Legendary actor Charlton Heston passed away April 5th, 2008 at the age of 84. He will be remembered fondly by many for portraying scores of epic, larger-than-life characters ranging from Judah Ben-Hur to Michaelangelo to John the Baptist to Moses, as well as countless nameless (and often shirtless) stoic paragons of heroism.
However, I’ll always have a special memory of Charlton Heston in three films in particular. These films represent the rare, yet notable occasions Mr. Heston delved into the world of science fiction, and brought his larger-than-life heroism with him.
Planet of the Apes
In 1968’s Planet of the Apes, Heston plays astronaut George Taylor, whose capsule crash-lands on a planet that could only spring from the mind of screenwriter Rod Serling (based on a book by Pierre Boulle). In the face of this topsy-turvy world where anthropomorphized apes walk, talk, and carry on every aspect of civilization like humans, George Taylor handles the situation in the only way a scientifically trained astronaut could do: with sheer animal brute force (“Take your stinking paws off of me, you damn dirty ape!”). Here’s a clip from the famous, much parodied ending where Taylor discovers the nefarious secret of the “alien” planet he’d been held captive on. I’d put a “spoiler” tag on this, but, c’mon… we all know how this ends.
The Omega Man
1971’s The Omega Man is most notable as the second adaptation of Richard Matheson’s seminal last-man-on-earth novel, I Am Legend. In the film, a global biological war has managed to extinguish most of the planet. Heston plays Army Colonel Robert Neville, who has survived by injecting himself with an experimental vaccine he had been developing. The only people left alive (so he believes) are The Family, a cult of albino vampires who see Neville as a monster for a) representing the world of science that brought Earth to extinction and cursed them to a zombie-like fate and b) trying to kill them every night (though mainly b, probably). Heston is, as always, swaggering and cocksure, an unrepentant symbol of civilized white man’s minority domination over the “heathen” majority. This, to date, is still my favorite adaptation of I Am Legend. It is truly a product of its early ’70s era. Get a taste of the swingin’ trailer here:
1973’s Soylent Green is an ecological parable that is frighteningly prescient. The year is 2022 and Earth is overpopulated and scarce of vital resources. The Soylent Corporation– the major food manufacturer on earth– has just rolled out a new product to sate the starving masses, Soylent Green, purportedly made from seaweed and plankton. When a high-ranking member of the Soylent board of directors is killed in a supposed burglary attempt, New York City police detective Robert Thorn (Heston) is sent to investigate. Thorn discovers the killing was an assassination, which leads him on an investigation that would eventually uncover the mortifying (literally) secret behind Soylent Green.
Heston approaches the role of police detective in the dystopian future of 2022 exactly the same way I imagine he’d play a police detective in 1973 or 1963 or 1953: beating up thugs, sleeping with women, and generally strong-arming his way to the bottom of the case. Throughout, Heston shares some terrific, heartfelt moments with legendary co-star Edward G. Robinson. During the shoot, Heston was the only cast member who knew Robinson was dying of terminal cancer, and while filming a scene where Robinson is euthanised, the on-screen tears Heston sheds for him were supposedly real. Robinson died a few days after the shoot. Here is that scene:
Charlton Heston’s cinematic legacy is indeed vast, spans decades, and will be remembered for as long as we honor the bold and gutsy archetype of the hero. For me, however, I will always be thankful that he brought that archetype to the genre of science-fiction. Good-bye, Chuck. We’ll miss you.
What are your fond memories of Charlton Heston, either from these movies or others? Feel free to leave your comments below.