“He still wanted to work, not only for the money – he had, by now, made plenty of that – and not for prestige – he had more than most in Hollywood ever get and was still greeted with shouts of “Moses” by fans wherever he traveled all over the world. He simply loved acting and being a player in the game.”
-Marc Eliot (from Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon)
Years ago (decades, really) before Netflix and all the specialty cable channels where around, CFCF-TV used to air movies at midnight. That was where I first saw classics like The Godfather, The Wild Bunch, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as a kid (unedited for television, I might add), usually on weekend nights or during the summer. Every once in a while they would present themed weeks like all westerns, or a James Bond festival. When they had a science fiction week no less than three of the presentations (Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man and Soylent Green) featured Charlton Heston, the tall, lanky, square-jawed thespian whose specialty was genre films (by that I mean all genres like westerns, action, disaster, biblical, sci-fi, period pieces, sword & sandal costume flicks, and so on), and who had a long, successful and iconic career in show business.
But who was this man really? Younger people remember him from the unforgettable soundbite where he held a flintlock over his head proclaiming “from my cold, dead hands” as a bunch of rednecks whooped and hollered, but few know he was an early champion of civil rights. Some recall his support of Republican candidates and causes, but does anyone remember he was the multi-term president of a union and that he lobbied the government hard for funding for the non-profit National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Institute. In his new book Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon, author Marc Eliot tries to piece together a portrait of this interesting and remarkable man.
Seasoned writer that he is, especially in the field of entertainment biographies, Eliot hits the ground running and never lets up. Facts and anecdotes come so fast and furious that at times I had to go back and re-read several passages to make sure I had it straight. He draws from multiple sources and interviews, including Heston’s own memoires and journals to create the mosaic that is Charlton Heston. And in keeping with his subject’s propensity for appearing in epic movies, the long volume is divided in two with and intermission (nice touch). I especially like the footnotes that add an extra punch, making the book not only the biography of a star, but of his era in Hollywood as well.
Charlton Heston however contains no big surprises or revelations like in Jimmy Stewart: A Biography, one of Eliot’s other books, which claims that the lovable All-American Stewart had racist tendencies. (Although Heston himself was a pretty straight-laced guy with few personality faults, he was far from dull.) And I have another issue: On page 328 the author writes “omega means ‘the end’ in Greek” and that is inaccurate. Omega is Greek for “large O” as opposed to omicron which means “little” or “small O.” The reason Omega has come to symbolize “the last” or “the end” is because it is the final letter of the Greek alphabet.
Ultimately Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon is a great read that I enjoyed tremendously and hated to put down (one would have had to pry the book from my “cold, dead hands” with their “stinking paws” at which point I would “damn them all to Hell” and “soylent green is people!” and…I digress). Marc Eliot skillfully details a complex man and not only makes him understandable and relatable, but sympathetic as well. By the time I finished the book, I felt like Heston was a personal friend of mine. What more could one ask for in a biography?