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Heston was quintessential movie star

From the April 11, 2008, Deseret News

We know too much about movie stars — and other celebrities — these days, to the degree that their lifestyles, antics and politics can overshadow their work. At times it's difficult to separate the talented entertainer from the opinionated loudmouth.

This is not a 21st century phenomenon, of course. It's been building for decades, though it does seem to have recently reached its shrill zenith. (One can hope.)

All of this came to mind as I read about Charlton Heston, who died last weekend at age 84.

Heston was a classical movie star with a powerful screen presence who came along at the end of the studio era's Golden Age.

He hit it big right away and had a lengthy and varied career, only to fall victim in his later years to becoming so associated with his political views — especially while heading up the National Rifle Association — that many people began to think of him simply as a "Saturday Night Live" punch line.

That's particularly true of the younger generation that didn't grow up watching Heston in all those historical epics, in which he often played heroic real-life figures.

The stars aligned for Heston early on. His athletic build, chiseled good looks and that taciturn, strong-jawed manner were perfect for the kind of bigger-is-better movies Hollywood began churning out for the big screen in the 1950s to compete with that upstart innovation called television.

Two of those '50s pictures remain iconic and are high on the list of Hollywood's all-time biggest moneymakers (adjusted for inflation): "The Ten Commandments" at No. 5 and "Ben-Hur" at No. 13.

"Ben-Hur" also won Heston the best-actor Academy Award and, with 11 wins, held the record for the most Oscars earned by a single film until it was tied in 1997 by "Titanic." In 2003 it became a three-way tie with "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

Heston's run at the big time actually began in 1952 when he was 28 and landed a lead role in Cecil B. DeMille's circus epic "The Greatest Show on Earth." Four years later, DeMille cast him as Moses in "The Ten Commandments," which made him a star.

Both were old-style pictures made by an old-style filmmaker, but Heston followed them two years later with the film noir classic "Touch of Evil," in which he played a Mexican narcotics officer, and the widescreen Western "The Big Country," as a surly, bullheaded ranch foreman at odds with Gregory Peck's more sympathetic sea captain.

Clearly, Heston was attempting to establish himself as a versatile character player, and he would continue to make eclectic, if not always wise, choices throughout his long career.

The next year, Heston's "Big Country" director, William Wyler, gave him the lead role in "Ben-Hur," a cast-of-thousands major-studio picture that allowed the actor to demonstrate his range, and the film's success shot his stock to the superstar level.

Today "Ben-Hur" is best remembered for that still-astonishing chariot race, but it is also one of the films that helped reinvent movie acting in the late 1950s and early '60s, while redefining the level of heightened realism audiences would accept. (Spelling doom for Hollywood's self-censorship arm, the Production Code.)

Heston was a larger-than-life actor whose onscreen persona was perfect for the era in which he reigned.

But don't take my word for it. Check out the films listed above — or "The President's Lady" or "El Cid" or "Planet of the Apes" or "Will Penny." ...