life heroes in films by some of Hollywood's greats: Brad Braden in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952); Moses in DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956); Mike Vargas in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958); Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar in Anthony Mann's El Cid (1961); John the Baptist in George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965); the title character in Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (1965); and Michelangelo in Carol Reed's The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965). He won his only Oscar for the part of Judah Ben-Hur in William Wyler's Ben-Hur (1959).
The first film that I remember him from was Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes (1968), where he played the misanthropic astronaut, Taylor. He was arrogant, tough, wily, and the perfect foil to Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, and Maurice Evans as the apes. He also brought some of his own activism to the subtext of the part. The cynical loner Taylor, who spends the first half of the film asserting mankind's flaws to his fellow astronauts, must spend the second half of the film defending mankind's virtues to their ape oppressors. His tragic, utter defeat, when he realizes mankind ultimately brought their fate down upon themselves, helps to create one of the most memorable finales in all of cinema.
He would go on to play some memorable parts in the remainder of his career: the eponymous Will Penny (1968); an older, defeated Taylor in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970); Robert Neville in The Omega Man (1971); Detective Robert Thorn in Richard Fleischer's Soylent Green (1973); evil Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers (1973), and it's sequel (1974).
He died Saturday night at the age of 83.
Recommended Films: Touch of Evil, Ben-Hur, El Cid, Major Dundee, Planet of the Apes, Will Penny, The Omega Man