Charlton Heston at Lincoln Center: The Man of the People

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The New York Sun

When word arrived in April that Charlton Heston had succumbed to pneumonia at 84, the first image from the Illinois-born actor’s deep gallery of outsized roles that came to my mind was not one that was excerpted in the news coverage announcing his passing. Heston’s Oscar-winning part in “Ben Hur,” his turn as a scowling Mexican policeman in Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil,” his ultimate ride into history and eternity in “El Cid,” his climactic disclosure of precisely what ingredients made up the titular foodstuff in “Soylent Green,” and his impassioned and distraught reaction to a certain city landmark in “Planet of the Apes” all provided excellent grist for the TV news mills. They will all also be on big-screen display beginning Friday in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 11-film tribute, “Cinematic Atlas: The Triumphs of Charlton Heston.”

No, the image that resonated most strongly for me was a moment in 1971’s “The Omega Man,” one of a series of muscular yet dystopian science-fiction films in which Heston starred during the late 1960s and into the ’70s. Alone in a postapocalyptic city ravaged by a man-made plague, Heston’s character, Robert Neville (the same man — the last on Earth — played by Will Smith in last year’s remake, “I Am Legend”), marks time by running the only movie he has available to him in an empty movie theater.

Feet up, balancing a Smith & Wesson submachine gun in his right hand, Neville dispassionately watches Country Joe and the Fish perform in Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 concert film “Woodstock,” and then recites dialogue he’s heard countless times. “If we can’t all live together and be happy,” Neville intones mechanically along with a young concertgoer describing an ongoing consciousness raising, “if you have to be afraid to smile at somebody …”

Through the years, Heston’s initial star-making turns in biblical epics such as William Wyler’s “Ben Hur” (1959) and Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956), coupled with his real-life evolution from moderate Democrat marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 to conservative Republican sparring with Michael Moore over gun rights in 2002’s “Bowling for Columbine,” have eclipsed the star’s unparalleled willingness to lend his tall, lantern-jawed screen persona to a number of courageously offbeat characters and scenes like the “Omega Man” recitation.

“He was a very unusual man, a very deep-thinking guy,” “Omega Man” producer Walter Seltzer said recently. Mr. Seltzer and Heston partnered on 11 films, including “Omega Man,” 1973’s “Soylent Green,” and the 1968 Western “Will Penny,” all of which are featured in the Lincoln Center retrospective. “Though through the years we disagreed violently politically,” Mr. Seltzer said, “we were a good team.”

Indeed, the producer and star’s successful pairings on “Omega Man” and “Soylent Green” were due in part to the fact that, though the two men didn’t see eye to eye on every issue, “he and I thought that the greatest social problem of our time was overpopulation,” Mr. Seltzer, now “closing in on 94,” said. “We became a little bit possessed with the idea.”

In “The Actor’s Life,” a published volume of 20 years of Heston’s journal entries beginning in the mid-’50s — around the same time the actor first met Mr. Seltzer — Heston recalls an on-set conversation with the legendary stuntman Joe Canutt during the making of “Planet of the Apes.” During a rehearsal for one of the many instances of being “dragged, choked, netted, chased, doused, whipped, poked, shot, gagged, stoned, and leaped on, or generally mistreated,” as Heston describes the making of the film, Canutt, who had worked with and doubled for the actor since “Ben Hur,” said, “You know, Chuck, I can remember when we used to win these things.”

This, perhaps, is Heston’s greatest legacy. The biblical pieties of “Ben Hur” notwithstanding, his film career evinced an ability to stealthily explore the darker, mitigating, losing side of heroism. In films such as “El Cid,” “55 Days at Peking,” “Major Dundee,” “The War Lord,” “Khartoum,” “Planet of the Apes,” and “The Omega Man,” among several others, Heston dramatically embodied an almost uniformly tragic take on military duty in a series of doomed or damned obsessive soldier characters culled from history and pulled presciently from the future.

“It was a reflection, I think, of his own concerns about society and the world we live in,” Mr. Seltzer said.

Heston’s considerable green-light clout also gave him an opportunity to support promising young directors whose talents were as yet untested. Franklin J. Schaffner, for example, emerged from the same live-television crucible as better-known ’60s auteurs Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer, but when Heston and Mr. Seltzer hired him to helm 1965’s “The War Lord,” the director of Jackie Kennedy’s television tour of the White House was still an unknown commodity in Hollywood. Though “The War Lord” was recut by Universal executives, the experience helped to cement the reputation of the future director of the original “Planet of the Apes,” “Papillion,” and “Patton,” which earned him an Oscar.

A slightly bigger directorial gamble came in the form of “Will Penny” writer Tom Gries. Like Schaffner, Gries was a television veteran with negligible feature experience.

“Tommy came to me with 20 pages of the script of ‘Will Penny,’ and I thought they were just great,” Mr. Seltzer said. “I showed them to Chuck, who ordinarily did not green-light any project until he saw the completed script, and he said, ‘I love the character, I love the idea, and I can identify, let’s go ahead and do it. I’d like to submit these 20 pages to [directors] George Stevens and Wyler.'”

The only catch was that Gries had stipulated he would only sell the script if he were given the opportunity to direct it. Heston agreed and the film became, Mr. Seltzer said, “Chuck’s favorite of all the pictures he made.”

A realistically romantic and unlikely addition to the late-’60s golden age of revisionist Westerns, “Will Penny” is indeed one of the highlights of the Lincoln Center series and of Heston’s career. But for the multiple studios that passed on the project at the time and the audiences that essentially ignored the film upon its release, Mr. Seltzer concluded.”At the time, a film about an overage cowboy was not popular fare.”

Through Thursday (70 Lincoln Center Plaza at Broadway at West 65th Street, 212-875-5601).

The New York Sun

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